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Colorado Fall Colors
2022 Trip Report

Contrary to popular belief, the leaves of deciduous trees like aspens do not actively switch color in the autumn, but rather reveal underlying pigments that already exist. During the spring and summer, trees produce an abundance of a green pigment called chlorophyll through photosynthesis, the process by which plants use sunlight to create nutrients and oxygen from carbon dioxide and water. As the amount of daily sunlight begins to wane in autumn, photosynthesis slows, and the trees stop making green chlorophyll. As a result, the green color begins to fade, allowing other pigments such as xanthophylls (yellow), carotenoids (orange) and anthocyanins (red) to emerge.

Now imagine an entire mountainside covered with xanthophylls, a little caratinoid here and there, and a dash of salmon-colored anthocyanins. Top that colorful recipe with rugged snowcapped peaks, interesting cloud formations, your camera and favorite lens in your hands, warm sun on your face and clear mountain air in your lungs. This vision is a very real experience on the Colorado Autumn Tour.


If memory serves me correctly, this was the first tour I led solo for Van Os Photo Safaris in 2004, a couple years after he brought me on board, thanks to John Shaw. John became a generous mentor and friend in the late 1990’s as I was finding my path in photography and in life. Thanks again, John—I still owe you that million bucks.

The reason I’ve never left Colorado after arriving at the age of 17 months is that its the best state in the country. My apologies to happy residents of any of the 49 other states, but I’ve really thought about this objectively. We have a wonderful climate, 4 distinct seasons, a nicely balanced latitude and healthy lifestyle attitude. We have mountains, plains, canyons, forests, critters, wild rivers, clean air and happy people who value all of it. And, we also have some of the best autumn color in the world.

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Although I’ve led photo tours in many locations, I have to say that the Colorado Autumn Tour is one of the best you could sign up for. We stay in one comfortable base hotel all week that features large rooms, mountain views and a free gondola next door makes a stunning jaunt up the mountain as easy as a stroll in the park. All of this is set in the heart of Telluride, one of the most charming mountain towns in the country that blends rustic yet chic mountain culture with a rich mining history. The tour also features relatively short drives to beautiful locations among national forest and quintessential Colorado ranches with dramatic backdrops, a relaxed yet productive schedule and excellent food all around. After many years of tweaking, this tour is dialed in.


The 2022 tour was a bit of a blur in my mind, a swirl of prime autumn colors set below a lucky layer of fresh snow and wrapped in beautiful, dynamic weather. The only problem with it is how hard it might be to top it.

Even before day one we had a premonition that the week would be a special one. On the way to Telluride from the airport in Montrose, we emerged from a heavy shower along the Dallas Divide into the bright sun, to witness one of the most brilliant rainbows I’ve seen in years. With only smartphones in hand, we jumped out of the van to capture this welcoming gift.

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The official day one began under a thick blanket of fog that was stuck in the valley like a trough half full of cotton balls. As we drove out of town in the moody twilight, I decided at the last second to veer off the main road and head up toward Telluride’s airport that resides high on the other side of the canyon. I was going with a hunch that we might get above the fog and capture a little sunrise light across Mount Wilson to the south. As we broke out into the clear blue sky like an airplane, the dynamic scene was more awakening than the best cup of coffee in the world. We scrambled out of the van and hit the ground running with a flurry of activity. I almost felt bad for not giving the group a gentler warm up, but I’d rather start the week off with a bang anyway.

So, the race was on to capture the autumn splendor surrounding this stunning corner of Colorado. However, slow and steady wins it, especially at altitude where the lack of available oxygen makes mountains out of molehills. So, we paced the week out with a philosophy of quality over quantity, spending more time in fewer locations. We chased the best of the autumn color and light, based on elevation, morning light, evening light, and yes, midday light too. At this time of year, the sun’s elevation maxes out at 47º above the horizon, which still sets the trees aglow when lit from behind. Since microclimates within different valleys cause the color to peak at different times, we followed the best conditions while waiting for other locations to ripen into perfect cornucopias of color.  


Although this part of Colorado is popular among photographers, there are just a handful of iconic hotspots where we shared locations with other photographers. There are so many photogenic opportunities that it’s sometimes hard to know where to stop. Akin to throwing a golden retriever a handful of tennis balls all at once, it’s hard to know which one to chase. It’s also difficult to resist the urge to get out of the van again just a hundred yards after loading up!

You get the idea. By the end of the week, everyone had hundreds (if not more) of images, dirty boots, and warm hearts. I also noticed a higher frequency of smiles, tanned faces, and relaxed spirits from spending all that quality time in the mountains. If you love autumn color, dazzling mountain light, fresh air, delicious food and a relaxing yet efficient schedule, this is a tour you need to do. What are you waiting for?

Upcoming Related Tours

Colorado Fall Colors

Photograph the blazing yellow aspen forests that punctuate the rugged Colorado Rocky Mountains topography—jagged summits and deep breathtaking valleys under blue sky. Improve your photography skills while learning about light, color and graphic design on location with our leader in his home state.

September 29 - October 5, 2024
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