Peter Zelinka | Autumn in the Colorado Mountains

Autumn in the Colorado Mountains

November 27, 2017  •  3 Comments

Steamboat Springs


By mid-September I arrived in Steamboat Springs, a beautiful mountain town in northern Colorado.  I had heard wonderful things about this spot from many people so I was excited to finally explore the nearby aspen forests!  As usual, I stopped at the library to download my maps, scout out the surrounding area, and fill up my water.  As the sun began to set, an afternoon storm erupted over downtown Steamboat Springs.  This could get interesting!  I glanced out the window and saw a stunning rainbow arching overhead!  I quickly packed up and ran to the car.

Steamboat Springs RainbowSteamboat Springs Rainbow

After the excitement died down and the rainbow disappeared, I remembered I needed to find a place to spend the night.  It looked like the National Forest was just north of town.  It was a stunning drive as the open fields quickly transitioned to aspen forests and steep hillsides.  Within five minutes of leaving town the paved road ended, transforming into a winding, narrow, and bumpy dirt road.  Driving into the mountains was slow-going and I was losing light quickly.  As twilight arrived, I found a nice westward vantage point.

Five minutes later I reached a campsite, nothing more than a large dirt area to park the Honda.  This would become my home-base for the next few days.  With a long day behind me, I was ready for a good night's rest!  I had actually started this day off near Salt Lake City, up in the Wasatch Mountains.  After enjoying a beautiful sunrise, I spent the rest of the day driving through rural Utah and Colorado.  It felt good to finally relax in the back of the car.  Within 20 minutes I was fast asleep.

At 3am I awoke to the sounds of something scratching, just below my head!!  I should clarify that I have enough space in the Honda to setup a mattress in the back, where I spend most of my nights sleeping.  Whatever I was hearing must have been underneath the car.  I was worried it might break something, so that meant I needed to get out and confront it.  Great...

I opened the door and jumped out from the vehicle, hoping to land far enough away so that the unidentified critter couldn't immediately attack me.  I turned around and shined my light under the car.  Nothing.  Then, I spotted something moving in front of the Honda.  It was a porcupine scratching at a nearby log.  He didn't seem to mind me at all, he was far too busy trying to reach his midnight snack inside the log.  I let him be and went back in the car, hoping to get a few more hours of sleep without any further interruptions.

The morning arrived quickly and I was excited to see this place in the daylight!  I was surrounded by stunning aspen forests!  My view to the west provided a great vantage point and I could see for miles!  A quick breakfast, one plain bagel and some water, and I was ready to hike.  I spent the next few hours hiking down the mountain through the aspen forests.  Most of the trees were still green but a few had started to change.


I decided that this would be the perfect spot to sit and wait for the rest of the fall colors to arrive!  For the next week I explored the forests in the mountains outside of Steamboat Springs, eagerly awaiting the changing colors.  I quickly fell in love with this aspen forest.  "Towering white columns, covered in eyes".  

My view from camp, in the mountains outside Steamboat Springs Hiking through the aspen forest near Steamboat Springs A close-up look at Aspen bark Relaxing in the forest on a beautiful September day

Within a few days, it became clear the leaves were not going to change soon enough.  I still had the rest of Colorado to explore and September was quickly nearing its end.  I had to make a difficult decision.  It was time to leave.  I couldn't afford to miss out on the fall colors that were already occurring further south.  On the final morning in Steamboat Springs we had the first snow of the season!  It was like Christmas!  By 7:30am I was already back up in the mountains to the north of town, enjoying this brief winter wonderland.

Unfortunately, the snow quickly melted in the morning sunlight.  By the time I hiked back to the car there was almost no snow left.  Energized and excited, I was ready to start the long drive to my next destination: Guanella Pass.  Within 30 minutes of leaving Steamboat Springs I was seeing yellow aspen trees everywhere!  The drive through northern Colorado was absolutely incredible!  Vast fields stretching off into the distance, towering mountains, flashes of yellow in the sunlight.  These memories are still burned into my mind, even though I wasn't able to capture any photos along the way.

To view all the photos from Steamboat Springs, click here -

 

Kenosha Pass


I had heard from a friend that Kenosha Pass was looking incredible, so I made that my next major destination.  As the sun was beginning to set I finally arrived at Kenosha Pass.  I quickly grabbed my gear and started on a hike into the forest.  Honestly, I liked the aspen trees in Steamboat Springs a lot better.  But the fall colors were a nice change!  Since the lighting wasn't great, I ended up just enjoying the hike without taking any photos.

The forecast was calling for a clear night and this was one of the darker areas in Colorado.  If I was remembering right, there was an incredible overlook within a 5 minute drive.  This would be the perfect place to use my star tracker and capture a high-quality Milky Way photo!  I parked the car on a gravel pull-off and began setting up my gear.  The star tracker allows me to take much longer photos, without any motion blur in the stars.  Therefore, I can capture much more detail with less grain!  If you're interested in learning more about these devices, head over to my tutorial.

Kenosha PassKenosha PassThe Milky Way rises over Colorado, as seen from Kenosha Pass.

 

 

Crested Butte


Crested Butte is renowned for its spring wildflower season, when the nearby mountains are covered in columbine, indian paintbrush, fireweed, elephant's head, and more!  I first visited Crested Butte in July 2016, on my first roadtrip.  I was amazed by just how many wildflowers there were on my hike over the mountains to Maroon Bells!  Believe it or not, Crested Butte is even more magical in the fall!  I was lucky to arrive just in time for the first major snowfall in the mountains.

Upon arriving in Crested Butte, I quickly got lunch then headed up into the mountains north of town.  If you're looking for a scenic fall drive, this is the spot!  The dirt road twists through stands of aspens before entering a large river valley.  After passing through the tiny "town" of Gothic, the road starts to get more treacherous.  I was glad to have all-wheel drive this time around!  At one point, the road becomes very narrow with a sheer cliff on one side.  I always hate this part!  Thankfully no one was coming, so I was able to make it through quickly.  My destination was ultimately Crystal Mill, one of the most iconic landmarks in Colorado.  However, this dirt road would become even more dangerous in a few miles and the sun was about to set.  At dusk, I came to a large yellow sign which said, in effect, "If you don't have a Jeep and off-roading skills, stop here or die".  Thankfully there was a little dirt parking lot here, so I parked the car for the night.  Tomorrow I would hike the rest of the way down to Crystal Mill.

That's my cue to start walking

A mountain view near Gothic

It was a cold, cloudy morning; perfect for waterfall photography!  The hike down to Crystal Mill was an incredible 3 mile trek through the mountain valley.  The entire hike down I couldn't stop thinking "how can anyone actually drive down this?!".  I'm glad I decided to walk!!  Occasionally the road would cross through the creek, which was frigid this time of year!  At other times, the road was just a jumble of large rocks.  Within 40 minutes I arrived at the first landmark, Devil's Punchbowl.  I distinctly remembered this spot, as I had read there were numerous fatalities here.  Click here to read all about that.  

Hiking down the rough road to Crystal Mill

Devil's PunchbowlDevil's Punchbowl

After about an hour hiking down the valley, I finally encountered my first vehicle.  A guy in an older jeep was heading up into the mountains, so I squeezed off into the trees to get out of the road.  "BANG!!!"  I nearly had a heart attack!  Apparently, his back tire hit a metal pole and popped right in front of me!  I was worried he would be stuck up here, but he didn't seem concerned at all.  I asked if he needed a hand, but he was fine.  So I continued on down the trail.

As I neared the remote mining town of Crystal I found myself in another aspen forest.  I was surprised to see a lot of green trees here as well, but fall was definitely in full swing!  Soon enough I came to the iconic Crystal Mill, apparently one of the most photographed locations in Colorado.  With that being said, I wanted to get a more unique angle than most.  That meant getting wet.  I clambered down the steep hillside and into the cold water.  No one else was willing to brave the frigid waters, so I had the whole creek to find a great angle!

Crystal MillCrystal Mill Before beginning the long, steep climb back to the car I wanted to grab some shots in town...a town which consists of 5 houses anyway.  The fall colors were incredible down here!

And with that I was ready to continue the arduous hike!  The trek back up the mountain valley was grueling, especially considering I only had one CliffBar to eat.  Looking at my topo map, it appeared I had a 1,500 foot elevation gain back to the car. 

Eventually I got back to the Honda and started the long, bumpy drive back to Crested Butte.  I was looking forward to a good dinner!  As I pulled into town my phone finally got an LTE connection.  I decided to check the weather.  The forecast was calling for a winter storm the following day.  Perfect!!  However, I wanted a change of scenery.  I quickly decided that Maroon Bells would be the best location to enjoy the winter storm.  However, that didn't leave me a lot of time; I needed to start the 4 hour drive ASAP!  There's really nothing like driving through the mountains of Colorado at sunset!  Unfortunately, I wasn't able to capture any photos along the way.  By 9pm I had made it to Aspen, which is a short drive from Maroon Bells.

 

Maroon Bells


If you ever plan to go to Maroon Bells, be warned, it's almost always overrun with tourists!  The road leading up to Maroon Bells is normally closed from 8am to 5pm, meaning you'll need to park at a ski resort just outside Aspen and ride a free bus up to the park.  That wasn't going to work for me, so I kept driving to Maroon Bells in the dark.  To my surprise, I found a number of other photographers out there in the middle of the night!  We were all interested in capturing some nightscapes.  Thankfully we had clear skies!  Unfortunately, the other photographers were quite rude.  I needed to take a 4 minute long photo, to capture enough light for the foreground.  Each time, someone would turn on their headlamp and ruin the shot.  However, the following night I was able to finally capture an image.  I accidentally left the ISO at 12,800 though, causing the image to become way too bright.

By 4am the next morning, people were already starting to fill the parking lot!  Some had come from as far away as Denver.  Since the sun wouldn't be up for a few more hours, I went back to bed.  I woke up about 30 minutes before sunrise and found myself surrounded by cars!  The entire parking lot was full!  I trudged out to the lake shore and was shocked.  There had to be at least 100 people completely filling every square foot along the shore of the lake, all hoping to capture the typical Maroon Bells photo.  After searching for 10 minutes I managed to squeeze into a spot with a nice view.  I hate this part of photography, I get too frustrated dealing with moronic tourists and can't concentrate on taking a great photo.  At one point, some lady cut in front of our small group to take her coveted cell phone shot.

As the crowds began to thin out along the lake, I started scouting for new angles of Maroon Bells.  Everyone gets the iconic lake shot, but I wanted something different.  Thankfully the weather was cooperating!  As the dark storm clouds billowed over the mountains, occasional bursts of light would shine down onto the landscape.  I spent the next few hours exploring this incredible place, waiting for the snowstorm to begin.  By 11am it started sleeting, and within 20 minutes I was completely soaked!  My camera is weather-sealed but this was getting a bit too much.  I decided to head back to the car and wait out the storm.

Maroon Bells StormMaroon Bells Storm

Once I got back to the car I wiped down my camera gear and cranked up the heat.  I needed to dry everything out and warm up!  In the meantime, the weather was only getting worse.  The sleet had now changed to snow and it was coming down heavy!  I looked out through my windows and saw that the parking lot had finally emptied.  With not much else to do, I got comfy in the back and started watching 'The Lord of the Rings'.  I spent the next 5 hours sitting in the car, occasionally glancing back up to see if the mountain peaks were breaking through the clouds.  I didn't mind the wait, knowing that the mountains would look incredible once the clouds began to clear!

Finally!  After 6 hours of waiting in my car, I caught a glimpse of the mountains peeking through the clouds.  I raced to put on my winter clothes and boots.  Then I grabbed my camera gear and sprinted out to the lake.  It was like Christmas morning!  The view was amazing, and even better, there was no one else around!  I had the entire place to myself.  This was my "Quintessence of Life" moment, for those of you who are familiar with 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty'.

Maroon Bells SnowstormMaroon Bells Snowstorm

As sunset was rapidly approaching, more and more people started to arrive.  I figured I should get a spot along the lake shore, before the inevitable horde arrived.  Little did I know, this would be one of the best sunsets of the roadtrip! 

Maroon Bells SunsetMaroon Bells SunsetA beautiful autumn sunset at Maroon Bells

I had taken so many pictures in one day that I actually filled up both memory cards.  I needed to transfer them to my laptop and get set for the next day.  The forecast was calling for a beautiful sunny day, so I decided to stay one more morning at Maroon Bells.  This time I wasn't even going to bother fighting for a spot along the lake.  I get so frustrated when a beautiful sunrise is ruined by tons of people.  So I hiked further into the forest, hoping to find a good composition that didn't include the iconic lake.  While the composition might not have been as good, it was wonderful to finally be alone here at sunrise.

Once the sunrise crowd had left, I wandered back to the lake shore, hoping to get a different take on Maroon Bells.  It was interesting to see how different this scene could be depending on the weather.

Morning at Maroon BellsMorning at Maroon Bells

And with that, I was ready to start the long drive back to Crested Butte!  The drive back was breathtaking, Colorado is one of my favorite states to drive through.  I only wish I had a self-driving car so that I could actually enjoy the view more!  With the sun slowly starting to set, I was nearing McClure Pass.  On my way to Aspen, I had noted how incredible the view was from here.  This might make the perfect location for sunset!  I pulled off the road at the top of the pass just in time!  The mountains were covered in the beautiful pink alpenglow!  Using my 150-600mm lens allowed me to zoom in on these distant mountains.  

McClure PassMcClure PassAn alpenglow sunset from McClure Pass

 

Kebler Pass to Crested Butte


Kebler Pass is home to one of the largest living organisms on the planet, the aspen forest.  Aspen trees are actually clones, all derived from a single seed.  I had driven through the forest twice now, and each time I felt a magical energy here.  Kebler Pass is also world-renowned for its fall colors.  Unfortunately the fall colors were lagging here as well, so it looked more like summer.  That didn't stop me from enjoying it though!  I spent a few days camped out amidst the aspens.  There wasn't much to do in the way of photography, with the beautiful sunny skies and green forests.  This would be a quick break then, a time to relax and enjoy the forest.

After spending a few days living amongst the aspen trees I was ready to head back to Crested Butte, just a short drive away.  I knew the fall colors were in full-swing down there and I couldn't let that opportunity pass.  Thankfully I was blessed with another snow storm!  The storm had hit the mountain peaks overnight, leaving them covered in fresh snow!  By 7am I was out in the valley, photographing the mountains as the clouds swirled around them.  It felt like Christmas again! 

I was excited to see how different everything looked, compared to just a few days ago, so I began the drive back into the mountains north of Crested Butte.  The dirt road was now a muddy mess!  The mud was so thick I was worried I would lose traction and slide off the road.  At least no one else was out yet and I had the road to myself...or so I thought.

As soon as I passed through Gothic I started seeing cows, hundreds of them.  They were all headed south, towards Gothic.  There must have been at least 1,000 cows out here, all headed in the same direction!  At times, they would cover the entire road.  Making matters worse, their hooves were tearing up the wet, muddy road.  At one point, the road was in such terrible condition I lost all control and began sliding down-hill.  The mud was so thick my tires were locked up, almost like driving through thick snow, with ice underneath.  I managed to stop the Honda before it ran off the road.  That was enough excitement for me.  Having gotten enough photos, I started the drive back to Crested Butte, listening to Christmas music along the way.

Click here to visit my Colorado Gallery, with even more pics from Crested Butte! -

 

 

Telluride - The Grand Finale


Telluride was one of my favorite locations of my 2016 roadtrip.  It's a beautiful mountain town, which really emanates that "Colorado vibe" that people are seeking.  There's ample opportunities here for skiers, hikers, photographers, 4wheelers, climbers...basically everyone who enjoys the outdoors!  I was excited to see it in the fall though, with the yellow aspens and hopefully some snow!

As I was driving into Montrose I looked over to my left.  I was stunned!!  Way off in the distance I could see the Dallas Divide and all the mountains were covered in snow!  This would be perfect!  After a quick stop at Arby's, I raced towards the mountains, hoping to arrive before sunset.  I got there just in time!  Of course, the overlook was filled with people already.  Even though the sunset colors were mainly obscured by clouds, the view was incredible!  I had been waiting for this moment for years!

Mount SneffelsMount Sneffels

Since the Dallas Divide overlook is just off a major road, with a good amount of truck traffic, I wanted to find a quieter spot to spend the night.  I knew Last Dollar Road was close by, so I made that my next destination.  With the full moon lighting my way, I found a beautiful, quiet spot to spend the night.  As I was packing up for the night, I could hear the elk bugling off in the distance.  I love hearing their calls at night.

Last Dollar Road is one of the most scenic drives in Colorado, and that's saying a lot!  Just like Schofield Pass outside Crested Butte, Last Dollar Road isn't for the faint of heart.  When the dirt road is wet it becomes incredibly slick.  Not only that, massive puddles tend to form in the middle of the road.  I actually had conquered most of this drive in my little Chevy Malibu last year, but it was nice having all-wheel drive this time around. 

Starting near Last Dollar Ranch, I followed Last Dollar Road through the countryside, into the forest, and up into the mountains.  Meanwhile, massive storm clouds began to blow in from the south.  This had me worried.  I didn't want to get stuck up on top of the mountain in a bad storm, especially on this muddy road.  My new goal was to make it back to the "tame" section of Last Dollar Road before the storm began.

My luck had run out.  The rain began to pour down while I was driving on the sketchiest section of the road.  Apparently all this time spent on backcountry roads has helped though, as I was able to navigate back down without any real issue.  

Last Dollar RoadLast Dollar Road Deep in the forest, driving along Last Dollar Road Last Dollar Road - AutumnLast Dollar Road - AutumnDriving down Last Dollar Road, on the way to Telluride Colorado

Just before sunset I came to a campsite overlooking the valley.  In 2016 I spent a few nights up here, watching as the lightning exploded over the landscape.  It had been Monsoon Season then, so every night I was treated to a stunning show.  Now however, it was a peaceful and colorful sunset.  The next morning, I continued on to Telluride.

Of course, my first order of business was to head to the Telluride Library.  I had some business to take care of and tons of photos to edit.  After spending the whole day inside the library, I was shocked when I stepped outside.  All the mountains surrounding town were covered in fresh snow!  Low-hanging clouds filled the valley around Telluride.  Though the light was fading fast, I wanted to get at least one photo.  I hurried back to the car and drove up into the mountains east of town.

Downtown TellurideDowntown TellurideA photo from the center of Telluride, looking to the snow-capped mountains in the east. Outside of Telluride, near Bridal Veil Falls

As I sat in my car, overlooking Telluride, I couldn't stop thinking about the view from the Dallas Divide.  I really wanted to go back and take some more photos.  Once the sun came up I would start the long, bumpy drive along Last Dollar Road.  I ended up spending 3 more days out there, enjoying every minute of it!

Last Dollar RanchLast Dollar Ranch During my final journey along Last Dollar Road, heading back to Telluride I spotted something large on a nearby tree trunk.  It was starting to get dark, so I didn't recognize what it was at first.  Then I realized it was a gorgeous Great Horned Owl!!  Owl's are my favorite animal and I've only seen a few in the wild.  This was the second time I'd ever seen a Great Horned Owl.  I was lucky to have my camera sitting up front with me, and the telephoto lens was on too!  I started snapping photos while the owl looked at me sleepily.  She didn't seem to mind my presence at all.  This was one of the highlights of the entire roadtrip, I felt so honored to encounter this beautiful bird.

Great Horned OwlGreat Horned OwlA beautiful Great Horned Owl seen in Colorado

What an amazing experience!  This was the perfect way to end my time along Last Dollar Road.  The following morning I completed another journey down the road to Telluride.  Since it was supposed to be a warm and sunny day, I wanted to check out Mountain Village.  There is a free gondola that takes visitors from Telluride up to Mountain Village.  The views along the way are spectacular, especially this time of year.  From the top of the ski-lift area you can get out and hike or bike back down to Telluride.  I got out to snap some pics, before continuing on to Mountain Village.

TellurideTellurideLooking down at Telluride from the free gondola to Mountain Village

For the past few days I really hadn't been eating much at all, and I was looking forward to a good meal.  Using Google Maps to find the best restaurant in town,  I was torn between two options.  As it turned out, I was so hungry that I had lunch at both places!  With a full belly I was ready to head back to Telluride.  Unfortunately I don't get cell-reception in town, so I need to drive out near the airport for any reception.  I ended up staying out there the rest of the night.  Just before bed I saw the full moon rise over the mountains, it was an incredible sight with my telephoto lens!

I awoke early the next morning, it looked to be another beautiful day!  Since I was in the area, I couldn't pass up an opportunity to visit Rico Hotsprings, a hidden gem outside of Telluride.  I was first introduced to this magical spot when I made friends with some people who worked at the nearby National Park, Mesa Verde.  Having been on the road for over 2 months now, spending almost every night sleeping in my car, I was looking forward to a nice long soak.  The hot spring water felt amazing, especially on this chilly fall morning.  After relaxing in the spring for an hour I was ready to go for a hike in the mountains nearby.  Lizard Head Peak had been calling to me, so I decided to make that my destination for the day.  It was a steep, arduous hike up into the mountains.  It didn't help that the mountain pass was at 10,000 feet.  Being a native Ohioan, I was still not accustomed this altitude.  

Rico HotspringsRico Hotsprings Lizard Head PeakLizard Head PeakHiking through the snow to Lizard Head Peak

By this point October was well underway.  I had planned my trip to spend most of October exploring Utah, so I was feeling the urge to keep driving south.  As much as I loved Colorado, it was time to move on.  After one last day in Telluride I started the drive over to Ouray.  Ouray is home to one of my favorite hidden gems, the Wiesbaden Hotsprings.  You walk down into the basement of a spa and see an old wooden door in the wall.  Inside is a dimly lit cavern.  Even in the winter it's incredibly hot and humid down here.  Apparently the miners would come here to relax after a long day at work.  Though I found it hard to breath in the incredibly hot and humid cave, it was very relaxing.  Plus, I got to take a shower, which I desperately needed.  Now that Ouray was checked off my list, my final destination in Colorado was Durango.

After spending two months alone on the road, I was surprised to hear one of my friends was willing to join me for the remainder of the trip!  I had met her last year on my roadtrip, just outside Durango oddly enough.  It seems our paths were destined to cross here again.  I also had a loaner lens set to arrive in a few days.  Tamron was kind enough to send their new 70-200mm lens for me to try out and capture some images with.

When I first arrived in Steamboat Springs at the start of my Colorado journey, I never would've guessed just how incredible my time here would be.  It was bittersweet to leave Colorado behind, but the Utah desert was calling!

- Click here to see even more images from the Telluride area! -

 

 


Comments

Robert L. Pendergast
So very nice. I always enjoy the first snow of the season. You produced a good guide to photo in Colo.
Ashley Jacobs(non-registered)
Experience you share is very admirable. I like your gorgeous images.
Rick Pawlenty(non-registered)
Well Peter, I don’t read blogs, my loss, I suppose, especially if they are half as good as this one. You grabbed me and held me with words and pictures and I just kept enjoying all the way to the end. What an amazing trip, and so many gorgeous images, and memories I’m sure, are the result.
Thank you for sharing your experience in my two favorite states. I can’t help but wonder, where next?
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