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 I always get asked is “When’s a good time to come to Ouray for the fall colors?” and that’s a tricky question so let’s dive into the timing and locations to look for the best gold-color on the mountains.
When the aspens change their color is heavily influenced by how much rain we get in monsoon season in the summer. When is monsoon season you ask? It usually arrives Mid-July and lasts for 6-8 weeks and traditionally rains about everyday with hot mornings and cool afternoons. Water is a huge factor in determining the leaves changing.
So, what else do we have to pay attention to? Short answer is frost or wind as both can wreck a side of the mountain pretty quick dumping all those beautiful leaves on the forest floor. With the right conditions, the fall colors can thrive into October making the fall colors 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.
Now, most dedicated photographers won’t give up their favorite stashes of fall gold because we are pretty competitive to capture shots that are unique and rarely photographed. That’s okay, because we hike and climb to get to these vantage points. But no worries, I’m going to lay out 5 spots around Ouray that you can get great photos with little effort.
1.) Crystal Lake- Located just south of Ouray before Ironton on Highway 550 this lake is iconic in the fall because 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 Mining District- 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!) and the gold leaves, along with the noticeably red tint to the stream and dirt will definitely 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.) The 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 and get there early. Easy access by car and the perspective of the overlook makes this spot pretty popular and you might find several photographers cramping your space.
4.) Telluride- 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 area is stunning. Mt. Wilson to the west is the mountain on the Coors Lite can and to the east is the 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 and the time. A 4×4 is important 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.
Tip: Really plan this out if you’re going to traverse Engineer Pass. Check with a local Jeep guide service before you go to get up-to-date trail conditions then pack a cooler.
So, there you have it! 5 different spots to hunt for gold this fall and a few tips on how to be successful. About the Author: Markus Van Meter is an adventure photographer based in Ouray, Colorado focusing on mountain athletics in the alpine environment. He is the owner of Markus Van Meter Photography and you can see more of his work at www.markvanmeter.com