Telluride fall colors are some of the best autumn color displays in North America. An area saturated with aspen trees, Telluride transforms into a gold-leaf paradise during the fall season. The town’s old-west charm, dramatic peaks, and wild spaces put you in temporary seasonal hypnosis. I recently drove there from Chicago to spend three weeks exploring the famous mountain village, specifically to catch peak color and bring new fine art images to my collectors. A lot of planning and research went into this trip, but the first-hand experience gave me a better understanding of the entire area, and I’m excited to share.
The Town Of Telluride
Founded in 1878, Telluride became a popular spot among miners looking to strike it rich during the gold rush. Although the mountains surrounding Telluride didn’t contain a worthy amount of gold, other minerals such as silver, lead, zinc, and copper provided enough income to keep the town running in the early years. It has seen several transitions over the years. Sitting 8,750 feet above sea level, getting around town is challenging for those not accustomed to higher elevations. One road leads in and out of town, making it more of a destination than a pass-through town. With its growing popularity, Telluride is a four-season resort town with wonderful reasons to visit during each season.
Were To Stay In Telluride
Telluride has two main tourist areas. The main town spreads out in both directions from Colorado Ave, the town’s main throughway. Both sides of the street are filled with shops, restaurants, and art galleries. Hotels are scattered throughout the area. Hotel Telluride and The New Sheridan are found along Colorado Ave, while most of the rest are found at the mountain’s base by the ski lifts. Vacation rentals are growing in popularity in town as an alternative to hotels. Up-mountain, the Telluride Mountain Village, offers several resorts, hotels, and vacation rental options.
Telluride Mountain Village
Telluride Mountain Village is accessible by free gondola via downtown or by road stemming from Highway 145. At its center, the Mountain Village Core hosts art shows, concerts, and special events year-round. Hotels surround the center with excellent restaurants and shops to explore. Taking the free gondola is a must, regardless of where you decide to stay. A sunset ride up and down the mountain offers stunning views over the unique box canyon any time of year but is particularly beautiful during fall.
The Best Places To Explore Around Telluride
Once you have explored the town, the best places to see fall colors are in the surrounding mountains. Golden aspens explode in vibrant colors, turning the high country into a leaf peepers paradise. Starting in late September and going through early October, the cooler temperatures bring an amazing array of fall colors to southern Colorado. Using a fall foliage prediction map can narrow your window to hit the area during peak colors. As I saw during my trip, this time of the year, predictions are to be used only as a guide.
Driving Last Dollar Road
From town, Last Dollar Road is on your right as you exit and leads up to the airport. Despite its nasty reputation as a rugged dirt road, the portion of Last Dollar Road closer to town is paved. It is always a good idea to check weather conditions before heading off into the mountains because the weather changes quickly. In the lower elevations, much of the area is private. Be respectful of the residents and other motorists by pulling your car over fully off the road when deciding to take pictures. All along the road, incredible vistas look over the various mesas, making for one beautiful photo after another. This area is where you get the best-elevated views of greater Telluride.
Further up the road, things get more intense. I would not recommend continuing onto the dirt portion of Last Dollar Road unless you have four-wheel drive, moderate ground clearance, and experience driving in the mountains. The transition starts out relatively easy, but things get challenging quickly. In my opinion, the best views are from the lower portion anyway. For those capable and looking for a challenge, the road is a playground for backcountry exploring. Several great trails break off from Last Dollar Road, along with a few primitive camping sites along the way.
Home to one of the most iconic mountains in the world, Wilson Peak, Wilson Mesa hosts endless opportunities for iconic fall mountain photographs. Some of the area’s largest aspen groves lead into the towering snow-covered peak often used in advertising. As with most of Telluride, the lower elevations are private land, with owners begging tourists for privacy, including drones. Please follow the rules and don’t fly drones here. Not only does it annoy the residents, it also disturbs the wildlife. Be respectful.
The area is split into two sections joined by Hughes Road. To the east 60M or Silver Pick Rd, winds back and forth across the mesa. All along this road are some of the best landscape opportunities the area has to offer. To the west, a maze of winding, mostly private roads lead eventually to 57p Rd via Wilson Mesa Ranch Rd. At the end of 57p is Woods Lake Recreation Area. Of all the hiking I did in the area, the hike between the lakes leading up into the mountains along Fall Creek was my favorite. Arrive in the area early to catch perfect reflections across Woods Lake. If you are patient and a bit lucky, otters feed on trout in the morning light.
Lizard Head Pass
Heading directly south from Telluride is a portion of the San Juan Skyway along Highway 145. A scenic and historic byway leads to several incredible places to take in the fall colors. This portion of the road passes elevated overlooks, Ophir (famous for its wiggle aspens), Trout Lake, Lizard Head Peak, and Flattop Mountain. Some of the best trails and opportunities for breathtaking landscape shots can be found all along the way in the San Juans.
My favorite hidden gem of the area is Dunton Road. Follow this winding mountain road up to Dunton Meadows for quiet and peaceful sunsets, where you will most likely enjoy them alone. The meadow fills with a beautiful golden-yellow glow with panoramic views of the Rocky Mountains on all sides. This is a great place to let the dog run or enjoy a quiet, private camping experience.
A popular destination for tourists, Ophir’s wiggly aspens certainly draw a crowd. To protect the nature around them, I will only say they are between Ophir and Ophir Mountain Pass. Explore the area. There are some incredible hikes deep into the wilderness. The mountains are multicolored in sherbert hues. This area is my favorite for watching the sunset over Mount Wilson.
Because of its proximity to the roadside, the San Juan Mountain Scenic View on the Dallas Divide gets swarmed with tourist and photography workshops. If you are like me, you will want to run the other way. However, don’t let an opportunity to capture stunning Colorado fall colors go by the wayside. I found despite all the people, there were still plenty of compositions to be found. Move around the fence line a little. Try different telephoto lenses. The view from the parking lot is spectacular. Nail the shot, then go get lost in nature. That’s where Telluride is at its best.
Million Dollar Highway
Another portion of the San Juan Skyway, this appropriately named stretch of highway, traverses some of the most beautiful fall foliage Colorado has to offer. Spanning from Silverton to Ouray over the Red Mountain Pass, the Million Dollar Highway draws tens of thousands of visitors a year. The precarious stretch of the road has stunning views around every turn, so watch where you are going. Here, the risk is certainly worth the reward. When the weather turns cooler, be sure to enjoy the decadent hot springs in Ouray for a fall treat.
The Perfect Fall Day trip In Colorado
One day, I decided to head up towards Crested Butte from Telluride, taking the Kebler Pass around Grand Mesa from the west. This was one of the best decisions of my trip. I have never seen so many golden leaves in my life. Peak foliage set in, and every turn was more beautiful than the one before. Arrive early to beat the crowds. With this kind of natural attraction, people come from all over to see it. We had lunch in Crested Butte, then took our time driving back west. The view was equally spectacular heading west along the pass.
Important Camera Gear To Capture Fall Colors
- Tripod – If you are serious about landscape photography, having a sturdy tripod is a must.
- Circular Polarizing Filter – Attached to the end of most professional photographers’ lenses while capturing fall colors is a circular polarizer. This helps cut the glare down from the leaves and cuts down on environmental haze.
- Telephoto Lens – Having a telephoto lens will allow you to capture different details in landscapes that a normal wide angle can’t reach. Plus, you never know when wildlife may arrive.
- Lens Cloth – A clean lens is so important. Weather and dust happen, and a dirty lens will ruin any great photo.
- Extra Batteries – You don’t want to get to the end of your day and miss out on shots because the cold fall temperature drained your only battery.
Telluride Colorado’s Fall Colors Meet Winter
As a nature photographer, I love it when the seasons collide. Very few scenarios can beat beautiful fall colors covered in a blanket of fresh snow. This time of year, the weather is unpredictable. One day, you get 75 degrees and sunny, and the next, you get a blizzard. Be ready for both. I know this is a pain to pack for, but when the mountain tops get a fresh coating of white snow, you will want to be out to capture this. As soon as the snow starts to hit the forecast, go through all your favorite locations and pick one or two that are close. This time of year, the snow could disappear by noon in the warm sun.
Getting The Most Out Of Your Trip To Telluride
Colorado is a beautiful state. Towering mountains carved by endless creeks and rivers make for some of the best wilderness the United States has to offer. Do your research and plan some incredible days out exploring. Use this guide as a launching spot for your adventures. Book a long-term stay at a Telluride vacation rental. Immerse yourself in the town. Sophisticated dining meets taco food trucks all wrapped up in this once grungy mountain town. Thankfully still, anything goes, and it seems the residents of Telluride aim to keep it that way. I travel a ton. I see the world changing. Thankfully, the area around Telluride is undeveloped, wild, and free. Book your fall vacation or road trip. You won’t be disappointed.
Hello! I'm Derek.
DEREK NIELSEN PHOTOGRAPHY RAISES AWARENESS ABOUT THE GLOBAL NEED FOR CONSERVATION THROUGH PHOTOGRAPHY AND DONATES UP TO 15% OF ALL SALES BACK TO ENVIRONMENTAL ORGANIZATIONS AROUND THE WORLD.