Ridgway is a five-and-a-half-hour drive from Denver, but the fall scenery is worth the trip.
PLAN John Fielder’s Best of Colorado details scenic drives around Ridgway. $32, rei.com
INQUIRE Call the Uncompahgre National Forest’s Ouray District Office for fall-color reports and projections. 970-240-5300, fs.usda.gov/gmug
DRIVE The Colorado Atlas & Gazetteer is essential equipment for every road-tripper. $20,shop.delorme.com
STAY Chipeta Solar Springs Resort, from $145/night, 304 S. Lena St., 970-626-3737, chipeta.com
DINE Cimarron Cafe, 153 Highway 550, 970-626-4426, thecimarroncafe.com; Kate’s Place, 615 W. Clinton St., 970-626-9800, katesplaceridgway.com

Winter was doing its best to elbow autumn off the stage as I parked beneath Mt. Sneffels, grabbed my camera from the passenger seat, and stepped onto the dew-soaked grasses lining the dirt road. A fresh dusting of snow highlighted the fourteener’s every scar and dimple, and the air bit like November. Yet this was early October, when the leaves near Ridgway, Colorado, typically turn gold. As their fiery glow gave the illusion of warmth that morning, I aimed my lens at a swath of aspens that looked like matchsticks in dawn’s first light.

Many of Colorado’s most recognizable autumn images have been captured here, on the northern edge of the San Juan Mountains where Mt. Sneffels’ treeless pulpit towers over congregations of aspens. Those flocks of yellow amassed beneath granite faces have long attracted legions of photographers, including the state’s best-known landscapist, John Fielder, who ranks this spot among his favorite autumn destinations. Aspens grow all across the West, and their fall foliage is stunning virtually everywhere—but few places equal Sneffels for a dramatic backdrop.

“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.

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.

Back at the car, I steered into town and grabbed a late lunch at Kate’s Place. Virtually everything served in the cafe is made in-house and the quality ingredients transform lunchtime standbys into sublime meals. I wolfed my house-roasted turkey breast on French bread, then shoved off for the evening segment of my tour: County Road 9 (West Dallas Creek Road), which looks like the entrance to Ralph Lauren’s private ranch (the weathered wooden gate reads “Double RL”) but is actually a public thoroughfare that leads to rolling country covered with aspens.

Five miles west of Ridgway, CR 9 snaked through the most idyllic ranchlands I’d ever seen. Fields of cut hay looked like raked Zen gardens, cows foraged for grass on sagebrush-covered hills, and rustic log fences zippered through golden meadows. The dipping sun cast a sultry red glow on the aspens that covered the hillsides, effecting a radical change in mood from the morning’s earnest yellows. Above it all, the serrated edges of the San Juans framed the scene in granite.

The view from CR 9 included more of Sneffels’ neighbors, yet still the peak stood out, and not just because of its 14,150-foot height. Its symmetry made it regal. Mother Nature may have chiseled its neighbors indiscriminately, but Sneffels received more care. A landscapist couldn’t ask for a more dramatic centerpiece on autumn’s table, I thought as I pressed the shutter button.
And then I put the camera down and let my eyes capture the whole glorious scene, a landscape too vast and too beautiful for any viewfinder to encompass.