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Published: October 19th 2015
Towards the end of September, mountains in Colorado are ablaze with yellow, the primary fall color in the Rockies. The backdrop of mountains make Colorado one of the best spots in US to watch leaves change. Weather is usually good as late September is usually dry. The summer thunderstorms are gone. Mornings and evenings can get cold. However, at high altitudes you need protection from the sun.
After renting a Kia Soul from Enterprise at Stapleton in Denver, I headed towards the Rockies. The drive became mountainous pretty soon. Driving along Peak to Peak highway, I got a brief glimpse of what fall is like in the Rockies. Yellow Aspens dotted the distant landscape alongside dark green pine trees.
I overnight-ed at Estes Park, a town at the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountain national park. Trail Ridge road is one of the primary attraction of this national park. A high mountain road, it reaches elevations above 12000 ft. Roads here are twisting and turning. Going uphill and downhill while twisting and turning, they require constant attention of the driver. And you want to go downhill on a lower gear lest you overheat
the brake pads.
You need to acclimatize to high altitude before you take any hiking trails here. The minimum elevation in Colorado is above 3000 ft and it has 50+ peaks reaching more than 14000 ft. Rocky Mountain national park has many hiking trails. The popular ones take you to lakes like Sprague lake, Bear lake, Dream lake, Emerald lake, lake Haiyaha and Nymph lake. I content myself with seeing Sprague, Bear and Dream lakes. If you want to photograph these lakes, better arrive around sunrise when the water is generally calm so that you can get reflection shots. That's the theory. Nature is not that predictable.
Fall is also the time for Elk rut. The male Elk has antlers that grow and shed every year! I did not see any action during the two days I was here. No bull fights and no mating!
The last Saturday of September turned out to be a no fee day in the park. Plenty of cars and limited parking implied that parking lots at the trail-heads were full by 10 am. I just drove the Trail Ridge road again
driving towards my next destination, the town of Aspen.
Aspen is famous for skiing. I don't Ski so I was here during the fall season to capture the yellows of the Aspen tree after which this town is named.
The approach to Aspen on route 82, also called the Independence Pass, is dramatic. Aspen trees dot the mountains nearby painting a landscape from an artist's palette. By the time I reached the highest point on Independence Pass road, the sun was already setting and the moon was up. The sky was lit with orange hues. At 12000 ft above sea level, the air was cold. The rest of the Drive to Aspen was downhill on winding roads in the dark.
In Aspen, I took a Gondola ride to the top. It's touristy but worth the $20 or so you have to pay for it to get to the top. Fall is all about the views; the more ways you can get them, the better. I saw a few hang gliders in the sky and wondered about the views they were seeing.
One of the top attractions in the Aspen area is Maroon Bells. One of the most photographed places in USA, it is a mountain view with one side dotted with yellow Aspens and the other side lined with green pines trees with the whole scene reflected on a mountain lake. Photographers line up the lake side as early as 2 hours before sunrise to grab a spot. I became one of these guys one day and arrived at the parking lot before 5 am! There were already about 20 people lined up along the lake side with their tripods. It was dark and chilly. By the time, it was dawn the wind has started blowing and the water in the lake was no longer still. Not a perfect day for photographing Maroon Bells! By sunrise, there were about 70 odd people viewing the majestic vista. I came here once more during the day to soak in the scenery. This time I had to come by bus as cars are not allowed in after 8 am. The scene looked much better now and I wondered why I woke up so early and waited more
than an hour in the dark to capture a sunrise shot. Anyways, an activity checked off the list !
My next destination was Crested Butte. There is a mountain pass called Kebler pass that originates near this small town. The road is initially paved but becomes a well maintained gravel road for the rest of its 30 or so miles. It is a beautiful drive in the fall with some of the biggest Aspen groves in the world to be found alongside this road.
Ouray is a small town boxed in by canyon walls all around. Here I stayed at River's Edge motel for 4 nights. I drove the entire 236 miles of the scenic San Juan Skyway the next day. The drive starts from Ridgeway, passing through Ouray. South of Ouray is the Million Dollar highway, a scenic mountain road which some people refer to as a White-Knuckle drive. Going south, on right side you have steep drop-offs so you better stay focused on the road.
The road reaches the town of Durango and then turns north. Then it approaches a town called Telluride. The approach to the
town is dramatic. The town is surrounded with majestic mountains that are dotted with yellow Aspens. After having gotten a glimpse of Telluride during the fading sunlight, I ended up coming to this town for the next two mornings, driving from Ouray, a 50 mile drive one way. A Gondola runs from the town of Mountain Village to Telluride. The ride is free and is touted as the most scenic commute in America! It indeed is.
Ouray refers itself as the Jeeping capital of the world. There are many 4WD jeep trails that take you through some stunning vistas while you or your guide drive on these rugged 4wd mountain trails. You can rent a Jeep if you have 4WD driving experience or you could take a tour. I took a couple of half days tours, one going to Imogene Pass and the other going to Red Mountain 3. There are other trails like Alpine Loop, Yankee Boy basin, Black Bear Pass, Corkscrew Gulch, Engineer Pass, Hurricane Pass and so on. Each of these drives can give you an exhilarating experience while you drive a rugged 4WD Wrangle or Rubicon or take a tour on
one. I was merely interested in driving Last Dollar road, a scenic fall drive that is not paved and in driving a couple of other unpaved drives nearby. I opted not to rent though and instead took tours. San Juan Scenic Jeep tours was the company. The guide was Jay. The ride was bumpy but exciting. The drive to Read Mountain 3 turned out to be an experience as wind gusts must have reached hurricane speed at the top.
Before heading back to Denver, I stopped at Colorado Springs. I had given Royal Gorge in Canon City a skip. It looked touristy and the light was also not good. So I headed towards the Painted Mines near the small town of Calhan. Not a known attraction but it has some colorful rock formations. However an approaching thunder storm gave me second thoughts. This part of Colorado is flat. Dark clouds at the horizon can look really menacing!
Next day, I visited the Garden of the Gods park. It looked ethereal in the morning fog. As the weekend day wore on, more people and cars filled the park. I thought of
driving to the top of Pikes Peak, the mountain that inspired the 'America the Beautiful' song but upon reaching the entrance around 3 pm, I realized that there was not enough time to reach the top that sits at an elevation of more than 14000 ft. Notice mentioned that mountain top was to close at 4 pm. At least my rental car was spared a steep drive down the mountain in low gear.
Colorado Rockies are full of scenic vistas during the fall season. I believe they would also not disappoint during the summer season when the mountain slopes are dotted with wildflowers and during the winter when the snow covered peaks would provide a very different backdrop.
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