Colorado Fall Pictures
Stories that bring a Colorado fall road trip to life.
Fall is the soft shoulder of seasons, releasing us from the heat of summer, gently guiding us towards the inevitable, relentless cold of winter. I have a soft spot for Colorado. I lived there and still dream about the mountains when I am away. How fortunate to visit the Crested Butte area for fall colors in the odd year of 2020. Come enjoy a virtual trip with me.
Back to McClure Pass
McClure Pass in Colorado is stunning, no matter what time of year. My first time through the pass was during a summer trip a couple of years back. I pulled over to stop and look out at the high mountains’ vista. With all of the aspens, I knew that this was a spot to remember for fall.
Fast forward two years, a small group of us discussed where we wanted to go to photograph close to our base in Crested Butte. When the conversation came up to go to Crystal Mill, I said, “hey, McClure is on the way.”
However, on the ride to Crystal Mill at about noon, we could see McClure’s color, and it wasn’t quite peaking. Our mission that day was to get to Crystal Mill, which is an ornery narrow rock road. Not a trip you take quickly. Our plan at the mill was to shoot right after sunset when the moon was almost full and rising. I knew by the time we traveled back on that narrow shelf of a road with steep dropoffs, McClure would be dark. I was disappointed but understood we couldn’t fit everything in.
Later in the trip, we started to lose peak colors near Crested Butte. After discussing options, we decided to go back to McClure, even though it was quite a significant drive. We hoped to capture the color with better timing.
Once I saw the glow of sunset, the layers of trees, and the ridges of the mountains seeming to roll in waves, I realized that patience does payoff.
Fall colors in Colorado are typically gold. But I fell in love with this small section of aspen trees that glowed with an orange tint. The curving slender white of their bark barely showing through, and the dark of the forest canopy behind the trees sets this scene off. Sometimes there are photos that you take and don’t think much about them until you get homeand see them on a larger screen.
This is one of those, a beautiful surprise. As I worked with it, I realized how much I loved it. I’m a sucker for simple, and it has a Zen quality with a lot of depth. I hope it makes you feel like blushing at its beauty too.
As aspen trees drop their leaves in the fall, smaller pine trees growing in their shadow get decorated early for Christmas. Yellow and orange leaves become natural ornaments, hanging on the young pines’ boughs.
Pines and aspen help each other in repopulating the forest. After fires, aspens often regenerate first, as their root system sends up shoots. Pinecones release seeds that will also sprout, but they need time and shade. Together, pines and aspen live in harmony.
The late light of the afternoon touches the tips of aspens that have lost their yellow splendor. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have their own elegance. When I saw this stand, I thought of lace, as the branches formed a pattern that appeared as a gauzy design. Aspen trees in fall are well-known for their pop of gold and yellow color, but I loved this stand for the striking look of bare white.
Fall Color Lift
Telluride’s ski runs normally are photographed with powder snow and skiers carving through them. However, I thought showing the gondolas meeting in the midst of fall gold reminds us that we can enjoy an area in all seasons. What a spectacular ride up the lift as Telluride leaves are changing color.
Timing this photo became a bit of a challenge, waiting for the two gondolas to approach, clicking at just the right time, all while the sun was setting and the light was declining fast. This reminds me of how all sorts of variables come together like magic when you meet that someone special.
Following the Fence Line
The fence line on this ranch runs parallel to the dirt road, right towards the aspens coloring the West Elk Mountain base. In the west, fences make “space into a place.” This fence line leads the eye to the beauty of a fall Colorado landscape outside of Crested Butte on the way towards Gunnison.
Before coming onto this scene, a friend and I pulled over and sat still by the side of the road. We watched a young elk trying to jump over a wire fence on a slope of a hill. He ran up and down the fence line, almost jumping over but backing off at the last second. Even though it was cold out, we lowered the windows and could hear the bugling of the nearby herd answering his cries. He was too young to trust in his ability to jump and clear the fence line, and it was a bit difficult for us to have the vantage of seeing where he needed to go but not be able to tell him.
Seeing this dilemma, I thought of times when my own lack of confidence held me back from taking action. I wondered how many times others watched as I tried to summon courage? But in the end, we each have to get there from our own sense of power. Over time, we learn about perspective and faith.
Later in the morning, on our way back, we passed by that same ranch. We slowed down again, but there were no young elk at the fence. A sense of relief washed over me, as I’m sure it for him as well once he made his way.
The Colorado gold rush started in 1859, ten years after California’s mining frenzy. Thank goodness Denver didn’t consider naming their football team the 59ers. That doesn’t have the same ring to it as the Broncos.
This is another gold rush of sorts, the annual show of aspen trees in fall. This close-up of a cascade of aspens on Kebler Pass appears to take over the hillside, surrounding a stand of pine trees.
A cathedral of carved stone kissed by the last light of an autumn day, flanked by goldenrod aspens, and framed by ground cover turned russet by frost.
I dream of a Pendleton wool blanket laid down on the meadow grass, something warm and steaming in a thermos, relaxing to the sounds of leaves clapping and a red-tail hawk screech in the distance. Perhaps a doe will emerge from the cover of the grove if I’m quiet enough.
While I didn’t have the blanket or thermos, I did enjoy the serenity of this place. This is Gothic Mountain, near an almost ghost-town-turned-biological-lab where students study the local ecosystem.
Sometimes a photo comes out looking like a painting. This would definitely be an oil painting, and I would take up the art to be commissioned sitting here.
By the way, I did hear a red-tail hawk screech, and not just once.
While we spent ten days in the Crested Butte area, we traveled along Kebler Pass along Gunnison County Road 12 enough times to remember every curve and pull out. When we saw a setting that caught our eye, we named it to refer to where we wanted to go the next day. We had a pull out we named the morning moose, one we called the polygamist pull-out, and another called the fox race. Yes, we actually had a fox try to race us. We didn’t start the competition, but it was amusing, and I’d say he won.
However, those vignettes change moment by moment. What was appealing in the morning might be flat by afternoon or highlighted too much. The light on these aspens just happened to backlight them like a line of yellow fire exploding upwards. Thankfully, it wasn’t fire, just mimicking one.
March of Pines
Near East Beckwith Mountain, there were so many views of the forest with thick groves. I liked this setting for how the pine trees curved in a line through the aspen, as though they were trying to move through a crowd and stay together to get to the front of the line.
As Telluride leaves change, autumn throws a celebration. Confetti rains down from the aspen and lines a dirt road.
This small setting intrigued me. I wondered where the road led, but it was private, and therefore, I wouldn’t find out what lay at the other end. What a message — to be in the moment, enjoy what is in front of you — and stop obsessing about what-ifs.
I took several pictures of this scene, thinking that getting it all in focus would be the best photo. But later, with some good advice from another photographer, I settled on having just the leaves in the foreground fully in focus. Symbolically, enjoying what is right in front of me.
There’s magic in the way leaves change. Some hold out from change as long as possible, others embrace the brightest of yellows, some morph into pure gold, and then a few sport an orange color, which in the Pantone world is called “Pirate’s Gold.”
Can you imagine if a pirate were landlocked and wanted to stash some treasures in the hills of Colorado? Hidden in groves of aspen, guarded by tall pines, and patrolled by hawks: how easily the forest would throw you off track from finding the treasure chest. But perhaps you would discover other riches.
This small fall color section was at Kebler Pass, one of the best fall drives in Colorado if you find yourself near Crested Butte in late September.
Autumn traditions mean changing leaves, crisper temperatures, chili on the stove, and enjoying football games, whether college or pro. That is fall. Sadly, I have to travel to get the first two conditions since I live in the desert of Arizona. Fortunately, Colorado is not that far away.
When I looked at this section of changing aspen trees, it reminded me of going to a football game, being in a crowd going up the stadium’s ramps, always in a hurry to get to the seats. You’d turn a corner and have another ramp to climb. People would be yelling, pushing, but mostly happy. Another turn, another ramp. The cheers rising from inside the stadium, the excitement building in anticipation of a great matchup.
Even the nose bleed section at Kebler Pass are great seats.
Shield of Strength
Everyone needs a big brother, a strong friend, or a defender. The little aspen tree looked like she had her shield in this lone pine on the side of a hill. Not until I worked with this photo for a long while did I notice that the pine wasn’t a lone pine. Nor was the little aspen the only one needing protection. To the left of the aspen tree is a tiny pine growing. The pine will prosper from the little aspen’s shade. There is a place for each of us to help another.
Walking up a hill through quaking aspen, breathing heavily at the ten thousand foot elevation, a friend pointed out the slash marks of a black bear’s claws in the trunk of an aspen tree. What perfect timing for me to study these signature marks. Honestly, I really needed to catch my breath. But that time helped me in deciding that the gold of the aspens behind it would make a colorful background, I set up for the shot. When I got back, I knew I hadn’t captured it on camera the way I had in my head.
Later in the trip, we stopped back at this site. I climbed the hill again, now more acclimated to the elevation, and unbelievably found the same tree. They all start looking alike! I am so happy that we had enough time to spend in the area so that I could get it right. The photographer’s curse is getting caught up in the emotion of the moment and not recognizing that there was another way to capture a scene.
And I love that there are still vast acres where bears can roam and claim a territory.
Tall in Front
How many times in school did I hear the photographer who took the class photo say, “all the short kids upfront?” Too many times.
Perspective is everything. Here the tall aspens are called into the front. The tables are turned. They are a good looking class!
Touch of Light
Slender, a little smaller, and touched by the faintest bit of light to bring out the beauty of this stand of fall aspen trees. In a few minutes, you might not notice them as the light moves to another section of the forest to spotlight.
Isn’t it amazing how each tree has its own form, shape, and personality? Together they are like a clique of friends. Gossiping, laughing. One seeks the spotlight for a moment, then it’s another one’s turn. And they are all happy and smiling.
We went farther down Gunnison County Road 12 away from Kebler Pass to the west towards West Beckwith Mountain.
I almost missed this vista. But I turned just in time to see sunlight hitting the tips of the peaks.
I was enamored with the textures and colors on Marcellina Mountain just to the east of this. I worked that area for all it was worth. As I normally am drawn to smaller settings, I try to remind myself to take in the big picture as well.
From this perspective, you can tell that the mountain peaks are high since the tree line stops at about 11,000 feet. The canopy of aspens in yellow brings a contrast to the rich green velvet of the pines, the last of the fearless on the slope.
If you go shopping for model railroad pieces, you’ll find a large assortment of vegetation to choose from. The rust and umber of the scrub above the aspens remind me of the little clumps and mounds of shrubs in muddled colors on one of those railroad sets. Yes, they are called “woodland scenics.”
The colors are so rich and look like a tapestry woven by hand and hung in a medieval castle, This is precisely why I spent so much time concentrating on Marcellina Mountain.
Such a deep richness to this stand of aspens. Like a square of chocolate, the kind you melt and put into brownies. This photo inspired me to write the blog post, “Saturday Morning Childhood Memories from the ’70s.”
Isn’t it amazing how our memories work? How could aspen trees color make a leap to my memory of trying out a bitter bite of chocolate when I was just eight years old?
The battle lines, the surge forward. Two aspen groves on the hillside outside of Crested Butte appear to be maneuvering into a frontal battle position, one hoping to overtake the other.
While they mimic a battle between two forces, they are actually two distinct root structures. One decided to keep making chlorophyll; the other said, “I’m done for the season.” That’s about all the disagreements they have the energy for.
Taking the Hill
Kebler Pass fall color advancing up the hill. A line of pines seems to be on a mission to reach the summit.
Many years ago, a dear friend, many years my senior, explained the Rocky Mountains to me so eloquently. I look at this photo today, and I hear her say, “The Rockies in Colorado are masculine, and the Rockies in New Mexico are feminine.”
Oh, how true that is, looking at this small section of the West Elk Mountain range: a jagged jawline, rugged good looks, tall and handsome.
Colorado fall colors zig then zag along Kebler Pass. Late day light highlights the tips of the tall aspens. Add some noble, tall pine trees for contrast, perhaps tuck a narrow meadow of grasses in between the lines, and your eye travels up and down the mountain.
Not a whisper of breeze or a fish biting the surface, just complete stillness. And the autumn glow of gold reflecting in Cushman Lake outside of Telluride.
About an hour before this shot, we drove by this lake and didn’t see any reflection. On we went. and I captured “Delicate Lacework” and “Fall’s Confetti.” This was our last day in the mountains, and we would be on our way home in the morning. I was satisfied with all the images from the trip and felt good about the last few shots. The sun had set, the areas we had been shooting were growing dark, and I was good with pushing on to Cortez which was our last overnight destination before heading home. But this time driving by, Cushman Lake was a different story.
Two other photographers had just taken their cameras down, and they encouraged us to shoot. They just stood in amazement at the quietness of the scene, other than our cameras clicking off frames. Having no air movement is like being granted a miracle when you practice photography.
I didn’t mind the leaves floating on the surface. Interestingly they are only suspended in the area of the sky reflection, not in the reflections of the trees. Sometimes you feel like God just opens up a split-second moment for you to appreciate. Had we stayed in one of those other locations a minute longer, we could have missed this beautiful showstopper on our Colorado fall road trip.
Ann Newman is a photographer, writer, and creator of Annstracts who tells the stories behind her pictures. As a former, professionally-trained salesperson, Ann understands that people want to solve problems or accelerate growth for a better future. Her insights, symbolism, and meanings from her pictures give her stories a positive spin. You might find Ann near her home in Phoenix, bent down looking at the tiniest details of a bug, patting any nearby dog, or asking “why” an awful lot.