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Feb 28, 2023
Looking forward to the fall color season in 2022, I was feeling the fact that it had been a few years since I had done a proper fall color photography trip. Adding to that, the summer of 2022 had more rain than many of the last few years, with the plant life in the mountains staying very vibrant even well into August when it's usually all dried up by late summer. There was a really good chance to have a very vibrant fall color season. I decided it was time to return to the San Juan mountains of southwest Colorado to chase my own Colorado gold once again....
While we had been able to find relatively reasonably priced accommodations in Ouray & Telluride when doing a similar trip back in 2019, this time we had to settle for a place in Montrose and be willing to drive out to shooting locations a little farther. No big deal.... The plan was to go the first weekend in October and hope things worked out for the best. You always hope for peak fall color and maybe even a little snow on the mountain tops, but it's hard to predict the perfect time from year to year. In 2019 when visiting at virtually the same time, we were a little bit late for most of the peak color, but this time it could not have turned out much better....
My main goal on this trip was to explore areas I had missed last time, so after arriving that first afternoon I headed out on one of the Ouray county roads outside of Ridgway seeking the view of Mt. Sneffels you see in the photo at the top of this post. I was hoping for amazing sunset light, but there were quite a few moody clouds in the sky that blocked out all but a few beams of light once I arrived. It also turned out I didn't have the location to myself, there was a large workshop group there filling up most of the area. Fortunately I was able to find a place to pull off the road, and an open space to set up my tripod. Within a few minutes I discovered I had set up right next to one of the workshop leaders, the well known photography YouTuber Mark Denney. Despite sharing the experience with 50 other people, it was fun to chat the craft with Mark and the other leaders there while capturing those handful of special moments like the one above where splashes of sunlight would shine through.
The following morning I had planned to meet one of my photographer friends who lives in the area, Betsy Botsford of Point of Light Photo, at a small pond called Beaver Lake for sunrise. She had stayed up there for the night after shooting sunset from a different vantage point. As we left our hotel way to early, it was raining and the forest road up to the lake was a sloppy mess. We pressed on through the nearly one hour drive hoping the cloudy skies would open up, but it just never really happened. It's just too beautiful of a spot not to get out and look around once you're there though, so we headed across the lake to meet Betsy and tried to find some alternative ideas while still hoping that sunlight might break through to light up the mountains above. It never happened... but that soft overcast light did provide some interesting opportunities to capture more intimate scenes. All the moisture in the air also created some wisps of fog blowing through at various times as well. These kinds of moody scenes would turn out to be the norm for most of the weekend, but some of these soft light shots turned out to be some of my favorites from the trip despite my pessimism when we arrived about whether we would be able capture anything good.
After a return to the hotel and breakfast, we loaded up as more rain fell with the intention of heading south to Ouray, up the Million Dollar Highway almost all the way to Silverton, going over Ophir Pass and back up to Telluride, then traveling the Last Dollar Road back to Ridgway to complete the loop. It turned out once we got down close to Ouray the rain stopped and the sunlight started to peak through. Moody clouds hung low over mountain peaks dusted with snow, making for so many amazing scenes it was hard not to make too many stops. And every time you felt like you were done with a certain spot the sunlight would shift again and it would all change and you would feel like you needed to shoot it again! It was slower going than anticipated, but so beautiful to see.
Finally getting over Red Mountain Pass, we arrived at the turnoff for Ophir Pass, another new adventure we had missed on three years before. It's definitely a road where you want all wheel drive at a minimum, and some better than average ground clearance. Oh, and no fear of heights.... The views of fall color and snow-capped mountains were spectacular though, slowing forward progress once again....
Nearing the top of the pass the rain that had fallen on us earlier became snow on the ground instead, and the clouds above drew ever nearer as we climbed higher and higher. Once we reached the top of the pass, our world changed quickly. The west side was completely enveloped in cloud, we could barely see 10 feet in front of the vehicles as we drove. Dropping in to low range to maintain control, we crawled down the narrow road with tight switchbacks hoping no one was crazy enough to be coming up in this. Eventually it becomes a tight shelf road as it drops down across the side of a mountain, and while you couldn't see it you could feel the emptiness of the void next to you. Eventually we dropped back down below the cloud ceiling and into the colorful aspen trees once again, but open views back up towards the mountain from where we had come were still lacking. That continued to be the case until we came out into the tiny mountain town of Ophir and the sun started breaking through again. The clouds began to part just enough to see the scale of what we had just passed through, and once again there were amazing views in every direction with ever shifting light. It was so special....
By this point we realized that it had taken us so much time to reach this far that there just wasn't time to fit in the Lost Dollar Road as well. It would have to wait for another year. We still headed up towards Telluride, eventually finding this peaceful little lake to stop at for our picnic supper.
We decided instead to take the normal highway route around to Ridgway and head back to that view of Mount Sneffels for sunset once again hoping for some more colorful sunset light. Instead the clouds moved back in and blocked out the sunlight entirely. It was time to call it a day and head back to the hotel once again.
It turned out to be even more rainy and cloudy the following morning, and I decided I wanted to make up for another missed opportunity from past years and try and make the most of the vibrant color we were experiencing. Coming back to the Denver area from Montrose, it's not terribly far out of the way to visit the western end of the Kebler Pass road, and ever since traveling that road in 2018 I had been wanting to go back and explore more of the side roads that split off from it. We decided to make a visit to Lost Lake for lunch and hope that the weather would work in our favor for a dramatic scene there as well. It turned out to offer more moody clouds with sunlight breaking through here and there to light the fall colors and snow-capped peaks, but with some patience the beautiful moments would come. It was definitely worth the visit, and is a location I want to return to again in the future.
I decided after returning to the main road that I wanted to head a little farther up to the Horse Ranch Park area with its amazing views of aspen covered hillsides below the peaks of the Ruby Range. The road was a sloppy mess of mud from all the rain, but the amazing colors of Kebler Pass just go on and on in a way that I've never experienced anywhere else. Arriving at the parking area with that amazing view, of course the clouds rolled in and blotted out the sun and it started to rain again. I decided to try and wait it out, but after about half an hour my patience was wearing thin with 6 hours of driving home still ahead of me. Then the sun finally broke through again and lit up that hillside with this amazing panoramic view.
Now it really was time to finally get on the road and head back home, but what an amazing autumn adventure it had been. It was a frenetic three days on the road, trying to see and capture as much as possible, but it was all so special with the moody weather the entire time.
If you'd like to share in this adventure in an even more visual way, make sure and watch the YouTube video of this trip as well, and while you're there go ahead and hit that subscribe button so you don't miss out on any of my videos coming up! If you enjoy sharing in the experiences of adventures like these, I hope you'll sign up for my email newsletter if you haven't already. You can subscribe right here on this blog post, or click my newsletter signup link in the footer. New subscribers get a new customer discount coupon as a thank you for signing up. Don't forget to follow me on Facebook & Instagram too. Thanks for checking out what I do, and I hope you'll keep following along!
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