I’ve done many photography safaris to Colorado and never been disappointed, never. On my most recent trip a few weeks ago at the end of September we hit patches of mountains that still had more green aspens than yellow, but it didn’t take an hour of driving to find color that was at its peak. I define peak color as 75% of the trees are changed, with 25% in the process of changing or still green. But while color is important to fall landscape photography, it isn’t everything. Images that only have color have to have other landscape elements to keep a viewer’s interest – otherwise we look, admire, and forget. I would like to think that my landscape images have more elements than just color as a subject – with composition, contrast, foreground elements, subject interest, etc.
My anchor image for this article is the following high-key shot of ferns and aspens changing colors that was taken along the Hillside Drive Rd, also known as National Forest Service Road 436, in the San Juan Mountains north of Delores about 15 miles.
We had already shot numerous amazing views from Road 436. We had shot muley bucks and grouse off this road as well. But as we followed the road around the mountain ridges, up and over small saddles that passed us from one colorful canyon to another, we entered this small acre sized grove of aspens that were carpeted with ferns. It took only a second to realize how truly gorgeous this small area was. The morning sun had risen above the mountain ridge high above and was just beginning to filter through the tops of the trees, not yet striking the ferns. We all just stared in awe – and then got to work shooting.
I consider this to be my favorite landscape image from the 5-day safari. It doesn’t show the most color, or the greatest or thickest grove of aspens – but has a symmetry that draws my eye back to it again and again. It does have flaws, not the least of which is the perspective being unchanged after processing, but I liked the inward leaning lines of the outside aspens going towards the main aspens in the center. There were amazing sights everywhere, as here along the Delores River about 12 miles north of the town of Delores on Highway 145. The first rays of sunrise catch the golden color of the Cottonwoods that line the river, while in the background a mountainside of green aspens are still waiting for their moment to turn to gold. I’ve stopped at this very spot over the years and each time those background aspens look different – varying from green to gold.
But with all the color, Colorado still provides an amazing assortment of majestic mountain peaks, glacier carved cirques, clear lakes, and old mine buildings that add important counterpoints and contrasts. Since going there last year the Crystal Mill, near the community of Marble, has become another must-stop location. You can rent a jeep, quads, or razors in Marble to take you – or sit in my F-150 as we bounce in 4×4 mode over the rocks and steps for the 4 mile ride out to it. But it is absolutely worth it.
One thing you can count on is change. And this year you had to pay the guy $10 and sign a liability release to go onto his property (which surrounds the road opposite the Crystal Mill) and under a cable to get down to the river. You could shoot from the road for free. Petty, but still worth it. The Crystal Mill is an iconic Colorado location, much like Maroon Bells that we had shot earlier in the morning. The two are only 90 minutes apart, not counting the 4 mile dirt road.
On the other hand, if you arrived early enough you could drive right up to a parking lot that borders Maroon Lake, and the trail you shoot Maroon Bells from. Since we arrived on Monday afternoon and had shot Maroon Bells that late afternoon – we had a good idea of the need to arrive early, and we did at 5:30am. With sunrise 90 minutes away (not considering the mountain peaks/ridges blocking the sun) we kept warm in the truck until the sheer numbers of arriving photographers (who had to park much farther away) prompted us to tripod-up and find our initial shooting positions. Like the Crystal Mill, Maroon Bells is an iconic spot – but with far better access to the masses of photographers patrolling Colorado this time of year. Looking back, I think the fact that it was a Tuesday morning – and not a Friday – Sunday, is what got us a great parking space. I couldn’t imagine going there on a weekend.
This image, with the sun hitting the Maroon Peaks and reflecting down into the little valley is my favorite. It is an HDR image composite made up of 5 images – otherwise there would be a washed out sky and peaks. The lake was down 5 feet, leaving a considerable shoreline that had been roped off – for what reason I couldn’t imagine. I don’t think walking on dirt and rocks, that would normally be underwater, would be considered environmental damage. Just more fun changes from my last visit. The image below was taken in the late afternoon under flat lighting conditions … quite a difference.
We spent a couple of days shooting around both Telluride and Ouray – both of which have great eating locations (as does Silverton, south of Ouray). One of my favorite roads is Last Dollar Road, above the airport outside of Telluride. The road crosses from the south up and over a pass leading through the Mt. Sneffels Range and exits onto Highway 62 near Ridgway. Old western buildings, fences, and dense stands of aspen make for great landscape elements.
We shot seas of aspens, brilliant colors, just overwhelming colors – but the best images had iconic locations, western buildings, and mountain peaks. The final image was taken by Chester Jagiello of my truck on Road 436… no words needed.