Part of the mystique of being a landscape photographer can be getting asked "where is this?" constantly, because often times landscape photographers either go where few people journey or see things is a different manner than the general public. I won't lie, it's kind of fun. One of my favorite things to say to people is simply "I can show you amazing places".
Finding these amazing places is just as difficult as it sounds, yet it's all rooted in a very simple premise; go where the light is good! Researching new locations takes a lot of time to pour over satellite images, topo maps, trail reports, and other photographer's photos. Is this place going to be good at sunrise, sunset, mid-day, in cloudy weather, with blue sky, if the leaves are this color, with snow, etc. Then of course, you have to get there and you're dealing with road conditions, other drivers, and the weather. Now you know why some photographers keep locations a secret, which I will fully admit that I have some secret locations that I won't divulge on here, but I will point you toward 5 great fall foliage spots in Colorado.
1) Owl Creek Pass - Near Ridgway, CO
Owl Creek Pass is a newer location for me because I hadn't researched that portion of the San Juan mountains never much until recently. Owl Creek Pass is also famous because Chimney Rock served as a background for John Wayne's movie True Grit. Owl Creek Pass is located on County Road 8 from the Ridgway side, and I believe County Road 860 via County Road 858 from the Gunnison side. The San Juan mountains make an excellent backdrop and the foliage can be spectacular in this area. Peak foliage depends on the weather, but usually the very end of September or first week of October.
Also, toward the beginning of Owl Creek Pass from the Ridgway side, the view of Courthhouse Mountain and Chimney Rock can be especially striking so wait 'til sunset and see how the light strikes those two mountains. It can be quite the show!
Sights to look for: Chimney Rock, Courthouse Mountain, Silver Jack Reservoir, and the Pinnacles.
2) Ohio Pass - Crested Butte, CO
One of two great passes in Colorado and this one is used significantly less than the more popular Kebler Pass. Ohio Pass is a narrow, rocky, steep pass that connects Crested Butte and the Ohio Creek area outside of Gunnison. Ohio Pass boasts that grand vista that everyone loves, giant sprawling aspen groves stretching all the way to the other end of the valley, and best of all The Castles. The Castles are a beautiful rock formation in the Raggeds Wilderness Area and they tower over the Ohio Creek valley below. You'll be able to see the Castles clearly from Ohio Pass. Lower on the Gunnison side of Ohio Pass, you'll have access to a few great hiking trails as well. I would highly recommend the short walk to the Beaver Ponds, it's an easy half-mile walk through gorgeous aspen groves and you'll be rewarded with a stunning view of the Anthracites sub-mountain range. Be mindful, this area is popular and parking might be limited.
This area is best viewed during the last week of September and judging by the last couple of years waiting until the first few days of October may not be a bad idea either.
Sights to look for: Ohio Pass, The Castles, Beaver Ponds Trailhead, The Anthracite Sub-Mountain Range
3) Wilson Mesa - Telluride, CO
Wilson Mesa is another one of those photographer locations that nearly every landscape photographer seems to know about, but mention it to an everyday Coloradoan and they won't know what you are referencing. The key to Wilson Mesa is waking up early, and staying late. This spot is great at sunrise and again at sunset, and seemingly every hour in between. 2014 was the first time I made my way down to Wilson Mesa and the surrounding area, which made me realize I had been missing out. Stunning views of Mt. Wilson, and Wilson Peak which you might recognize from Coors packaging. Stands of aspen trees, lakes, and grand vistas make Wilson Mesa one of the best photography locations in Colorado.
There are multiple views of the Wilson Massif that you will find to be very rewarding, also not to be neglected is a trip to Woods Lake. If you go to Woods Lake, you will not see a view of Mt. Wilson but the glassy lake offers spectacular reflections of the surrounding mountains. One more thing I should mention is that unlike some of the other locations I have mentioned, Wilson Mesa has a lot of private property and it can be hard to determine what is private and what is public land. If you have any doubt, do not risk trespassing. Wilson Mesa has many, many great views of Wilson Peak and great foliage from the county roads so it is not necessary to risk trespassing.
This area seems to be prime around the last week in September as well, maybe a few days earlier. If there is a storm that is going to impact the southern Colorado mountains, go the morning after the storm clears and most likely you'll be rewarded with snowy peaks and golden foliage.
Sights to look for: Wilson Peak, Mt. Wilson, Woods Lake
4) Maroon Lake - Aspen, CO
One of the most famous Colorado locations is the perfect backdrop to the beautiful fall foliage, and is also one of the most photographed areas in Colorado. Maroon Lake is a small lake outside of Aspen, CO and is famous for its views of the Maroon Bells. The Maroon Bells are a pair of mountain peaks, Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak, that rise to over 14,000 ft. above sea level. The unique shape of these mountains, combined with their highly-accessible viewing area generates large crowds so be prepared to see photographers lined up on the shoreline standing nearly shoulder to shoulder. At sunrise though, you'll likely see why there are just crowds because at sunrise the Bells glow bright red and reflect into Maroon Lake below. On the opposite side of the lake, the groves of aspen trees start turning during the third week of September usually, setting up a peak time right around October 1st. If you're willing to deal with the crowds, the pay-off is huge and Maroon Lake is one of the most photographed scenes in Colorado for a good reason.
Sights to look for: the Maroon Bells, moose, elk, Crater Lake
5) Kebler Pass - Near Crested Butte, CO
While I didn't intentionally save "the best" for last, the colors and views on Kebler Pass can't be beat in my opinion. While its far from a secret, there are numerous opportunities on Kebler Pass during the fall to capture the immense beauty of the area. Much like Maroon Lake, there will be people. Probably a lot of them. However, if you walk for any length on a trail away from the main road you'll be by yourself. Kebler Pass is outside of Crested Butte, CO and isn't paved, it's a dirt road that is bumpy in places but nothing that requires 4 wheel drive unless there is a lot of rain or snow. Kebler Pass has many classic views, one of the most popular is from Horsethief Ranch. Another popular view is of Marcellina Mountain with the stands of aspens in front, which is really just sublime. While there will be a horde of photographers up there, it's worth it. Mark your calendar for the last week in September and get yourself to Kebler Pass. Kebler Pass is also home to the largest aspen grove in North America, so there's just another reason to plan your trip now.
Sights to look for: Horsethief Ranch, Lost Lake, Marcellina Mountain, The Dyke
I would be remiss if I didn't mention this here, but my good friend Rick Louie is leading a Colorado Fall Foliage tour and it will be a great time. Each year, his knowledge and experience reward his clients with great opportunities to capture the Colorado fall at its finest. Go here to register for his tour!