By Rod Martinez
Fall Foliage Drives
If you simply want to view the aspens and the mountains, here are a few drives I recommend.
On the east slope, the Peak to Peak highway from Estes Park to Nederland on highways 7 and 72 affords many opportunities for real up-close and vista photos. This is a great drive, passing interesting sites along the way. Gravel roads crossing the main highway lead to ghost towns at hesse and apex; others lead to high country lakes. There are many aspen stands, so it is a golden marvel in the fall.
Established in 1918, this is Colorado’s oldest scenic byway. From Colorado Springs to Cripple Creek, especially from Divide to Cripple Creek, you will have a hard time choosing between photographing the old gold mines or the golden leaves of the aspens. As you leave Colorado Springs and head west on highway 24 you will pass through Cascade, Green Mountain Falls, and Woodland Park before you take a left on Colorado Highway 67 at Divide. Take the time to enjoy driving past Pikes Peak and the aspen stands intermixed with the old gold mines. Highway 67 continues south for an additional 4 miles to another colorful town, Victor. On your way back to Colorado Springs, you may find another form of gold in the casinos of Cripple Creek, but I would bet the aspens will give you gold you can count on.
Another truly fabulous area is along Ripple Creek Pass in North-Central Colorado. From Wolcott, on Interstate 70, go north about 43 miles to just north of Yampa and turn left (west) onto County Road 17, which is a very good gravel road. Shortly after that you will turn left onto Forest Road 16, which in a few miles turns into County Road 8. The fall foliage begins in about 8 miles and continues until a few miles east of Meeker. A beautiful side trip can take you to Trappers Lake. From on top of Ripple Creek Pass you will have great vistas that stretch for miles all the way to the Flat Tops.
Another scenic drive is around Chimney Peak, near Ridgway. From Highway 50, about 45 miles from Gunnison, or 20 miles from Montrose, turn on to Cimarron Road. The vistas of the San Juans Uncompahgre Massif are a sight to behold. You will pass by Beaver Lake as you head toward Silver Jack Reservoir. Along this gravel road there are massive rock outcroppings intertwined with stands of aspen. Late afternoon is the best time of day to capture the gold, a beautiful Colorado blue sky, and the rock outcroppings. As you continue on this road you will traverse Owl Creek Pass in about 7 miles. As you travel down the west side of Owl Creek Pass, Chimney Peak and Courthouse Mountain will be visible on the left. Again you will pass through many aspen stands before you encounter a large meadow with Chimney Peak at the south end of the meadow. Adding the pink glow of a sunset on Chimney Peak surrounded by the golden aspens will give you a spectacular photo.
If you didn’t capture sunset by the meadow, then continue on down the road until you find the view area. From the view area and to the east a large vista of Chimney Peak, Courthouse Mountain, and the West Cimarron Range is enveloped in gold. To the west you will see the incomparable Sneffels Range of the San Juans.
On Highway 145 drive south of Telluride on your way to Lizard Head Pass. There are numerous viewpoints and wide turnouts to once again photograph the peaks and a lake or two, including Trout Lake, before you reach the rest stop on top of Lizard Head Pass. When photographing the lakes zoom in close and photograph just the reflections. Once everyone else is done photographing keep your camera ready and zoomed in, then skip a rock on the water and photograph the artistic and fun ripples in the water.
A couple of miles past Lizard Head Pass stop at the next wide turn out to photograph Lizard Head Peak. It does not take much imagination to see how this mountain peak resembles the head of a lizard. Keep going on Highway 145 past the mining town of Rico until you reach Hillside Road on the left, close to mile marker 37. Turn left here and you will soon see why this is my favorite fall foliage area. As you traverse this great gravel road, vista after vista will unfold in front of you. This road is not heavily traveled, and it is wide so you can stop about anywhere on the side of the road to take your photos.
As you look across the canyon, you will see the tall stately aspens which resemble soldiers standing at attention just waiting for you to photograph them. The colors will vary from light green to deep gold, and a variety of conifers will be interspersed to add to the variety of the endless waves of gold. The road keeps climbing and when it plateaus you can continue shooting the myriad of vistas and/or walk in the groves of aspens to feel their golden majesty. Find a nice bunch; lay down flat on the ground and with your widest angle lens or setting shoot straight up. The trees will converge to the center of your photo and you will now have a striking photo of the stately and up close beauty of these trees.
Your drive back toward Telluride will give you different lighting, views, and photos that you will treasure. This area is great from mid-morning to late afternoon, and it will take you a number of hours to photograph and absorb all this Colorado gold.“There is Gold in Them Hills”, whether you drive or hike in Colorado’s mountains.
Take the time to enjoy and be sure to photograph those memories.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2012 Issue (1016) of Trail & Timberline.