Another autumn has passed in the aspen forests of Colorado. This year I was able to spend ten days in late September and the first few days of October in the field. Some years are better than others as far as the vividness of foliage color is concerned and 2010 was probably not a banner year at some of the “must-see” locations such as McClure or Kebler Passes. However, there sure was plenty to photograph in other places across the state. Here’s how things played out during my fall voyages:
I began the season with a hike to a small portion of the Colorado Trail near Kenosha Pass. This location is popular due to its proximity to Denver but also for its spectacular saturation of early-season color. Unlike last year when strong windstorms stripped the leaves off of the aspen here quickly, the leaves lasted much longer under milder conditions this year. The trail traverses a mountain slope under a canopy of aspen branches and I took advantage of the some of the nearly limitless possibilities for close-up compositions of colorful leaves and textured tree trunks. After my hike, I drove onto the nearby Boreas Pass road. Starting in the small town of Como this byway rises over the Mosquito Range (and also provides an outstanding view of the Tenmile Range to the west) and ends in Breckenridge. Near the top of the pass I stopped to wait out a violent thunderstorm for about an hour. Luckily the storm began to break at the same time as the sun was starting to set offering outrageous opportunities to combine backgrounds of rainbows and glowing clouds to images of aspen trees in golden fall foliage. As many landscape photographers profess, “bad” weather often makes the best images.
A few days later, I visited Rocky Mountain National Park to photograph the aspen grove in the boulder pile on the shores of Bear Lake. While in recent years this view has become a Colorado icon, shot repeatedly by photographer after photographer, it’s become almost a yearly tradition for me to visit that I always look forward to. Even though I was joined by half a dozen other photographers on the evening of my visit this year, the company was warm and the color of the trees was impressive. I’m definitely glad I had the chance to be there for this sunset, despite some windy conditions that prevented a reflection on the lake. I followed up with a sunrise hike on the Biestadt Lake Trail to photograph Hallett Peak rising over the aspen-covered slope of the Bierstadt Moraine. As the sun rose, a swirling of high-altitude cirrus clouds picked up a pink color and alpenglow coated the mountains of the Continental Divide. These conditions occurring above a hillside of yellow-leafed aspen trees and red underbrush created a classically beautiful wide-angle landscape.
Next, I traveled to Grand Mesa, a location I visited for the first time last May. On that visit I happened to be a couple of weeks too early to experience the lime green colors of the budding aspen leaves but the photographic potential of the location for a return visit in autumn definitely did not escape me. Boy did this place deliver this year! The northern edges of the mesa, nearly the aptly-named town of Mesa, featured some of the most golden examples of aspen foliage I would see this year as well as some impressive views toward nearby Battlement Mesa which looked great in evening light. The top of Grand Mesa offered some clear lakes that were perfect for reflections. I was fortunate enough to witness a beaver and several ducks swimming by at one of the lakes. The southern edge of the mesa near the town of Cedaredge – a great place to stop and sample a glass of Western Slope wine – featured equally vivid aspen foliage but with some intense red and orange hues added in.
I spent the most time this year in the San Juan Range driving through the plethora of locations between the towns of Ridgway, Ouray, Silverton, Durango and Telluride. My trip here unfortunately coincided with some cloudless blue skies and hazy conditions due to at least three wildfires: a large one burning in Utah, one in the canyons near Grand Junction and a small one on Battlement Mesa. Additionally, the foliage color was patchy. Stands of aspen blanketed by oak brush that in most years, at least the ones I’ve been there to witness, would turn color at about the same time were well out of synch this year. Despite these setbacks, I enjoyed creating some unconventional compositions of close-ups, country roads and lake reflections. When I managed to experience the rare few moments where fluffy high-altitude clouds did appear and the haze subsided enough for clear mountain views the fleeting nature of these events made me appreciate my luck to witness and photograph them all the more.
My aspen adventure concluded with an evening in the Spanish Peaks, a small but scenic corner of the Sangre de Cristo Range near the town of La Veta. The largest concentration of color I photographed was on the hillsides below Cuchara Pass. One particular scenic view provided some nice afternoon images as storm clouds above began to break In the twilight hour after sunset I continued driving on Highway 12 (a.k.a. the Highway of Legends Scenic Byway) where I saw two different black bears within 20 minutes. One was watching traffic go by from the roadside just above North Lake and the other crossed the road in front of me just below Monument Lake. The light was dim, making it impossible to expose any photographs with the slow shutter speed needed in such conditions without an unacceptable amount of blur. I wish I would have been able to get a picture of one of the bears but it was a nice surprise just to be able to see them. It was also an exciting end to this year’s trip before I made the journey back home.
To see more photos from this year’s fall photo trip visit the New Photos gallery.