Fall Á La Fielder

To discover Colorado’s finest autumn splendor, follow the state’s most famous photographer to Ridgway.

September 2013

“The Sneffels Range is one of the most glorious mountain ranges in Colorado,” says Fielder, who’s photographed 28 of them but calls the craggy Sneffels Range his “beloved.” One of the few ranges to run east-west, Sneffels “catches remarkable side lighting, so you can shoot at both sunrise and sunset,” Fielder tells me, graciously sharing trade secrets. “That side lighting promotes a golden glow made possible by the aspens’ translucent leaves,” he says, “and it also casts shadows on the trunks’ boles to create remarkable depth.”

If Fielder’s descriptions weren’t already catnip for aspiring shutterbugs, the ease with which his favorite photo ops can be accessed will be. Three county roads leading out of the nearby town of Ridgway provide amazing access to the best vistas. I don’t even have to strap on a backpack; instead, I can drive right up to the money shots. And after cramming entire mountainsides onto a memory card, a short roll downhill to Ridgway’s compact grid of streets delivers me to a locally distilled shot of whiskey that’s sure to chase away the chill.

Although I’d hoped to bring other amateur shooters with me, my usual travel companions could not reconcile nature’s spontaneous transformation with their work calendars. So when October’s colors hit peak, I heeded their call alone. After all, autumn’s short-lived displays wait for no boss save Mother Nature herself. Armed with leaf-peeping reports from the Uncompahgre National Forest office, I drove south from my home in Steamboat Springs and checked into the Chipeta Solar Springs Resort.

Located on the edge of Ridgway’s downtown, this adobe inn promotes serenity with fragrant cedar paneling and saline hot tubs that overlook the knifelike San Juans. The New Mexican decor is a little worn, but you’ll find afternoon cookies, lemonade, and cozy sofas in the lobby—a solarium teeming with 12-foot-high cacti and burbling waterfalls. On my first day there, I woke in the predawn darkness, drove a few blocks north for chicken-fried steak and eggs at the Cimarron Cafe, and then headed for aspen-land as the horizon began to lighten.

I followed Ouray County Road 5, also known as Girl Scout Camp Road, a gravel byway that departs right from town. Over the first few miles, I passed fenced meadows and ranchettes as the road climbed into the hills, but at milepost seven the character changed from residential to remarkable. Nearing the border of Miller Mesa, the road overlooks a broad valley where green meadows and amber leaves soften the foot of stony Mt. Sneffels. And conveniently, a large dirt pullout provided a place to park the Subaru.