Leaf Peepin' Around Ouray#OuraysColorfulSpaces
Fall Gold and Epic Scenery
When: September 18-October 7
Location: Northern San Juan Mountains
Photography Skill: Intermediate
Stoke Level: Prepare For An Epic
Fall in the San Juan means GOLD season, especially in and around Ouray as the aspen leaves turn the color of the famous ore that comes out of our mountains-especially on the west side of Engineer Mountain.
Photographers from all over the country will flock here around the 3rd week of September to hopefully catch a glimpse (and a few killer photos) of this annual change of seasons as the color is like no other. So, one of the questions we always get asked is “When’s a good time to visit Ouray for the fall colors?” and that’s a tricky question so let’s dive into the timing and locations.
The Million Dollar Highway is littered with tight-hairpin turns and scenery that leaves an indelible impression.
When the aspens change, their colors are heavily influenced by how much rain we get in monsoon season during the summer. When is monsoon season, you ask? It usually arrives Mid-July and lasts for 6-8 weeks, traditionally raining about every day with hot mornings and cooler afternoons. Water is a huge factor in determining the leaves changing, and this past summer, we experienced a drought so the color is showing up early. During a drought season the lack of rain triggers the aspen to hibernate earlier than normal and the leaves change accordingly.
So, what else do we have to pay attention to? The short answer is frost or wind as both can wreck the side of a mountain pretty quickly, dumping all those beautiful leaves on the forest floor. With the right conditions, the fall colors can thrive in October, making the season last almost a month. But not always!
Tip: Keep a weather eye out before your trip to Ouray and be flexible on your travel dates.
Most dedicated photographers won’t give up their favorite fall gold stashes because they are pretty competitive to capture unique and rarely photographed shots. That’s okay because they hike and climb to get to those vantage points. But no worries, we will share five spots around Ouray that you can get great photos with little effort.
Where to Find the Gold
1. Crystal Lake
Located just south of Ouray before Ironton on Highway 550, this lake is iconic in the fall. If you time it right, you can get the reflection of both the Red Mountain Group and the surrounding fall colors on the lake itself, adding another dimension to your shot.
Tip: Pick a day that’s sunny with calm wind. Usually early in the morning.
2. Red Mountain Pass
Travel a bit further south on Highway 550 and look for CR 10 and turn East on the dirt road. Be mindful here to not get lost, but the combination of old mining structures (in great shape too!) gold leaves and the noticeably red tint to the stream and dirt will make your photos pop.
Tip: Try and choose a partially sunny day on this location as random clouds under bluebird skies will add depth to your photos.
3. Double RL Cattle Ranch
Located on Highway 62, about 5 miles out of Ridgway Colorado, you’ll find an overlook as you head up the road towards the Dallas Divide. The combination of Mt. Sneffels (could have a snow cap by early October) and the expansive fall colors of aspen and scrub oak make for classic San Juan fall landscape shots.
Tip: Shoot this within 3 hours of sunset or first thing in the morning and get there early. Easy access by car and the overlook’s perspective makes this spot pretty popular, you might find several photographers cramping your space.
Often overlooked, but riding the free gondola between Mountain Village and the Historic Town of Telluride should be on your list. Get off mid-station and explore the top of the ski area on foot if you’re the active type of photographer. The view from 10K+ feet in elevation over the location is stunning. Wilson Peak to the west is the image on the Coors Lite can, and to the East is box canyon.
Tip: Shoot here late in the evening. Telluride gets amazing unobstructed sunsets casting gorgeous alpenglow on Black Bear Pass.
5. East of Engineer Pass
For some reason, the red color is more predominant towards Lake City and worth the effort if you have access. A 4×4 is essential if you plan to day trip this location and use the Alpine Loop south of Ouray to access Engineer Pass. You won’t be disappointed so take our time.
Tip: Plan this out if you’re going to traverse Engineer Pass. Check with a local Jeep guide service before you go and get up-to-date trail conditions; pack a cooler.
So, there you have it! 5 different spots to hunt for gold this fall and a few success tips. Below is the forecast map for the entire State of Colorado and offers the best times for each area. Good Luck and be sure to tag us if you share your images of the area online!