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Five Ways to Autumn Blaze

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Catching the best of fall in Southwest Colorado

U.S. Highway 550 north of Durango, Colorado. Autumn in the Southern Rocky Mountains is almost surreal. Want to know how to get shots like this? Keep reading. Photo – Hank Blum

Autumn is perhaps the most breathtaking season of them all, especially in the southern Rocky Mountains. Here are five ways to experience the fall colors, from the comfort of the car to the thrill on the trail.

1. Take a drive, on-road.

The Million Dollar Highway: This amazing stretch of U.S. Highway 550 is well known, where the million dollar views are so astounding you’ll find it hard to keep you eyes on the road. And on these roads, you want to pay attention.

Traveling over Coal Bank, Molas and Red Mountain Passes between Durango and Ouray, Colorado, the highway bends and curls like few others in America. Countless 12,000, 13,000 and even some 14,000 peaks come in to view, as does direct line of sight into the Weminuche Wilderness. Every autumn oceans of aspen blaze and shimmer in the breeze.

2) Take a drive, off-road.

Looking west from the summit of Imogene Pass. Snow lingers years round at 13,000 feet. Both Ouray to the east and Telluride to the west glow every autumn with an array of fall colors. Photo – Brandon Mathis

Ten miles from downtown Ouray, Colorado is the top of the famous Imogone Pass, at 13,114 feet. Off roaders enjoy the undertaking of this classic 4-wheeler’s outing, and have the option of continuing on to Telluride just seven miles down the road on other side, passing the ghost town of Tomboy on the way. The pass road begins easily enough with a relatively smooth and gentle grade, but don’t let the mellow character fool you. Severe exposure and some rugged 4-wheel driving is mandatory to reach the summit. It’s also a tour through the area’s rich mining history.

3. Go for a ride.

Mountain biking in September and October makes for mind boggling experiences as sunlight mixes with autumn hues to create effects unlike any other time of year. Photo – Terrance Siemon

Just south of the historic mining settlement of Rico, Colorado, about 28 miles south of Telluride, you can hop on the Scotch Creek trail and climb though ever-changing forests before reaching the Colorado Trail. Once on the CT, take in the rolling views of the Hermosa Creek drainage, the Needles and the Grenadier mountain ranges, then follow the trail south to a rickety sign marking the Salt Creek Trail where you head west and bomb six miles of mountain singletrack through endless aspen groves.

4. Go for a run…up a mountain.

In Rocky Mountain towns, it’s easy to get to what feels like the roof of the world. Here, a mountain runner negotiates some terrain management at 13,000 feet near the summit of Whitehead Peak in the Weminuche Wilderness. Photo – Brandon Mathis

It seems any direction you travel from the center of this incredible mountain town leads you to autumn colors. It’s hard not to gain elevation here (downtown sits at 9,000 above sea level).  And with so much forest so high, this whole place is surrounded by fall colors. Runners can convineintly head up Kendall Mountain Road, gaining 3000 feet in six miles and offering commanding views of town, the San Juan Mountains and Deer Park. Whitehead Peak is another gem in the area, where runners leave the trail behind and use navigation skills to bag peaks all day long. Island Lake, Crater Lake, Ice Lakes, Highland Mary Lakes, the Continental Divide Trail- are all easy to follow and make for incredible mountain runs.

5. Get the shot.

Scenes like this on Molas Pass  exist throughout the Rocky Mountains, you just have to be at the ready to capture them. Photographer Hank Blum keeps his equipment ready to go at any moment as he makes his way through autumn blaze.

If you have an eye for photography you may want to plan ahead. Autumn in this part of the state can be simply overwhelming, and every fall photographers are setting up tripods on predawn roadsides, pull offs and overlooks waiting for that perfect moment to click their shutter buttons. For more on how to capture autumn images, see landscape photographer Hank Blum’s how to feature article here.

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