Rocky Mountain Fall Color

I landed at Boston’s Logan Airport to provide technical support for a customer visit one long-ago September afternoon. At the rental car counter, the agent asked if I was there for the foliage. I wasn’t, but overheard other agents advising travelers where the best fall colors could be found.

Aspen Color near Spring Creek Pass, Colorado Highway 149

Aspen Color near Spring Creek Pass, Colorado Highway 149

California has boring autumn colors. I’ve shot some isolated yellow aspens at Conway Summit a few miles north of Lee Vining, but that’s the best I ever saw in 35 years in the state. Still, you don’t have to fly to the Northeast for “the foliage”. The US Mountain West has great color.

Just Looking for Trails and Restaurants, But…
On friendly suggestion, we packed up the RV and headed for Creede, Colorado. Autumn color wasn’t really on our minds as we drove up to Pagosa Springs, our first stop. No, we were looking for some high-elevation trails and good restaurants.

Riffraff Porter, Alley House Grille, Pagosa Springs

Riffraff Porter, Alley House Grille, Pagosa Springs

Pagosa Springs and Wolf Creek First
Pagosa Springs is itself a historic destination with nearby Chimney Rock National Monument, protecting the furthest-north outlier of the Chacoan Anasazi. We like Pagosa Riverside Campground as a place to stay year-round, but we love eating at the Alley House Grille.

Treasure Falls, Colorado

Treasure Falls, Colorado
My Fuji X-E2 camera switched itself to JPG here, so the sky is blown out

The route would take us up Wolf Creek Pass, home to a ski area, before winding its way through the mountains to Creede. Treasure Falls was a teaser – pretty water, but the leaves were still green at this lower elevation. We took the big left turn at South Fork to Colorado 149 and headed for Creede and the headwaters of the Rio Grande.

Rocky Mountain 'foliage' on the way to Slumgullion Pass, Colorado

Rocky Mountain ‘foliage’ – becoming orange on the way to Slumgullion Pass, Colorado

As we drove higher and higher along the Rio Grande, brilliant yellow aspens began appearing, first in small groves, then in whole forest stripes between the evergreens. I started going nuts, shooting every color-accented landscape in sight. It was one of those “impossible to take a bad shot” afternoons. With all the stops, it took us a reasonable 90 minutes to drive 64 miles on a mountain highway.

Creede Discoveries
In Creede we discovered a few things. There was a classic car show the next day, and most cars had already arrived. The church on the hill and local graveyard were the closest local attraction. And the Wheeler Geologic Area, high on our list of possible hikes, took a rough 4WD ride to get to. We did get some sugestions about scenic stops along the highway to Slumgullion Pass from Creede’s Forest Service office. Since we didn’t want to rent a 4WD or ATV to get to Wheeler Geologic Area, we opted to walk around the grave markers.

Cruisin' the Canyon Car Show, Creede

Cruisin’ the Canyon Car Show, Creede

Cruisin' the Canyon Car Show, Creede

The original driver probably looked a little different…
Cruisin’ the Canyon Car Show, Creede

The closest RV campground to Creede had you punching a code on a keypad to get in, and had no humans or an office at the closed gate. So we punted that one and went back to Cottonwood Cove a few more miles out of town. They were very happy to see us, offered great scenery, and even had a few bighorn sheep calmly munching grass on the hillside. Dinner at the attached restaurant was good enough to keep us from going back to town.

Church and sky above Creede

Church and sky above Creede

We took some time looking at the classic cars before heading up to the church. Some of the graveyard’s headstones dated back to the 1860s. I apologized to anyone who was listening for disturbing them as I photographed. At least there’s a nice view facing the mountains.

Creede Graveyard

Creede Graveyard
More blown highlights from the Fuji X-E2 camera

High-Altitude Color at the Passes
We drove up to the pass, and discovered there were actually two of them on Colorado 149 on the way to Lake City. The first, Spring Creek Pass, is 641 feet lower than Slumgullion Summit’s 11,530 feet. Brilliant yellow aspens lined the highway, vying for attention. There were also forests of brown beetle-killed conifers on the Creede side of Slumgullion Summit. We stopped at a view of the headwaters of the Rio Grande. Before the Rio Grande Rift started pulling everything apart, the Rio Grande was an east-west body of water in Colorado.

View of the headwaters of the Rio Grande

The headwaters of the Rio Grande are down there…

As we descended the Lake City side of Slumgullion, we kept waiting for the steep, curvy descent we’d been warned about. But it never got really bad. Guess our experience with dirt ATV roads east of Questa, NM, and US 550 and Douglas Pass Road further west and north in Colorado led us to expect something more nausea-inducing.

Motorcycle traveler at the scenic turnout above Lake City

Motorcycle traveler at the scenic turnout above Lake City

Lake City
In Lake City, we discovered an art and wine festival going on. But we weren’t willing to pay the $50 a head it took to get in, and dogs weren’t allowed inside the fenced area anyway. So we punted, and walked around the downtown area that wasn’t fenced off. Like some Lake City residents and visitors we talked to, we preferred Creede’s Cuisin’ the Canyon Car Show. That was free, and there were plenty of great-looking classic cars and dogs walking up and down with their owners.

Lake City, Colorado - built in 1880

Beautiful downtown Lake City – Houch Building 1880

We enjoyed dinner at Lake City’s Climb elevated eatery. When the owner couldn’t seat us inside because of prior reservations, he put us at an outdoor table where we could sit with our pups. He also made sure Pat’s Sidecar was mixed right, changing it to her specifications when it wasn’t quite what she wanted. The same care was evident in the seasoned perfection of the small sirloin I’d ordered.

Lake Fork of the Gunnison River, Lake City

Lake Fork of the Gunnison River, Lake City

The next morning after some photography along the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River, we were on our way back over the pass. This time, some aspens had changed to orange-leaved splendor, giving us gorgeous splashes of yellow and orange with the conifers. The timing of fall color depends mostly on daylight length according to recent thinking, not temperature. Whatever the cause, we really loved it.

Splashes of orange aspens near Slumgullion Pass, Colorado

Splashes of orange aspens near Slumgullion Pass, Colorado

We stayed at Pagosa Riverside Campground for one more night, giving us a chance at another tasty dinner and beer at the Alley House Grille. Then we drove on home.

Shot Notes
Some useful vantage points come only from a moving vehicle on the highway. Next week’s post will give more details, but that was where I captured some of the best landscape images on this trip.

That said, always take advantage of paved turnoffs for scenic views. Yes, these may give you pictures everyone else has, but different colors, sky conditions and other travelers will give your shots some uniqueness. Travelling motorcyclists definitely did this for us, and provided pleasant conversation about their travels. Neil Peart would probably have appreciated this enjoyably-twisty two-lane too.

My Fuji X-E2 once again switched itself out of DNG/raw to JPG then back again, so I got funny colors and blew out the sky on some pictures. I’ve yet to figure out why this happens – I may be hitting some combination of the many buttons on the camera, making it do this. None of my other cameras seem to have the problem. Once they’re set to raw, they stay there.

More Information
Alley House Grille, retrieved from http://www.alleyhousegrille.com/

Pagosa Riverside Campground , retrieved from http://www.pagosariverside.com/
These folks are open in winter too – we’ve stayed there in December.

Wolf Creek Pass (US HWY 160), retrieved from http://tinyurl.com/y7u9qnuz

Creede & Mineral County, Colorado, retrieved from http://www.creede.com/

Cottonwood Cove Guest Ranch, retrieved from <http://www.cottonwoodcove.com/

Cruisin’ the Canyon Fall Color Truck, Motorcycle, & Car Show, retrieved from https://www.creede.com/cruisin-the-canyon-car-show.html

Spring Creek Pass, retireved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spring_Creek_Pass

Slumgullion Pass, retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slumgullion_Pass

Lake City, Colorado, retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_City,_Colorado

The Science of Color in Autumn Leaves, retrieved from http://www.usna.usda.gov/PhotoGallery/FallFoliage/ScienceFallColor.html

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *