Matt Payne Photography | Photographing Colorado fall colors - a labor of love

Photographing Colorado fall colors - a labor of love

October 20, 2013  •  3 Comments

Colorado fall colors panoramaColorado fall colors - Mount Sneffels panoramaColorado's fall colors are some of the best in the world as evidence by this panorama of Mount Sneffels near Ridgway, Colorado.

I have been photographing the amazing Colorado fall colors since 2011, and each year gets better and better as I learn more techniques and locations. This year, I decided to take the plunge and buy Jason Hatfield's guide, which did help me find a few locations I had long wanted to photograph, including Chimney Rock and Courthouse Mountain near Ridgway, Colorado. Last year, I studied many locations and photographers and fell in love with this photograph of Chimney Rock at sunset by Nate Zeman, one of my favorite Colorado photographers. I have come very close to buying that photo many times, but I figured I should give myself at least one chance to get that same shot; therefore, I decided that if there was one shot I was to get this year, it would be that one. I made plans to head for Silver Jack Reservoir and then over Owl Creek Pass near Ridgway. I also decided it would be fun to take my 5-year-old son with me so we could share the experience together. As I prepared for the trip, I took a look at the weather forecast, which included a snowstorm and a lot of cold. This was both good and bad news because the snow would make for an excellent addition to the fall colors, but the cold might just cause the aspen trees to drop their leaves too soon.

As a bonus, I was able to reach out to Brent Doerzman, another Colorado photographer I've been watching for a long time. He was heading to the same area as me at the same time, and knew where good camping was located, so he agreed to meet my son and I in Gunnison on the way to Silver Jack Reservoir.  

Brent met up with us at around 9 PM in Gunnison and we made our way towards Cimarron, Colorado on Highway 50 and turned left on Cimarron Road (not to be confused with Little Cimarron Road) for our 21 mile trek to Silver Jack Reservoir in the dark. It had just snowed and so driving was a little sketchy but not too bad in my Subaru Forester. Brent led us to an awesome campsite past Silver Jack Reservoir on the east fork of the road past the Owl Creek Pass turn-off. I setup our campsite in the cold dark on a blanket of snow and hoped I could get some sleep in the frozen night. My son was pretty comfortable in a -30 down sleeping bag courtesy of my parents; however, I was frozen solid in my older +30 bag (note to self - buy a better sleeping bag). As I lay in my sleeping bag, I quickly found myself listening to a pack of coyotes that had surrounded our area and were barking/howling at us. I quickly grabbed my cell phone and recorded the howls/barks. You can listen to that HERE

I finally fell asleep and got a couple of hours of restless sleep due to the extreme cold and the excitement of photographing the fall colors. I awoke and looked outside the tent to marvel at the fresh snow on the pine trees contrasted with the yellow, gold and red colors of the aspen trees. It was an amazing sight to behold indeed. We ate breakfast quickly and drove up the road a short way to view the amazing colors found in the Silver Jack Reservoir valley. 

Autumn CanvasAutumn CanvasThis telephoto view of the rugged San Juan Mountains at sunrise in autumn was taken near Silver Jack Reservoir.

The morning was good to us and I was rewarded with amazing views and incredible light on the trees. Brent was nearby as well, and I could tell he was just as excited as we were to be there photographing the magic.

Silver Jack Reservoir fall colorsColorado's fall colors are amazing

We could have probably spent hours near our campsite, as there were so many interesting things to photograph right nearby. The fresh snow and yellow aspen made for an amazing combination.

Frozen in FallFrozen in FallThis is a large panoramic stitched together using 8 photos at 100mm from Silver Jack Reservoir. It was quite cold after the snow storm passed through, depositing a nice coat of snow on the golden aspen trees and high peaks.

I was lucky to see The Pinnacles also - one of the more recognizable features found in the area.

The Pinnacles at sunriseThe Pinnacles at sunriseJust after sunrise, an awesome side-light illuminated the Pinnacles near Silver Jack Reservoir in Colorado on this cold autumn morning.

Having never been to the Silver Jack Reservoir area, I was in awe of the scenery. It was quite remarkable and I was already making plans for a return visit in 2014. 

Tapestry of goldTapestry of goldThis hillside lit up at sunrise from Silver Jack Reservoir in Colorado. The Ponderosa Pine trees weaved through the changing aspen up the side of the hill and up to the cliff walls obscured by fog.

My son and I enjoyed our time together at the Reservoir and made plans to head over Owl Creek Pass so we could find the best spot to photograph Chimney Rock at sunset from. 

Colorado's Finest Autumn DayColorado's Finest Autumn DayThis epic autumn view of Silver Jack Reservoir is one of my favorite's in Colorado. Incoming clouds obscured some of the mountains but added some drama and flair to the shot.

My son and I hiked around the Reservoir for awhile and found some awesome views.

Silver Jack MagicSilver Jack MagicThis wide angle view of Silver Jack Reservoir showcases the beauty and wonder of the San Juans in autumn.

We made our way over to Owl Creek Pass and I stopped what must have felt like a million times to my son. There were just so many awesome sights to take photos of, including this stand of aspen among snow-capped pine trees.

Winter coatWinter coatA thin blanket of snow covered the ponderosa pines and made for quite a surreal scene at Owl Creek Pass on this brisk October day near Ridgway, Colorado.

One cool feature/fact about Owl Creek Pass is that it is where some famous western movies were filmed, including the original John Wayne version of True Grit. There is a very classic scene from the movie and I was able to find the location, showcasing Chimney Rock behind a large meadow.

Autumn True GritAutumn True GritThis photo shows the classic location of where True Grit was filmed.

We made it down the pass and I found the scenic turn-off that offered amazing views of Chimney Rock and Courthouse Mountain from the west. The area was packed with photographers, which seemed a bit odd for the mid-day; however, I saw the famous Ian Plant and realized he was doing a workshop. I guess I was in a good spot! My son and I decided that this area would be a fine camp for our night and so we followed a trail and setup camp for the night. I setup two tripods, one for my Nikon D800 and one for my Nikon D7000

After setting everything up, we hiked around a bit, cooked dinner and then waited for the magic to arrive. And boy did the magic arrive! I had my 14-24 lens setup on the D7000 with the insane Fotodiox Wonderpano filter system attached and a .6 Graduated Neutral Density Filter affixed. On the other tripod, I had my D800 and I was alternating between my 24-70 and my 70-200 lens so I could go both telephoto and wide angle. I think I was able to replicate the Nate Zeman shot pretty well, except I was not lucky enough to have clouds.

Here is the telephoto version, followed by the wide angle version.

Chimney Rock on FireChimney Rock on FireFor the 2013 fall colors I had one shot I just had to get and this was it! Chimney Rock, the scene of famous movies such as True Grit and How the West Was Won. Sunset lit up the rock like it was on fire. Amazing night. The recent dusting of snow added just the right amount of flair too.

The colors were amazing.

Blaze of GloryBlaze of GloryThis sunset shot of Chimney Rock and Courthouse Mountain near Ridgway, Colorado showcases the subtle changes in the trees from green to yellow to orange while the sun kisses the tips of the trees and the mountains.

I had the D7000 setup to do a time-lapse movie, taking a photo every 45 seconds for about two hours or so. I came away with a fun little video I titled "Sundown at Chimney Rock." I hope you like it. 

Sundown at Chimney RockA time-lapse short showcasing sundown at Chimney Rock, near Ridgway, Colorado.

While I was photographing this amazing scene, two photographers rushed through my campsite, looking for a place to setup. I immediately recognized one of them as Toby Harriman, a very well-followed photographer from San Francisco. Toby has over a million followed on G+, which is an impressive feat compared to my 10,000. His fame is well-deserved and it was awesome chatting with him and later connecting on Facebook to discuss different locations and shots around Colorado. Toby was accompanied by Natalia Stone, another well-accomplished photographer. 

After Toby and Natalia departed, I got my son ready for bed, which included this obligatory photo of him in the tent with the stars above. 

Galactic campingGalactic campingMy son and I slept under the stars at Owl Creek Pass after my epic night of capturing sunset at Chimney Rock and Courhouse Mountain. This photo of my REI Quarter Dome has my son hanging out inside as he got ready for bed under the stars.

I ventured down the way a few yards and got another long exposure of the the stars over Chimney Rock.

Autumn Stars over Chimney RockAutumn Stars over Chimney RockThis was more of an experiment than anything - decided to do a single long exposure for some smaller star trails, worked out well. This is Chimney Rock and Courthouse Mountain - near Ridgway, Colorado at night.

I crashed in the tent and slept fairly poorly again due to the bitter cold. When we woke up, there was ice all over our sleeping bags, but my son said he was quite warm, so it was all good. After packing up, we drove down towards Ridgway, where I was able to get a parting shot of Mount Sneffels above the amazing farms and pastures below it. 

Mount Sneffels in autumnMount Sneffels in autumnOn this cool autumn morning in October, the sunrise illuminated the farmland and scrub oak beneath Mount Sneffels near Ridgway, Colorado.

Fast forward to the following weekend. My wife and I took a romantic trip to Crested Butte for some rest and relaxation, and a few photos. Other than shopping, eating pizza, drinking beer and enjoying a weekend without our son, we also enjoyed some time at Kebler Pass, where I photographed a few areas of changing aspen, at the tail end of the fall color season. 

The light finds a wayThe light finds a wayThis legendary grove of aspen trees at Kebler Pass shed most of it's yellow leaves to the wintery forest floor, but a few still remained on the tree brances above to showcase the beauty of this Colorado classic.

Despite most of the leaves having already fallen off of most of the trees, there were still pockets of incredible wonder and beauty.

Beckwith MountainscapeBeckwith MountainscapeFall colors adorn Beckwith Mountain's slopes at Kebler Pass near Crested Butte, Colorado.

My wife was even up for a fun pose in the aspen. I'll leave you with that - I hope you enjoyed my shots this year!

Happy MarriageHappy MarriageMy wife and I took a drive to Kebler Pass - this self-timer shows her enthusiasm for my passion of photography. =)

If you made it this far, and you are interested in purchasing a print from this year's Colorado fall colors gallery, the first 25 people to use the code "FALL2013" will get a 25% discount on prints. 

For more Colorado fall colors - check out the full gallery: 


Daryl L. Hunter(non-registered)
Great images, the one of you and your wife is funny/great :)
K. Smith(non-registered)
Beautiful, thank you sharing, very refreshing!
Catherine Beiswenger(non-registered)
Thank you for sharing your love of the outdoors and photography. You are very talented and generous with your product :) I always enjoy your work.
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