Guide to the Best Fall Color Photography Locations in the San Juan Mountains

Autumn in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado is a breath-taking experience. And, this experience is not just due of the gorgeous shades of yellow, orange, russet, and red; but, it is also due to the dizzying heights and winding roads you must travel. Here is a guide to help you find the best fall color photography locations in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, near Ridgway.

Guide to the best fall color locations for photographers

Your guide to finding the best fall color locations is ready for download here. It is in PDF format and will print out nicely so that you can take it along with you on your leaf-color tours. For each location, you will find specific directions and notes, plus CAUTIONS you should keep in mind on your journeys, such as road and trail conditions, where to park, and navigation landmarks.

Okay, with all that out of the way, here is a preview of the locations covered in the guide.

Around Ouray

It is not for naught that Ouray bills itself as Switzerland of America. Rugged peaks surround a gem of a town. And, autumn brings pilgrims seeking the best leaf color in colorful Colorado. Around Ouray are some scenic locations great with and without fall color. Plan on visiting Box Canyon Falls, Baby Bathtubs Trail, Amphitheater Campground, and Cascade Falls.

Cascade Falls is visible from all over town. You can see it emerging from the rocks in the lower right of this photo, taken from Highway 550 above town. It is one of the best fall color locations in the San Juan Mountains.
Cascade Falls is visible from all over town. You can see it emerging from the rocks in the lower right of this photo, taken from Highway 550 above town.

Highway 550 – The Million Dollar Highway

Highway 550 from Ouray to Silverton routinely makes the worldwide top-ten list of scenic roads—and the list of the most dangerous and scary in Colorado. It is also the easiest access to the best fall color locations in the state.

To the photographer, the highway offers layer-cake cliffs, U-shaped glacial valleys, cirques, red mountain slopes, gaudy boulders, ancient calderas, sweeping curves, panoramic vistas, avalanche chutes and shelters, ghost towns and mining ruins, aspen groves, mountain lakes, and some of the cleanest air in the United States.

Highway 550, or the Million Dollar Highway, from Ouray to Silverton routinely makes the worldwide top-ten list of scenic roads—and the list of the most dangerous and scary in Colorado. The “Million Dollar” designation technically only applies from Ouray to Red Mountain Pass, but, hey, we won’t be so picky. It is one of the best fall color locations in the San Juan Mountains.
Highway 550, or the Million Dollar Highway, from Ouray to Silverton routinely makes the worldwide top-ten list of scenic roads—and the list of the most dangerous and scary in Colorado. The “Million Dollar” designation technically only applies from Ouray to Red Mountain Pass, but, hey, we won’t be so picky.

Some of the stops along the way to Silverton include: Lookout Point, Bear Creek Falls, the Double S-curve, Crystal Lake, Ironton ghost town, Idarado Mine complex, Red Mountain Pass, FS 825, and Chattanooga ghost town.

Once in Silverton, visit Christ of the Mines Shrine and Hillside Cemetery.

standing in an alcove of colorful local rocks that provide an aura. It is called Christ of the Mines Shrine. It is one of the best fall color locations in the San Juan Mountains.

Past Silverton, but still on 550, be sure to pull off the road and take a look at Little Molas Lake, Molas Overlook near Molas Pass, and Andrews Lake.

Cutler Creek Road – CR 14

County Road 14 provides a scenic, if bumpy, ride through autumn color. Along the route enjoy the mountain views, a racing creek, and breathtaking aspens.

Along Cutler Creek Road

Highway 62

Highway 62 runs west from Ridgway. Along the way, the snowcapped Sneffels Range backstops authentic Western ranches. Off this highway you will find four of the most productive fall-color routes anywhere, plus a spectacular viewpoint. They are: CR 5 (Girl Scout Camp Road), CR 7 (East Dallas Creek Road), CR 9 (West Dallas Creek Road), Dallas Divide (pull off), and the Last Dollar Road.

Hay bales along Highway 62

Ridgway State Park

Ridgway State Park is a triple blessing for photographers: a convenient base of operations, a scenic and wildlife-rich area, and a viewpoint for distant mountain ridges. Wildlife includes 140 species of resident and migratory birds, deer, elk, big horn sheep, moose, marmots, black bears, bobcats, and mountain lions. At sunset, views from Elk Ridge Campground and the Visitor Center Overlook are sublime.

Teepee at Ridgway State Park

Owl Creek Pass Road

The Owl Creek Pass road has what the fall photographer needs: every leaf color possible; picturesque ranches and stunning vistas; jagged, serrated, and fluted ridges; volcanic towers, spires, and chimneys; the setting for a classic John Wayne movie; wildlife; and the occasional cattle drive.

Russet oaks and golden aspens lead the eye up to the snowy Cimarron Mountains as seen from Owl Creek Pass Road near Ridgway, Colorado. It is one of the best fall color locations in the San Juan Mountains.
Russet oaks and golden aspens lead the eye up to the snowy Cimarron Mountains as seen from Owl Creek Pass Road near Ridgway, Colorado.

Specific areas and points-of-interest include the ranch zone, oak forest, Vista Point, views of Mt. Sneffels and the Cimarron Ridge, aspen groves, Katie’s Meadow (from True Grit), Owl Creek Pass, three forks of the Cimarron River, Silver Jack Reservoir, and Beaver Lake.

A Reminder

One more time … download the PDF Guide to the Best Fall Color Locations in the San Juan Mountains before you head out to these locations. In it you will find directions, GPS coordinates, photography notes, and cautions. Notice the revision date at the bottom of the Guide. As I find errors and omissions and make additions, I will upload a new version of the document.

Additional Resources

In addition to the PDF Guide, here are links to two Google maps: One for the Ouray area and another for the Ridgway area. All the points listed in the Guide are on these maps, plus many more. It is my planning map for when I go to Ouray. Enjoy!

Ridgway area:
https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=zxytoCjVKsz0.kJcTn2u-C5-0&usp=sharing

Ouray and Silverton area: https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=zxytoCjVKsz0.kyP7NFKPBlQ4&usp=sharing