Colorado Fall Colors 2018 Trip Report

By Todd Pierce on Nov 05, 2018

For months leading up to this year’s Colorado Fall Colors photo tour, the US Drought Monitor map showed my home state painted in blobs of red, orange and yellow, denoting varying degrees of drought conditions. Since April, the darkest shade of red, representing “exceptional” drought, had been parked squarely over southwest Colorado, the region where our photo tour is held. Thus, my hopes for “exceptional” autumn color were running equally dry as our departure date drew nearer. As I drove closer to the San Juan Mountains a couple days ahead of the tour, I held my breath.
Amazingly, the autumn color seemed unaffected by the unusual dryness. Although the creeks and streams were noticeably low, the trees seemed healthy and vibrant, and my favorite lakes were brimming with clear water. The revelation reminded me of two principles I’ve learned many times over: predicting autumn color is a tricky business, and it sometimes pays to have really low expectations. Needless to say, my 250-mile scouting day on dusty roads ended with both stiff joints and a palpable sense of relief that my group wouldn’t have to resort to “exceptional” post-production to make the colors pop!
Misty autumn morningOn the morning of our first day, I was reminded of a third principle: Mother Nature does what she wants regardless of how optimistic we feel. So, under a stubborn blanket of clouds and showers, we made our way from our base in Ouray up the winding and dramatic Red Mountain Pass where the autumn color was ripe and ready for our taking. To be honest, I love moody weather for most kinds of landscape photography, and it was nice to have a cloudy day given the remainder of the week was to be more in line with the drought— sunny and clear.
Our first stop was Crystal Lake, a small reservoir flanked by an aspen-covered mountainside and a symmetrical view of the iron-rich mountains to the south. Brilliant autumn color clung to the slopes while calm air currents provided us with smooth water. It was a perfect place to get into the flow of creativity and the rhythms of the mountain environment. We continued on to a couple of grand overlooks farther up the pass before timing our descent into Silverton to coincide with the arrival of the historic Durango-Silverton narrow gauge steam train. Photographing the train approaching up the valley and over a low trellis bridge with autumn color is always a fun tangent to the day.
Autumn colors reflectedFollowing lunch, we explored the East Fork of Mineral Creek, where we photographed a small cascade and came across three moose resting in a field just below the road just 50 yards away. That evening, I decided to take the group a big step back from the mountains to the northwest to avoid more rain showers and increase our chances for sunset light. Whenever I’m in doubt about what to do in a particular location, I try to plan for the best case scenario. It’s my theory that if you position yourself in a location that is favorable to magical light, and if by chance it does happen, you’ll be in the right place at the right time. After all, if it happens and you’re not there, you’ll regret it for a long time. If it doesn’t happen, then at least you tried. The plan worked (almost perfectly) except for a stubborn cloud that diffused the final moments of pink light that grazed across the plateau. Points for effort at least, and we enjoyed another beautiful meal to wrap up the day.
Given that Crystal Lake should really be enjoyed on a sunny morning, we returned first thing on Day 2 under blue skies and crisp temperatures. The lake took on an entirely different character, steaming, sparkling and gleaming in the bright Colorado sun, while the autumn color seemed illuminated from within. Pure Colorado magic. Needless to say it was a time warp, and eventually I had to ring the bell, so to speak, for everyone to finally come in. We had a lot more ground to cover that day, including East Dallas Creek and Owl Creek Pass, where we wrapped up the day at an overlook in the unexpected company of another, much larger, photo tour group. Maybe it was the impersonal dynamics of a 3-van group, or the fact they had to wear name tags around their necks, but they seemed rather grumpy in the context of such a beautiful setting. We were happy to see others capturing the beauty of the moment, but we were even happier to have our small, efficient and nimble group. And we looked way cooler in our black Ford Transit van with tinted windows! 
Aspen trunksDay 3 began with a relaxing visit to Woods Lake near Telluride, where we both photographed and soaked up the tranquility of the location for nearly two hours. The air was cool but the sun was warm, and we got hundreds of frames of reflections, details and grand landscapes. Despite growing hungry for lunch on our backroad drive to Telluride, we kept stopping along the way to photograph some of the scenic ranches and rolling hills along Wilson Mesa. That afternoon we found several roadside locations along Last Dollar Road to take full advantage of the lengthening shadows before returning to town for dinner at Rustico, Telluride’s best Italian restaurant. Predictably, the van ride back to our hotel in Ouray was very quiet, and it was nice to see my pillow at the end of another enchanting day in the mountains.  
Day 4 began at a more relaxed pace with a hearty breakfast in Ridgway, followed by exploration of more locations in the Telluride region. After shooting a beautiful river scene along the San Miguel River, I decided to turn up a different forest road on a whim. Although I had taken that road on a scouting trip a few years ago, I had forgotten most of the details. We went as far as the van would allow, found a wide spot to park, and explored the area all to ourselves. After everyone fanned out for a while, I decided to wander up the road farther on foot, only to find a couple of my participants 50 yards down a side alley in one of the most dense and photogenic aspen groves I’ve ever seen. Since I’m a real professional, I had left my gear in the van and had to just take a few snaps with my iPhone before gathering everyone up to stay on schedule. Needless to say I won’t forget the details of that location again, nor will I forget my real camera either! We rounded out the day by retracing our steps in part from the previous evening while also visiting new locations along the way. To our delight, the autumn color was getting better as the week progressed.
Colorado's fall colorsOur final day wrapped in the majesty of the mountains began with a healthy breakfast, followed by a visit to a stunning location that needed all week to finally turn color. Layers of scrub oak and aspen over rolling hills that ramped up to the Sneffels Range shone brilliantly in the partial backlight of the morning sun. Back at the van, we brushed off layers of dust from passing cars—the only nuisance to otherwise hassle-free conditions all week. That afternoon we decided to revisit the beauty of Woods Lake in different light, which offered totally new opportunities to the morning shoot we had there a couple days prior. When conditions and the schedule permit, I enjoy visiting select locations at different times of the day to capture the differences, and advantages, of each.
After the lake we couldn’t help but to stop along the road to capture the backlit glory of a glowing aspen forest in peak color. It was like wearing those bright yellow-colored glasses you see on infomercials. The impromptu stop cost us precious time however, so the race was on to beat the rotation of the Earth to our sunset location nearly 45 minutes away. With a steady but persistent pace we made it to the upper rampart of Heath Ranch where we could capture the last moments of sunset to the west, and alpenglow on Mount Hayden to the east. It was perfect way to wrap up an amazing week with a wonderful group of like-minded and congenial photographers. Despite the exceptional drought, it turned out to be an exceptional week. And as always, it went too quickly!  

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