Can you believe it’s already mid-September? If you are a photographer and live in Colorado, you are as giddy as a school girl, because you know the next couple of weeks in the high country (mountains) Mother Nature puts on her spectacular autumn show of colors! I have had the opportunity to travel to many places around Colorado to photograph the changing colors of fall, and I definitely have my favorites. News outlets around the State are always posting their “Top Ten” lists for fall colors and they always seem to leave off many of my favorites. So in this post I will give you my ten favorite places for leaf peeping here in Colorado!
Owl Creek Pass – Ridgeway
The Ridgeway area is John Wayne country. John Wayne loved this area, and so will you! Scenes from How the West Was Won and True Grit were filmed along this magnificent route winding through national forest and river basin. The stunning peaks of Chimney Rock and Courthouse Mountain pierce the blue Colorado sky as you journey along this 1880’s cattle-drive trail. Tall white-barked aspen trees, spruce and fir, rivers, reservoirs nestled among towering peaks is the setting for this drive. This route provides access to a variety of remarkable four-wheel drive roads and hiking/backpacking trails. The road is a well maintained gravel road (conventional car friendly)and will take you up and through the Uncompahgre National Forest, where you will crest Owl Creek Pass at 10,114 feet. About 15 miles from the pass is Silver Jack Reservoir, a favorite fishing spot that is 325 acres in size and boasts five miles of shoreline. In the fall the shoreline is engulfed with changing yellow Aspen trees and is simply breathtaking. Great places to stop for a picnic and enjoy a warm fall Colorado day! The road continues past the reservoir, opening up to open spaces and many spectacular ranches. Eventually you will reach CO-50 near the charming town of Cimmaron, just to the west of Blue Mesa Reservoir and the Curecanti National Recreation Area. GORGEOUS at every turn of the road!
Engineer Pass Road – Lake City
The Alpine Loop Backcountry Byway, a network of four wheel drive roads that connect Lake City, Ouray, and Silverton, traverses passes up to 12,800 feet while showcasing old mines, ghost towns, natural wonders, beautiful wildflowers, and abundant wildlife. These roads were originally paths used by Native Americans crossing the region. In the 1880s, these trails were widened and used to access mines. Today, the Alpine Loop is an avenue for exploring nature and history amidst thrilling and stunning views.
When you say Engineer Pass in Colorado, many people associate this road with 4×4 off-road vehicles, and for the most part you would be correct. As you climb Engineer Pass from the Ouray side, the road becomes only passable by 4-wheel drive high clearance vehicles. HOWEVER, from the Lake City side, Engineer Pass Road begins as a flat gravel/dirt road that follows Henson Creek. The road remains flat for quite a ways and opens up to a valley that is nothing but entire mountainsides of Aspen trees! If you are lucky enough to have snow at the higher elevations, it makes for some amazing photography. You will eventually reach the remains of Capitol City, a ghost town that was named because its founder had high hopes of the town becoming the capital of Colorado. The ghost town site sits at the confluence of Henson Creek and North Henson Creek. Several years ago, while photographing in this area, there was a sign posted “Wanna Be the Mayor of Capitol City?” Apparently this gorgeous plot of land is available for purchase. Another must see spot along this stretch is Nellie Creek Falls. To reach the falls, turn right on Country Road 23, about 5 miles from the start of Engineer Pass Road (County Road 20). The falls is about a half mile up the 4WD road on the left and is a beautiful 2-tier waterfall that is near the trailhead for Uncompahgre Peak. You won’t be disappointed with things to photograph along this stretch of Engineer Pass Road, fall color can be found at every turn!
Flat Tops Wilderness Area – Yampa to Meeker
In my opinion, the Flat Tops Wilderness Area is an area of Colorado that gets overlooked when one mentions fall color. I have to tell you, the Flat Top Scenic Byway, from Yampa (along CO-131 south of Steamboat Springs) to Meeker on the other side (CO-13) is nothing short of SPECTACULAR when fall color is painting the Colorado landscape. This 82 mile scenic drive winds its way through lush river valleys, skirts the bountiful Flat Top Wilderness and climbs over two of Colorado’s least-traveled passes. Trapper Lake, the 2nd largest natural lake in Colorado, which can be found mid-way along this route, and was affected by a large wildfire that was started by lightening in 2002. Remnants of the fire are still very visible, as tree regrowth in the area is now visible, but is a long way from replacing the charred landscape. The 1st half of this scenic drive is filled with valleys and mountainsides covered with Aspen tree forests, dotted with evergreens devoid of beetle kill. The are several areas where the views will rival those of Kebler Pass, the massive vistas of fall color will make your jaw drop in awe! The road is gravel/dirt, but very passable by car. There are many roads that shoot off of the main byway, waiting to be explored. We didn’t have a chance to explore very many of these roads, but will definitely be back to spend more time in this amazing area. Keep an eye out for sheep herding operations. We spotted several enormous flocks of sheep grazing on BLM land that boarders this drive. It is quite the sight to sit and watch the herders on horseback and the pack of dogs who guide the herd from place to place. Once you have passed Trapper Lake, the road winds its way through open space and large ranches as you make your way towards the town of Meeker. Heads up Kebler Pass, you’ve got some fall color competition with the Flat Tops Wilderness area! (Psssttttttt…a little tip, Kebler Pass is so crowded during fall color, the Flat Tops isn’t!)
Buffalo Pass – Steamboat Springs
Buffalo Pass is a wilderness playground in Steamboat Springs’ backyard. Beginning only minutes from downtown, it’s 11 miles to the top and 32 miles to Highway 14 near Walden. Camping, hiking, 4×4 trails and lakes are found along the way. Cars will do fine at lower elevations, but towards the top and final few miles, a high-clearance 4×4 vehicle is recommended as it gets pretty gnarly and filled with rocks. The Steamboat side of Buffalo Pass is breathtaking! The picture in this post speaks for itself. If you are visiting the Steamboat area in the fall, Buffalo Pass is a worthy side trip on your way to Strawberry Park Hot Springs. Near the top of Buffalo Pass is Summit Lake, and I recommend that once you reach the lake, not only does the road get ugly, so does the scenery, so turnaround and head back to Steamboat. There are not a lot of scenic areas on the way down to Walden.
Capitol Peak – Aspen Snowmass Area
When you think of the Aspen area of Colorado, almost everyone thinks of the Maroon Bells. Don’t get me wrong, the Maroon Bells are gorgeous, especially in full fall color. While the Maroon Bells and Pyramid Peak are roadside attractions and photographed often from a roadside overlook, spectacular Capitol Peak is a bit more elusive. This area is a recent discovery for me, and ever since my first visit I have gone back each fall, it’s just that spectacular!! Once you leave CO-82 near the town of Snowmass, you will wind your way along Snowmass Creek Road and eventually pick up Capitol Creek Road. The road is paved most of the way through the valley, but once the road turns to dirt, that’s where things start to get ugly. I recommend a high clearance vehicle from that point to the parking area at the Capitol Peak Overlook. The road is rough and very rutted from water runoff. Once you have reached the parking area, the road continues up the mountain for another 1.5 miles, that DEFINITELY requires a high clearance 4×4 vehicle. This final stretch can be very muddy and difficult even for a 4×4 high clearance vehicle. Many people walk the distance, winding through a spectacular Aspen and evergreen forest. In full fall color the valley in front of Capitol Peak is like nothing you have ever seen before. Groves of Aspen trees as far as the eye can see! On the valley floor you catch glimpses of Snowmass Creek, Bear Creek and Copper Creek winding through the landscape. There are also several lakes that dot the valley and can be seen along the hike that makes its way to 14,000 foot Capitol Peak. The 17 mile round trip hike begins at the Capitol Creek Trailhead, at the top of Capitol Creek Road. If you have never been to Capitol Peak, put it on your bucket list of places to visit. In full fall color it is simply SPECTACULAR!!!
Stay tuned for the next 5 amazing places to photograph fall color in Colorado – Part 2 is coming soon!