Never-Ending Fall of 2023

Field Note #1

After undergoing the first of two knee-replacement surgeries in late-August, my photography took a back seat to recovery. But as fall approached, I couldn't wait to get back into the field and capture the changing colors. What I didn't expect was for this year's hunt for fall colors to go on and on and on. What began in mid-September in Colorado lasted all the way into late-November in California's Yosemite Valley, with plenty of stops in-between. I've dubbed it my Humpty Dumpty autumn, because I had a great fall! (Go ahead, recite the Mother Goose poem's lyrics in your head, it'll all make sense at line #2.)

P.S. This being my first official blog post on this site, it is very long and photo-intensive. Future blog posts will be a lot more concise than this one, but the subject matter necessitated going all out to demonstrate the topic. Enjoy! (If this is displaying as two pages, I highly recommend hitting the VIEW ALL button below to let it all flow as one page...)

Sunlight and shadow accentuate the brooding weather on Muddy Pass as Rabbit Ears Peak rises in the distance.
Stormy Rabbit Ears

A little over a month post-op, my wife Cindy's best friend and her family invited us to join them for a camping trip in northern Colorado, which was a welcome change from sitting around watching the grass grow. We headed north towards Steamboat Springs, cresting Muddy Pass on our way, where the combination of cloud shadows and sunlight made for a dramatic scene around aptly named Rabbit Ears Peak. Northern Colorado's fall colors usually start popping off earlier than the rest of the state, so I hoped these aspens were a harbinger of things to come.

The combination of cold mountain air and slightly warmer lake water creates a fluctuating dance of mist on the surface of Pearl...
Misty Aspen Reflection #1
The combination of cold mountain air and slightly warmer lake water creates a fluctuating dance of mist on the surface of Pearl...
Misty Aspen Reflection #2

Our destination was Pearl Lake State Park, with its cute little lake surrounded by aspen forests that were in the midst of their transition from summer green to autumn gold. On the first morning I limped down to the lakeshore, where the cold night air and the remnant summer heat of the water conspired to create these beautiful dancing mists on the surface. The weather was beautiful all weekend, and once the warmth of late-morning took hold, Cindy even got to try out her new paddleboard, gliding across the sometimes choppy waters with her friends while I watched from afar. As for the fall colors in the area, surprisingly it seemed a bit early and the area probably didn't peak for another week or so.

Although there are no gold aspen trees in this view, it is clear that autumn has taken root in the golden tundra vegetation on...
Mount Bierstadt Golden Tundra

The following weekend we headed up to Guanella Pass, and apparently found the entirety of the human race that had decided to do the same thing. Aspens down lower were very pretty, but my favorite fall scene was the glorious gold of the tundra vegetation below Mount Bierstadt and the Sawtooth Ridge. I'm also a sucker for brooding, dark clouds, so I hit the jackpot for this scene.

shrine pass, snow, tundra, forest, horizontal
First Snow in a Montaine Forest

At six weeks post-op I was able to move pretty much independently, and I had my six-week follow-up appointment with my amazing orthopedic surgeon in Vail, so I took the opportunity for a solo outing in search of autumn gold. I headed up the day before my appointment and was lucky enough to arrive at the tail end of the season's first dusting of snow. In this scene near Shrine Pass, the sun started to break through the clouds as snow still clung to pine boughs, all surrounded by the fall colors of the forest floor.

An early-season storm begins to clear, and reveals craggy peaks of the Gore Range dusted with the season's first snow.
Clearing Autumn Storm

The storm soon departed, and in its wake the craggy peaks of the Gore Range began to reveal themselves. I've been photographing fall in Colorado for multiple decades, and I will often keep my powder dry at home before I venture into the mountains before they've had their first blast of winter, so the snow on these remote high peaks was a welcome sight.

Stormy conditions grip the high peaks of the Gore Range as rich afternoon light provides a warm glow to the forests below.
Late-Afternoon Autumn Light

Once upon a time I could go almost anywhere in Colorado during fall and have the place to myself, but in this day and age it's hard to find solitude in places that once upon a time were not on social media's well-beaten path – Kebler Pass, Maroon Lake, or just about anywhere in the greater San Juan Mountains complex. Since I had to be in Vail for my appointment the next morning, I headed up to the Piney Lake area not far from town, to see what the area had to offer for aspen gold. I had never searched for autumn photos around here before, and quickly found myself rewarded with many stands of stately aspen trees mingling with the pine forests below dramatic peaks that were just dusted by the passing storm. As an added benefit, I didn't see another photographer either on this evening, or the following morning.

Dramatic sunset light creates a spectacular dichotomy between foreground cliffs and the dark, brooding mountains beyond.
Sunlight & Shadow

The dramatic weather meant I didn't have to include fall colors in the photo to make an interesting image. The shifting clouds provided a very dynamic scene with lots of contrasting and rapidly changing lighting conditions.

Morning clouds hover over summits of the Gore Range as lush autumn gold leaves on aspen trees provide a seasonal counterpoint...
Aspens & Stormy Peaks

I camped near Piney Lake and listened to the rain and snow move back in overnight. The furnace in my camper was very welcome, as this was the first truly cold night I had spent out since before summer.

fall, gore range

After exploring some of the area in the morning, I had a decision to make – head to places familiar, or go somewhere that I've not had much experience photographing fall colors? I decided on the latter and headed to the mountains of Utah. I arrived at the Alpine Loop Road well after dark, so I had no idea if my choice was a good one or not. I picked a place to camp and went to bed, hoping for the best in the morning.

alpine loop, fall, utah, horizontal
Predawn Fogbank

Well before sunrise I looked down into the lower valleys and was delighted to see some fog wafting through. A promising start!

Earth shadow and a kaleidoscope of fall colors below North Timp and Bomber Peak. In this scene aspens and maples compete for...
North Timp Predawn

As the eastern sky began to fill with light, it was clear that I had made a good decision to come to Utah.

North Timpanogos, a prominent subpeak of the mighty Mount Timpanogos massif, sports a fresh dusting of snow above hillsides resplendent...
North Timpanogos & Autumn Maples
Bomber Peak and North Timpanogos rise above stunning red maples and gold aspens as fall colors hit their stride in the Wasatch...
North Timpanogos with Maples & Aspens

Colorado does a bang-up job with gold aspens and snowy peaks, but with the addition of red maples in Utah's mountains, it just hits different.

An extraordinary autumn color palette along the Alpine Loop.
Color Riot #2
An extraordinary autumn color palette along the Alpine Loop.
Color Riot #1

Some of the forest details were outrageously colorful!

alpine loop, fall, utah, horizontal
Timpanogos Autumn Morning

The peaks surrounding Mount Timpanogos have a much different character than what I'm familiar with in Colorado. And the kaleidoscope of colors! Wow!

On an otherwise cloudless day, a cloudbank left over from early morning valley fog hugs the lower slopes of mighty Mount Timpanogos...
Mount Timpanogos Autumn Panorama

Once I had my fill of the Alpine Loop Road, I headed down to the lower valleys to see if the fog was still hanging around. To my delight it was clinging to the slopes of Mount Timp, creating a seasonal counterpoint above and below the cloudbank – a scene that would repeat itself a few days later back in Colorado.

guardsman pass, wasatch, mountain, aspen, horizontal, fall
Guardsmen Pass Aspens

Later that morning I headed up to Guardsman Pass, which was pretty, but crowded, with lots of restrictions regarding where you could park and walk.

fall color, mount nebo, nebo, nebo mountain loop, utah, horizontal
Mount Nebo Aspens

I ventured south to the high point of the Wasatch Range around Mount Nebo, where I spent the night just off the Mount Nebo Loop Road and photographed the changing aspen forests on its flanks the next morning. Then it was time to head home and scoop up my wife and head back out.

Gold aspens interspersed with snowy conifer forests along the Taylor River in the Sawatch Range.
Fresh snow & Aspens

We didn't have to wait too long for snow to move into the mountains, which, as I mentioned before, is preferable to fall aspens and brown, snow-less peaks. Cindy and I headed out with the intention of being in Mexican Hat, Utah, for the full lunar eclipse, leaving early enough to photograph a few prime fall locations along the way for a few days. We came over a very snowy Cottonwood Pass and headed down the Taylor River Canyon, which showed some promise.

A mix of aspens and pines weather the season's first substantial snowstorm near Crested Butte.
Crested Butte Autumn Storm

We drove towards Crested Butte, and the snowstorm was performing quite mightily in the mountains around town. After the tense, icy drive over Cottonwood Pass, I was wondering if my idea of popping up and over Ohio Pass and then down to Gunnison was even feasible. One way to find out!

kebler pass, tacoma
Home on Wheels

I've driven the length of the 32-mile Kebler Pass road more times than I can count, and mostly during fall, but I had never been on this dirt road with this much snow. I took one look at the spur road that left the Kebler Pass road and headed for Ohio Pass, and all I saw was deep, untouched snow. I decided Kebler was a much more reliable route than Ohio, and locked my truck into four-wheel-drive and headed on.

The high peaks are hidden by clouds, but the combination of gold aspens and snow-covered pine forests makes for a beautiful scene...
Kebler Pass Clash of Seasons

I could have stopped every 10 feet to take a photograph, it was so beautiful and such a unique scene.

Heavy, wet snow falls in the mountains surrounding Anthracite Creek.
Above Anthracite Creek
Anthracite Creek flows through a patchwork of forest species along the Kebler Pass road.
Along Anthracite Creek

Coming down the far side, the colors along Anthracite Creek, and the snowy peaks trying hard to reveal themselves, made for some very beautiful photo ops.

Mount Sneffels catches the last rays of the setting sun while vivid colors both above and below compete for attention. The scene...
Autumn Sunset Reflection

Ultimately we broke out of the storm as we veered south, and aimed for the Sneffels Range. I knew of a beaver pond that is often dry by autumn, but found it to have just enough water remaining in it to make some reflection photos at sunset.

An explosion of color in the skies over Dallas Peak and the Sneffels Range casts its glow on the vibrant forests of the Dallas...
Autumn Sunset

Then again, with colors this good, who needs a reflection?!

sneffels range, horizontal, mountain, fall, colorado
Morning Cloudbank

The next morning Cindy and I made plans to meet our friend Jason for breakfast in Ridgway, but as we made our way back to the highway I saw some misty atmospherics playing out to the north, and it looked like something interesting might happen if I waited a little bit. My hunch paid off, as a ribbon of clouds formed along the breadth of the Sneffels Range.

A fogbank drifts past peaks of the Sneffels Range on a sunny autumn morning. This cloud continued to grow and shift across the...
Morning Cloudbank

Jason was farther away from Ridgway than we were, so I had time to watch the scene play out.

Morning clouds converge on the Sneffels Range. The high peaks hold snow from storms that passed through the area the preceding...
Clash of Seasons
A cloudbank forms along the flanks of the Sneffels Range on an autumn morning. We were camped at the very base of the mountains...
Winter Above / Autumn Below (Panorama)

Much like I had experienced days before around Timpanogos, the fogbank provided a perfect separation of seasons. I love rapidly changing scenes like this, and could have kept shooting all morning, but the call of Kate's Place in Ridgway was getting louder and louder!

Hiking up North Table Mountain reveals a colorful autumn landscape in the neighborhoods below.
A Very Colorful Neighborhood

After our lunar eclipse journey we hung around home for a few days, and on a hike up North Table Mountain here in Golden to help rehab my knee, the colors were just spectacular. The next morning I returned with my camera and tripod to memorialize the scene.

Colorful autumn cottonwoods line the banks of a usually dry wash as oddly shaped sandstone formations rise beyond.
Courthouse Wash Cottonwoods Panorama

Our next trip took us to Utah, where I had always wanted to time it just right to see (and photograph) the cottonwoods in Courthouse Wash in Arches National Park wearing their best autumn attire. Mission accomplished!

Despite its red rock country desert environment, Capitol Reef is intersected by they Fremont River, which provides enough moisture...
Cottonwood Gold Below The Castle

Same goes for the cottonwoods in Capitol Reef, the next stop on our tour of Utah.

capitol reef, fall, utah, nps, vertical, cottonwood
Autumn Cottonwood

The combination of golden cottonwoods and dramatic sandstone spires was a sight to behold. Some of my favorite images from this trip didn't involve fall colors and are not included here, but you can find them in my Utah gallery.