September, 2014 – Continuing our journey south through Colorado, we left the rugged Black Canyon of the Gunnison and traveled on to the classic Rocky Mountain town of Ouray (pronounced “you-ray”).
This tiny town of just 1,000 people is tucked into a valley that is nestled in the clouds at nearly 7,800 feet, and it is surrounded on all sides by mountain peaks that soar into the sky.
We first discovered Ouray fifteen years prior to this year’s visit on a tent camping trip long before we were RVers. We promptly fell in love with the town and the entire area around it.
We hadn’t been back since that first visit, and we were delighted to find that not much has changed.
Even the barista at the cute coffee shop and chocolatier called Mouse’s Chocolates & Coffee confirmed that in the dozen or so years she’d been in town things have remained pretty much as they were.
That’s a rare thing in the popular western states, and it’s a good thing there hasn’t been a huge press for growth, because there is absolutely no room for this town to grow.
Sheer mountains frame every view in every direction, and the streets on the edges of town turn sharply upward.
The town fills the whole little valley, and the town’s dirt streets that are away from the main drag are wonderful proof that progress is taking its time here.
Settled as a base for miners working the thirty or so gold and silver mines in the nearby mountains, Ouray was home 1,000 residents way back in 1877 too.
From 1887 until 1930 the Denver & Rio Grande Railway brought people and goods to and from Ridgway 10 miles to the north.
Today the town boasts beautiful architecture on the main street with wonderful Victorians dotting the view.
For us and for many fall visitors, the real draw to Ouray, which many call the “Switzerland of the Rockies,” is the stunning visual drama of the fall foliage season.
Two years ago we attended a photography workshop in the Ridgway/Telluride area put on by the incomparable Nasim Mansurov of PhotographyLife.com, a massively popular website.
At the workshop we were blown away by the brightly colored aspen that blanketed the mountainsides beneath the gray craggy peaks on the Dallas Divide.
Nasim is a very unusual person. Born and raised in Uzbekistan, he is gifted with that special kind of charisma and leadership ability that have ensured him a massive following (in the hundreds of thousands), not just for his photography blog but in past years when he led an online forum dedicated to Central Asian students studying abroad. To see just how unique he is, read his inspiring essay on why he traded a hugely successful corporate career for a simpler life doing what he loves. As you enjoy his eloquent writing, note that English is his second language!.
When we discovered he was offering his fall foliage workshop in the Ouray area again this year, we rearranged our travel plans to get us there in plenty of time.
Mother Nature did not disappoint.
When we arrived in Ouray, the mountains were on fire — not with smoky wildfires but ablaze with the brilliant reds and golds and oranges that transform Colorado’s aspen trees in autumn.
Arriving a few days ahead of time, we eagerly explored the spectacular scenic drive that heads south from town on Route 550.
After negotiating a series of incredibly steep 180 degree switchbacks that made us feel like we were driving skyward into a kaleidoscope of yellow and orange, the road skirted some very sheer cliffs and delivered us to Crystal Lake.
This small lake was as still as glass in the morning hours, and we circled around the entire body of water, checking out the awe-inspiring views from every vantage point.
I’ve become very fond of photographing reflected images in mirrored water, and I’ve made the most of the scenes we found in Grand Teton National Park Wyoming and Maroon Bells Colorado.
Crystal Lake gave us the same kinds of fun photo ops and totally delighted us both.
The mirror images of the white clouds hovered on the surface of the water while the rocks that were totally visible on the bottom showed their faces through the crystal clear water too.
The golden aspens had just started to color the shoreline, and as the weeks went on during our stay, all the hillsides around the lake soon took on a bright yellow and rich orange hue.
A few straggling wildflowers were still blooming at the water’s edge. I’m sure if we’d been there a few weeks earlier they would have been even thicker.
The spectacular fall foliage season in Colorado is hardly an unknown phenomenon, and we found ourselves in plenty of company as we repeatedly drove this jaw-dropping drive over the coming weeks.
From iPhones held out car windows to photographers with huge cameras and tripods, everyone was out and about taking photos in the abundant sunshine and even more abundant color.
As the road climbs into the mountains, taking one tight switchback turn after another, the views into the valleys become ever grander.
Not far from town we came across a couple standing on a bridge.
I did a double take as we passed because the guy was holding an umbrella.
Looking closer, I saw he was holding it over his wife’s head as she painted the river scene in front of her with oil paints and canvas on an easel.
It is crazy, but this is something like the fourth or fifth time we have run into “plein aire” artists painting out in nature this year.
From Phoenix, Arizona to Sun Valley, Idaho, to the Tetons we keep stumbling upon artists happily recreating beautiful landscapes on their easels in nature.
I joked with the woman that she had found herself a very special husband if he would willingly stand next to her and hold an umbrella over her for hours on end, keeping her shaded while she painted.
“Isn’t he lovely?” She agreed. “I’m very lucky!”
And he didn’t seem to mind one bit.
The fall colors in Colorado can easily awaken the most artistic feelings in even the least sensitive soul, and we got caught up in the excitement of Nature’s vivid display along with everyone else.
Cars were pulled over at one hundred yard intervals for miles along the highway, and we scampered around the meadows with all the others, scoping out one magical scene after another.
Mark created a beautiful image of an aspen reverse-silhouetted against blackness, and I found the most amazing ready-made still-life with colorful leaves lying on a log.
I didn’t put any of it in place there, honest!
The scenery was so majestic it was intoxicating.
Caught up in the thrill, Mark suddenly grabbed two aspen leaves and held them over his eyes.
“Take my picture!” He said.
I laughed as I got his pic. What a goof-ball.
But that’s the kind of silliness and joy this place inspires at this time of year!
The host “hotel” for the PhotographyLife.com fall foliage photography workshop this year was the KOA campground in Ouray.
Nasim and his wife Lola are enthusiastic RVers, and they set up camp with their young family in their beautiful new 38′ Cougar fifth wheel trailer.
Other attendees came in assorted RVs, and many stayed in the KOA camping cabins as well.
The campground common room was quickly transformed into a lecture and seminar room, and people loaded down with eye popping photography gear of all kinds began to assemble.
The weather in the mountains at this time of year is very unpredictable, and Nasim deftly got everyone out onto the spectacular forest roads in the area when the sun was shining and brought the group back indoors for lectures when it rained.
The mottled skies made for some beautiful photo ops, and no matter how many times we drove in and out of town or up and down the forest roads, our eyes were riveted on the gorgeous scenes all around us.
The trees seemed to change even as you looked at them, fading from lime green to the lemon yellow and darkening from yellow to a rich orange hue as the hours and days passed.
This is an incredible area for an autumn RV road trip from late September through early October. There are several RV parks in Ouray in addition to the KOA. Just 14 miles away, lovely Ridgway State Park has hookups and sites for bigger rigs. For more information, visit these links:
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Related posts about Colorado’s spectacular fall color and where to see it:
- Brilliant Fall Foliage + Snow in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado 11/22/16
- Colorado’s San Juan Skyway – An RV Trip in Dazzling Fall Color! 11/18/16
- San Juan Mountains Colorado – And then it Snowed! 11/14/14
- RV Trip on Colorado’s Million Dollar Highway – Ouray to Silverton 11/02/14
- Colorado GOLD – A Fall Foliage Photography Workshop 10/21/12
- Ridgway, CO – Peak fall foliage on the Dallas Divide – WOW!! 10/19/12
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