Nearly every year for the past eight years, I have embarked on a multi-day journey to photograph one of my favorite subjects here in Colorado - autumn and fall colors. Each trip holds a special place in my memory. There's just something magical about spending time in the mountains of Colorado in autumn - you never quite know what will happen or what to expect! Two years ago I had to get my car towed out of a ditch. Last year I experienced some of the most amazing light day-in and day-out. This year was a mixed bag which challenged me as a photographer. We had two days out of twelve with any cloud cover and experienced a great deal of wind. I focused my efforts this year on two key areas of Colorado - Crested Butte (including the West Elk Mountains, Ohio Pass and The Castles), and the Ridgway (including the San Juan Mountains, Owl Creek Pass, Silver Jack Reservoir, and various county roads near Ridgway) / Ouray area. I had some ambitious plans to backpack to some undiscovered areas and I rented a macro lens to get more close-up shots of aspen leaves, willow leaves, and other autumn subjects. I was also lucky enough to test drive the newest version of the Shimoda Action X camera backpacks. I enjoyed long walks through the woods and very long hikes into the Wilderness. I hope you enjoy the results of my efforts! Here are my favorite photographs from this October.
Matt Payne Photography Blog: Colorado Autumn Photography Trip - 2019
I departed my home in Durango, Colorado in the late afternoon of October 2nd. In order to prepare for the journey, I needed to record and produce two weeks' worth of podcasts and get them all queued up so that I did not have to worry about missing a week of the show. I drove 4 and a half hours to Twin Lakes, Colorado to meet up with my friends Kane Engelbert and Jimmy Gekas. They had been photographing that area for several days and I was excited to start the trip with them. When I arrived, it was very dark but I was able to find their campsite without any issues. I decided to set-up and get one photo of the Milky Way before going to sleep. We set our alarms for 5:30 AM, and I hoped to photograph the early morning glow on the peaks and aspen trees at blue hour.
I was excited to use this opportunity to continue my project of photographing the highest 100 mountains in Colorado, including all of the 14ers, at sunrise or sunset. I was cognizant of two of the highest 100 mountains being within site from our location - Mount Hope and Mount Elbert.
In the above photograph, 13,933 ft. Mount Hope, 13,333 ft. Twin Peaks, and 13,783 ft. Rinker Peak shine during blue hour alpenglow near Twin Lakes, Colorado above a magnificent grove of aspen trees fully adorned in fall color in autumn. I rarely make it over to the Collegiate Peaks and the Sawatch Range these days, but was so glad I did this autumn.
I am not sure if other photographers struggle with this, but this being my first day out photographing in awhile, I felt rusty. Not so much with the camera, but creatively. My eyes were not seeing compositions the way I would normally expect them to, and I had never been to this location before. It was pretty hard to find interesting subjects. I did hike around and find this wonderful beaver pond though!
Bull Hill and Mount Elbert rise high above this large beaver pond near Twin Lakes, Colorado. Mount Elbert (right) is the highest mountain in Colorado - 14,433 ft. high. Its also one of the least impressive in my opinion. The scene still looked interesting reflected in the water of this beaver pond in early autumn light.
From here, Kane, Jimmy and I drove over Cottonwood Pass to the Crested Butte area. I wished I had more time to spend on the east side of the pass, but it was still a lot of fun visiting. We struggled quite a bit to figure out a location to end up in. We scouted several areas, including north of Crested Butte, but we found the colors to be quite dull so we ended up driving to Ohio Pass and finding a great campsite there. Near our campsite rested a massive forest of aspen and ferns, a truly challenging but potentially rewarding place to spend time in as a photographer. I walked around for hours and came away with some really interesting discoveries!
After a long walk through the forest near Crested Butte, Colorado, I stumbled upon this huge section of ferns nestled before a large grove of aspen trees - a true autumn delight. I used a wide angle lens and positioned myself pretty low to the ground to really bring out all of the fun details in the ferns. I wanted to give a sense of place so left the top couple of inches of the composition filled with aspen trees. This scene was a lot of fun to photograph!
Sometimes walking through the forest in autumn can be quite rewarding - in this case, I was able to find a very unique cluster of aspen trees - eight (8) of them to be exact - all growing together side-by-side. It was quite a discovery - only in Colorado! I decided to render them in black and white to bring out all of the texture and detail.
The next morning, I woke up to rain drops on the tent and was elated! Clouds! Weather! Woohoo! I quickly packed my gear in the dark and began hiking up a hillside near our campsite that I knew afforded some pretty spectacular and unique views of the surrounding area.
The clouds were low and fast moving and provided a lot of dappled light on the ground below, making for some really fun photography with a telephoto lens!
I was drawn to taking photos of the dirt road that weaves up and through some gorgeous aspen trees in autumn near Crested Butte, Colorado.
Two small aspen trees find themselves as strangers nestled among a forest filled with pine trees.
A huge forest of aspen trees in various stages of changing fall colors is lit up by a beam of light that shone through a hole in the passing clouds above.
Out of my 11-day trip, this was one of only two days that I encountered any clouds. The passing dispersed low clouds created excellent cover from the sun and allowed for dappled light to shine upon the landscape below. The Castles and West Elk Peak anchor the scene at left and right respectively above a large forest of changing aspen trees in glorious autumn color. This is actually a composite of several images taken of the same scene over about an hour - I blended in various sections of the dappled light that I felt were the most interesting. This is a technique known as time-blending.
Aspen trees glow from the early morning sunlight passing through a small hole in the clouds above in the scene above.
The light this morning was really fascinating. I sat and watched the trees below me as light passed quickly between clouds, creating so many opportunities to see the landscape in a new way.
From my vantage point about 300 yards away using a telephoto lens, I was able to capture these brilliant aspen trees lit up briefly by the sun - perhaps one of my favorite images from the trip.
I climbed back down from the high ridge to camp and rested up. A few hours later I departed again into the forest to see what I could find.
My first discovery was this green bug hanging out on an aspen tree and thought he might be fun to photograph using a macro lens. Just for fun.
One thing I love to look for in the forest is bear claw marks on aspen trees. They are usually quite old and black - they appear as old scars on the bark of the aspen. Perhaps one of my most interesting discoveries this trip was a tree filled with such claw marks.
I stumbled upon this aspen tree that had very fresh bear claw marks running from the base of the tree all the way to the top. I was fascinated with the way in which the bark curled away from the aspen tree juxtaposed with the fall colors in the background.
The tree was covered in the claw marks - what fun!
I continued to explore the forest to see what else could be found with my eyes. Seeing forest scenes is one of the hardest things you can do as a photographer, and I almost always enjoy the challenge as it can yield some very unique results.
One such result was a small branch full of aspen leaves that fell from above into this crack between two aspen tree trunks.
Another such discovery - two aspen leaves fell into a seed pod of a plant I can't identify (haha). I thought it looked pretty awesome so I photographed it with my macro lens.
After this, I decided to hike back and go back to camp to enjoy the night with our friends. Around the campfire, my friend Kane and I picked the brain of a fellow photographer and good friend, Scott Bacon. Scott told us all about his trip the day before to an area none of us had been before east of The Castles. The Castles are a very photogenic mountain and rock formation near Ohio Pass that a lot of people take pictures of from the road. Kane and I had plans to do a few backpacking overnight hikes during this trip, but Scott's story inspired us to follow in his foot-steps to see this unique scene for ourselves. It would require a 16-mile hike on a rarely traveled trail, but we were up for it. My thanks to Scott Bacon for giving us some inspiration!
Kane and I awoke and found a fantastic vantage point of the amazing mountain formation known as The Castles - nicely glowing at sunrise. What a magnificent scene. We also walked around through the forest here to see what we could find.
To the south of us, a magical scene unfolded before sunrise - East Beckwith Mountain (at center) had some nice clouds floating over it, which were catching some great light. The early glow at blue hour made the aspen trees absolutely sing.
During a wandering hike through the woods near our campsite, I saw this aspen tree lit up by diffused light - for some reason I thought it looked like a grumpy face and was worthy of snapping a photo of it.
As the light shifted, I kept finding myself looking back towards The Castles. It is such a glorious scene.
Another fun thing happened during our 16-mile backpack into the West Elk Mountains - I stumbled upon some beaver ponds after sunrise. Much to my delight, I discovered some frozen willow leaves suspended in the water. I was really fascinated with all of the colors and textures in the leaves and the small lines in the water.
Here is another take on The Castles - nicely glowing at sunrise. What a magnificent scene. The orange and yellow aspen leaves were a nice compliment to the blue sky.
From here, Kane and I hiked all the way back to our trucks, drove into Crested Butte to get gas and reconnect with our families for a brief moment, and then departed for an area near Paonia, Colorado. When we arrived to that area, we discovered that a lot of the fall foliage had either blown off of the trees or turned brown, but we found some interesting things to photograph nonetheless!
Mostly bare aspen trees in autumn diffuse the light beamed through from early morning sun on a hillside near Paonia Colorado in the Gunnison National Forest. The aspen trees and the willow bushes seemed to be interacting in some sort of light dance and I loved the way it looked.
Autumn leaves from various bushes and trees including willow and aspen sit suspended in time and motion in a pool of water in the Gunnison National Forest of Colorado in the West Elk Mountains.
From here, we decided it was time to make our way south to Ridgway. There are just so many possibilities for autumn photography near Ridgway. We had several areas targeted, including Owl Creek Pass and Silver Jack Reservoir. We found ourselves at a small pristine lake at sunset and the colors could not have been any better!
These colorful aspen trees in autumn simply dazzled me! The reflection in the small lake really accentuated the white bark of the trees as seen in blue hour. I'm a huge sucker for scenes like this - fall colors in Colorado, especially in the Owl Creek Pass / Silver Jack Reservoir area.
A small hilllside filled with brilliantly colored autumn aspen trees is reflected beautifully in this small lake - a real treat, in my opinion.
Another take on this scene - a panorama of these beautiful aspen trees - their white bark was so awesome.
From here, Kane and I decided to take a trip back towards Ridgway and see what kind of unique takes on classic scenes we could find, including this one from Ouray County Road 7. The problem with most photographs you will see from Ouray County Road 7 is that they are usually photographed on private property and rarely if ever do photographers take the time to actually research that (or care about it for that matter). With all that being said, Kane and I used Gaia GPS to solve this problem. The premium version of Gaia has a layer on it that shows you private property lines. You can get a discount on that program here.
As I am always on a quest to find original compositions of scenes that are meaningful to me, I was excited to find this location with my friend Kane Engelbert. We hiked into the woods to find a new vantage of 14er Mount Sneffels, Cirque Mountain, Teakettle Mountain and Mount Ridgway in autumn glory. The moon just happened to rise between Mount Ridgway and Teakettle Mountain, adding some visual interest on this cloudless but beautiful sunset. The aspen trees in the valley below made for a nice homage to autumn in Colorado.
From here, Kane and I retreated back to Ridgway to make a plan for the rest of the trip. A winter storm was approaching and the temps were forecasted to dip as low as 7 degrees at night - not something we were looking forward to weathering in our tents! We opted to get a room in Ouray but were really excited to get back out and photograph autumn scenes with fresh snow on them. After the storm hit, we drove back into the mountains and found some really interesting scenes.
Above represents some really nice stuff I was able to pick out with my telephoto lens - a hillside of Aspen Trees, Blue Spruce, and a sprinkle of magic showcase some early fall snow cover on a foggy morning in autumn.
Above is a shot of scrub oak and aspen trees adorned with snow - I found them to be so wonderful! From here, we decided to get some food, so I cooked up a nice breakfast of hash browns and eggs from the back of my truck. Afterwards, we hiked down a hillside and found an interesting vantage point of Mount Sneffels and the surrounding Dallas Divide mountains, all freshly covered in snow.
After the storm hit the high peaks of Colorado near Ridgway, clouds swirled around mountain tops with afternoon sun hitting them from above - an interesting effect.
One of the best things that can happen in mountain photography is a storm. Storms produce some amazing things, including snow, fog, clouds, and drama. In this case, an early autumn storm dusted 14er Mount Sneffels and the surrounding aspen trees and Blue Spruce in snow, all illuminated by early afternoon light.
I was also drawn to two distinct lines of aspen trees adorned a hillside filled with Blue Spruce trees. I love finding patterns like this in nature. It is even better when you get some snow in early autumn!
One of my favorite things about a passing storm in autumn is that it can bring all kinds of interesting effects on the landscape - in this case, lingering clouds and snow-capped trees.
Another view of Mount Sneffels with a fresh dusting of snow on it. Beautiful!
After this, we head back into Ridgway to make a plan for sunset. We watched the weather patterns and determined that our chances of getting the best light would occur back towards Owl Creek Pass, so that's where we went! We were so delighted to discover the fresh snow and dappled light here as well. It was a telephoto playground!
It was so awesome to see a dusting of snow lit up by late afternoon light above a cliff adorned in autumn aspen trees after the storm passed through.
One thing that was particularly awesome to see was Cimarron Ridge - a really amazing rock feature near Ridgway, Colorado. Here, the scene is adorned with autumn scrub oak and aspen trees. The passing storm left traces of snow and created a bit of drama in the sky, making for a pleasing scene.
We stood up there for a long time picking out scenes to photograph. Here, evening light cascades through scrub oak in various stages of autumn color as seen on a hillside. The scene reminded me of a rainbow. The vibrant greens, yellows, oranges, reds... so amazing.
As the sun set to the west, the last light of the day shone through the remnants of a passing storm cloud, near Dallas Divide and Ridgway, Colorado. The colors created by this scene were phenomenal - the reds of the scrub oak combined with the oranges and yellows in the cloud were just so amazing to witness. on this amazing autumn evening.
And above, a hillside of aspen trees in various stages of change in Autumn.
As the sun set to the west, directional light lit up these cottonwood trees and bare aspens on a hillside - the possibilities for photography were endless up there.
Above, another hillside of aspen trees in various stages of change. I loved how the light broke through the trees and lit up the trunks.
At last we were finally treated to some clouds after several days of just wind and sun. Don’t get me wrong, I love sun, but the photos I had planned really needed some clouds. I really enjoyed the challenge of finding some intimate scenes with full sun, and got some of those too. I was very happy with these results - steely blue clouds and amazing directional light hitting Courthouse Mountain and Chimney Rock. A magical combo with the scrub oak and aspen groves basked in Autumn glory. The Cimarron Mountains near Ridgway, Colorado are so magical, I can't help but to go back every year.
I hope you enjoyed seeing my favorite photos from the trip!
You can see my favorite fall / autumn photos of all time here.