To discover Colorado’s finest autumn splendor, follow the state’s most famous photographer to Ridgway.
I felt something like déjà vu as I stepped out of the car and hiked a footpath that revealed more unobstructed panoramas. I’d seen these compositions before, captured by Fielder and others, though their familiarity hardly dimmed their beauty. Taking in the display with my own eyes was like encountering a live tiger after having only seen one on the Discovery Channel.
The yellow leaves looked electric in the morning light, and huge patches of them filled my viewfinder. It was as if every bulb in a billion-light marquee had been switched on. A photographer with a tripod had set up on the hillside below me. He sipped from a travel mug, as if waiting for some cue to start shooting. Thinking the light might improve even more as the sun crept higher, I hopped back in the car and continued down the road another mile. There, I found more thrilling views and more photographers installed along the hillsides. Joining the firing squad, I shot a few frames of my own, then resumed my drive. The road soon entered an aspen forest that formed a tunnel of yellow around my car. After experimenting with scores of enticing angles, I headed back down the road toward Ridgway for phase two of my fall-color quest: a carless, boot-powered immersion into autumn.
My goal was to see the Blue Lakes, reputed to be some of the prettiest in Colorado thanks to their proximity to Mt. Sneffels. Getting to the hike required another scenic drive, this time on County Road 7 (East Dallas Creek Road), which begins 5.5 miles west of Ridgway. This wide gravel road climbs for 14 miles through scrub oak and skirts an open meadow that deserves its own choir-of-angels soundtrack: Here, a winding creek parts seas of aspens and leads the eye right to the base of Mt. Sneffels. The sun was too harsh for grand photography, but I snapped a few pictures out of sheer exuberance and then drove another mile to the Blue Lakes trailhead.
The route to this trio of high-alpine water holes begins among pines. Their dark green boughs collect aspen leaves, which sprinkled down around me after each soft breeze. The climb was steep at times; I gained 750 vertical feet before reaching Lower Blue Lake, 3.4 miles from the start. Here, icy winds rolled down the shoulders of Mt. Sneffels, which looms above the steely blue water. Middle and Upper Blue Lake sit even higher and require another .75 miles of hiking, but lacking a jacket, I opted to retrace my steps and was surprised to discover the trail’s best views. While climbing, I hadn’t noticed the vistas unfolding behind me, but headed downhill I soaked in far-ranging views over a green-and-gold patchwork of aspens and pines.