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Autumn at the San Juan's' Dallas Divide
Autumn at the San Juan's' Dallas Divide

Autumn in the San Juan Mountains

For many a moon I had been wanting to photograph. The San Juan Mountains during autumn color, but unfortunately autumn color of the incredible landscape of Telluride, Ouray, Silverton and Durango is concurrent with my autumn in the Grand Tetons where fall color is the busiest season for my photo tour business at home. I have been perpetually trapped in the beauty of home.

Oddly enough though, in 2015 my early September bookings at home were good enough, as well as surprising dearth of bookings at the end of the month, something dawned on me! Rationalizing this was a sign from God, I didn’t book anymore trips after the 22nd, and so in my faith of rationalization and pseudo divine intervention, I would finally see a Colorado autumn.

Social media had been taunting me for years with autumn photos of Mount Sneffles at Dallas Divide, True Grits’, Chimney Rock at Owl Creek Pass, the golden trees of the Million Dollar Highway, the snake rail fences of Last Dollar Road and the cool refurbished mining towns of Ouray, Silverton and Telluride.

I lit out from home straight from my final Grand Teton tour and was thrilled to see on the weather websites a winter storm was heading for southern Colorado. With much anticipation, I rushed for one of my long awaited dream destinations.

Autumn brings incredible changes to the alpine terrain in the San Juan Mountains of Southwest Colorado. Fall foliage glistens with golden leaves of the cottonwood and aspens, as well of the reds of the oaks. The proliferation of summer wildflowers has succumbed to the first freezes of fall subsequently turning the understory of berry bushes and sub-alpine tundra orange and ruby red. All this beauty is crowned by the stunning granite peaks of the largest mountain range in Colorado. Lucky photographers get a new blanket of snow on the peaks adding another layer to accent the panoply of color. The leaves typically begin changing around the tenth of September, and  peak color is often the third week of September. However, there are ample patches of golden aspens well into the second week of October in most years.

At this late date, during a favorite season, the nearest lodging I could find, and could afford was about an hour from the peaks in Montrose, the penalty of spur of the moment planning. No problem, I was in the San Juans

The good and bad of a desired, snow-delivering storm is you have to wait for the clouds to clear. This offered up the opportunity to get a lay of the land. Over several days, the snow-covered peaks played hide and seek with the help of the passing storms. It can be rather trying during the wait for the window to open of the landscape but better than a blue-sky day anytime.

Colorado Hwy. 62 over the Dallas Divide represents an epic autumn Colorado drive, here you will find the iconic landscape most associated with the fall colors of the San Juans. Starting near Ridgway, visitors can get an amazing view of Mount Sneffels, one of Colorado’s 58 peaks higher than 14,000 feet the very mountain that inspired the iconic Coors logo. This was my first destination; I returned here time, and again until I got it right. Between Dallas Divide and Ridgeway I found many side roads for different compositions of the iconic peaks. Ralph Lauren owns most of the property in this area; however, you can still drive through the property as long as you don’t leave the county roads. This is a popular spot, and there will be plenty of photographers to visit with until the light gets right.

Heading south of the Divide you soon get the legendary ski resort/ mining town of Telluride –What a place. Many western ski towns have mining and cowboy heritage, but today are a hodgepodge of historic buildings and incongruous modern hotels and parking structures, what I call in Jackson Hole “the faux west.” Telluride is not, eleven decades ago. Zoning and preservation have been so strict the place looks very much the same as it did. Even better, it sits in a deep chasm, box canyon with towering peaks all around. I shot it when Mount Sneffels was in a cloud, and the overcast skies were perfect for photographing the old town and it’s box canyon, all awash in a blanket of yellow aspen like I had never seen before.

Heading south from Telluride, another mountain pass will drop you into Rico, another mining town, this one though, not a thriving ski resort. Love it. The whole drive to Rico provides many places worthy of planting a tripod for a few images.

Another morning I also started at Dallas Divide, then back tracked to Ridgway so I could loop the other way south through Ouray and Silverton. The historic town of Ouray bears the name of a Tabeguache Ute Indian chief who championed peace and friendship with white settlers in the mid-1800s. Many of the town’s mining-era buildings have been preserved. Box Canyon Falls is a cool and photogenic stop, it was formed when the rushing waters of Canyon Creek eroded a deep and narrow slot canyon through fault weakened limestone. Ouray is the starting point for many jeep tours of the area.

US Highway 550 between Ouray and Silverton in the San Juan Mountains of Southwestern Colorado, often called the “Million Dollar Highway,” is perhaps one of the most breathtaking journeys you can travel by car. The western precipice of the highway rising above Ouray was enough to even give this experienced mountain driver pause. The mere thought of driving it during this in a warm snow triggered anxiety made me crave a Valium. Originally built in 1883 by Otto Mears as a toll way from Ouray to the now-abandoned town of Ironton, this two-lane highway offers spectacular views of the San Juan Mountain Range, and Uncompaghre Gorge. The road was later extended to connect Silverton and Ironton over Red Mountain Pass. Originally it was operated as a toll road until the early 1920’s when it was rebuilt and became part of the present day US Highway 550. Suck it up and drive it, it will make you happy.

Silverton is similar to Telluride, a historic mining town true to its roots. Silverton is a lot lower key than Telluride lacking the world-class ski resort. I headed to Durango but started dropping below the autumn color so I doubled back to shoot the northern view of hwy 550. On any route, you always get new views and perspectives when traveling the opposite way.

My last try for a sunrise at Dallas Divide gave me the colorful sky I had been striving for, then it was off for another gem of the San Juans. I had heard Owl Creek Pass was over rated, but I was not discouraged, I went and loved it.   This drive through the heart of the majestic Cimarron Mountains can be made in a passenger car but don’t be in a hurry; it is long and beautiful. Dropping down off the eastern side, I saw a porcupine cross the road. These shy little creatures are hard to capture, I hastily parked, grabbed my gear, and flew down the snowy hill with all the enthusiasm of a twenty-year old after a hot girl on a Friday night. With all the aplomb of someone whose muscle memory remembered their agility of yore, I deftly caught up to the porcupine then commenced to coerce a smile from the camera shy little beast.

When my portrait work was finished, was the moment the old man in me returned with a vengeance?   I gazed up the hill I had exuberantly had flown down and had an age appropriate groan. I then started moaning and groaning, slipping, and sliding, and falling. I surely could have used that muscle memory and agility of yore that deserted me following my pre-photo adrenalin, as I ascended the muddy, snowy hill. I didn’t know it at the time, but during one of the slips I damaged my shoulder, I found out latter, ligaments that will never heal. It cost me a shoulder; however, now I have porcupine in my portfolio that will never sell. I do prize my A for effort.

This route was used extensively during the filming of the western classic, True Grit, with John Wayne; the location scout was clearly a genius. The meadow below Chimney Rock was where Rooster Cogburn charged the four outlaws, and I’m relieved I didn’t fall into the rattlesnake pit while chasing the porcupine.

After the summit of Owl Creek Pass, you can continue to Silver Jack Reservoir, not much there in autumn for water though. Autumn panoramas can be shot much of the way. I came out the north end and circled back to my room in Montrose. Owl Creek Pass, and the Cimarron River Valley deserves more time than I gave it. Next time I will enter from the north at sunrise and shoot from the south end of Jack Reservoir looking south.

San Juan Skyway, a breathtaking 236-mile loop through the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado, offers visitors an amazing array of fall colors and includes the afore mentioned 70-mile stretch known simply as the Million Dollar Highway. In 2012, Travel & Leisure Magazine named San Juan Skyway one of "America's Best Drives" for its million-dollar views. Although I explored the top two thirds, I wish I would have had time to drive the whole loop; however, what I didn’t drive this time, I have driven it in the past.

While considering my permanent escape from California in 1987, I had narrowed my options between Telluride Colorado and Jackson Hole Wyoming. I chose Jackson Hole because not only did it have stunning mountains; it also had grizzly bears. Telluride or anywhere in the San Juans would though have been a worthy choice, having shot Jackson Hole for three decades I feel kind of wistful about the decision; although my time in Jackson Hole has been very well spent.

A happy photographer is one that has autumn in the San Juans in his portfolio, I’ll return at the first opportunity.

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I'm transfering the blog from another host server which requires cutting and pasting of 150 articles and new photo layout for all. This takes time. pardon the lack of photos and poor layout until completion.

Daryl L. Hunter

4/6/19