Fall in the San Juan's
Nov 05, 2019
The fall color season here in Colorado moves quickly, often fall color is at peak in any given location for only a few days before the wind will strip the leaves from the trees or a cold snap will cause them to shrivel away into death. I've taken to specifically planning a fall color trip every year in late September, usually trying to get to a hot spot that I haven't been to before. This year I planned a trip to the southwestern corner of the state, to explore the area around the towns of Ouray, Ridgway, & Telluride. With it being a 6-7 hour drive from the Front Range to reach this area, it turned into a full weekend adventure. There's so many beautiful locations in this area that it still wasn't nearly enough.
Circumstances this year led to the trip actually being pushed into the first weekend of October, but a delay in the arrival of cooler weather this year meant that that ended up being perfect. Friday afternoon & evening was spent making the long drive to Ouray, and it ended up being nearly midnight by the time we arrived. That didn't deter from catching the sunrise at the lookout over town from the Amphitheater Campground in the morning. This vantage point offers an excellent view down on Ouray and the mountains that surround the town, definitely worth the early morning alarm.
After catching breakfast at the hotel, we headed on down the Million Dollar Highway towards Silverton. This route over Red Mountain Pass is notorious for it's narrowness, exposure, and lack of guardrails. It is also very scenic with hillsides covered in aspen trees. This stretch is the earliest area to get peak fall color, so it was actually slightly past peak while we were there, with many leaves already blown down. You'll pass remnants of both past and present mining as you pass through here, a reminder of the history of this region of Colorado. After crossing over the pass the highway descends into the small town of Silverton. Its greatest claim to fame in the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, the historic steam train that carries passengers between these two towns on a very scenic adventure. After checking the schedule on arriving in Silverton, we noted that it wouldn't be long before the train would depart back south towards Durango, so we found a safe spot near the tracks and ate lunch waiting for it to come our way. It was a neat experience to watch the classic steamer chug right past us along the Animas River.
After the train had passed, we headed back north on the Million Dollar Highway, back through Ouray, and up to the town of Ridgway to explore some county roads winding back towards the Sneffels Range that were supposed to have good fall color. After winding around through the forest, we emerged to a huge view of the mountains with a large valley in between full of aspens. After exploring here for awhile we continued on to the Dallas Divide Overlook to watch the sunset, and then continued on to our lodging for the evening. A dinner in Telluride capped the day.
In my planning, I had been very interested in being at the Dallas Divide at both ends of the day if possible, and after being there for sunset I thought that the sunrise there would definitely have the best potential. I was not disappointed. Watching that warm light catch the top of Mount Sneffels and the surrounding peaks, and then cast a golden glow up the ridges below full of aspens, was definitely a breathtaking experience. If you have the opportunity to catch a sunrise here in the fall, don't miss it. After a Sunday morning breakfast in Ridgway, the big journey of this day would be a trip over Owl Creek Pass all the way through to Cimarron. In my research this was one of the highly recommended drives to take, and it did not disappoint. As you start the drive up out of Ridgway towards the pass, you see some large aspen groves high up on the mountains in front of you. As you ascend, you eventually enter these groves and are surrounded by autumn scenes all around you. For most of the time on the west side of the pass you are among the trees with views that are fairly limited. One exception to this is when you reach a spot known as Katie's Meadow just before the pass. This is the spot where the gunfight between John Wayne and Robert Duvall's characters in the original version of True Grit was filmed. Watching the scene now after having been there, the spot still looks much the same as it did then 50 years ago. It made an excellent spot for us to stop and have a late lunch. After going over the pass we turned north on the forest roads toward Silver Jack Reservoir. It is in this part of the journey where you start to emerge from the groves and the big views start to open up. The mountains surrounding you start to come into view, and there are amazing colorful groves of aspens in every direction. The panorama below was captured near the reservoir, taking a large slice out of the big view where the light was best.
From Silver Jack we continued north to a quick stop at Beaver Lake as the light of the day was starting to wane. It was there that I captured the photo at the top of this post, with the still water of the lake offering an excellent reflection of the beautiful scene. Continuing on the forest road it eventually finds its way out to US 50 near the town of Cimarron, and from there we began our journey home. This area has so much to offer, especially this time of year. There's more county roads near the Sneffels Range to explore, we missed the Last Dollar Road on this trip too. I'll just have to go back again another time....
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