Insider Secrets to Capturing the Colors of Colorado
One of the nicest things about living or visiting Colorado is that it has great year-round scenery. Blankets of snow on our highest peaks give way to colorful wildflowers, which then yield to stunning fall colors and finally back to the winter snowscapes.
Colorado’s wildflower season lasts several months, starting with the pasque flower, which shows up around Easter. Often times even poking up from under a late snow, the appearance of these sturdy purplish blooms means spring is finally here. A few weeks later, more wildflowers start to appear, with flowers at lower elevations blooming first followed by higher elevations into late summer. Some flowers continue to bloom all the way into September, barely getting out of the way for the fall colors season. As a photographer and hiker, a long wildflower season presents almost endless opportunities for great treks and photos. And, as you can imagine, I have preferred locations to see and photograph Colorado’s wildflowers. Although not an exhaustive list, and certainly not the only places you’ll find wildflowers, these are my favorite places.
In the Colorado Springs area, Red Rocks Canyon Open Space, just off U.S. 24 on the border between Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs is a treasure trove of prickly pear cactus blossoms. Varying in color from pale yellow to pink—and sometimes both colors—you can find cacti in the southwest part of the park, along the Sand Canyon Trail. Park near the west end of the first parking lot, and hike the Contemplative Trail to the Sand Canyon Trail and then turn right and continue towards the back of the park.
Cactus blossoms usually show up in late May and last into mid-June. You can also find some mariposa lilies, a beautiful flower that may bloom as a white, yellow, or pale to deep blue or purple if you hike toward the far southwestern part of the park, near the Intemann Trail. If you’re driving up the Pikes Peak Highway, it’s easy to be focused on just getting to the top and miss some nice sights along the way. For wildflowers, one of the best places on Pikes Peak is the Crow Gulch Trail, just a few miles from the Pikes Peak Highway gate. Look for the Crow Gulch picnic area on the right side of the road. Park there and take the trail that cuts off to the left. You don’t have to hike too far to run into some nice patches of wildflowers mixed in with aspen trees, later in the summer. In the fall, this trail is also a nice place to find great colors.
Hartenstein and Ptarmigan Lakes on Cottonwood Pass, west of Buena Vista and Grizzly Lake near the St. Elmo ghost town southwest of Buena Vista, are not only great hikes, but in late June and early July you’ll often find them surrounded by beautiful marsh marigolds. Colorado’s state flower, the columbine, and its less common tiny cousin, the red columbine, can often be found in nearby higher elevation streams and lakes. These mountain lake hikes are moderate in difficulty and at 7.5 miles round trip, Hartenstein Lake is the longest of the trio. One of the consistently best places in the state to find wildflowers is on Shrine Pass just east of Vail. Best in late July and early August, the Shrine Pass Road that starts just off I-70 at the top of Vail pass is a nice drive with great views and plenty of wildflowers, many right on the roadside.
For the best views and photographs, you’ll want to hike up to Shrine Mountain. A moderate 5-mile round trip hike, the entire trail has many different types of wildflowers and once at the summit, you can get the iconic views of vast expanses of wildflowers and high mountain peaks in the distance. If you only get to shoot wildflowers once while in Colorado, this is the place to do it. Colorado’s “quaking” aspens bring a beautiful gold to our mountains, parks, and towns each fall. While there are a smattering of oaks and maples in Colorado, the aspens reign supreme.
There is no shortage of places to see aspens in their full fall glory, but these are my favorite places for fall colors viewing, photos, and hikes. North Cheyenne Canon Park on the west side of Colorado Springs doesn’t have a lot of aspens, but it does have a multitude of other colors, thanks to a concentration of oaks, maples, and other trees and shrubs. Park at the entrance of the park and take the Lower Columbine Trail. This area is best for tighter, close-up photos of fall colors, instead of big vistas.
Mueller State Park, on Highway 67 between the towns of Divide and Cripple Creek, has a great combination of hiking trails and fall colors. In fact, all of Highway 67 is wonderfully colorful during the fall season. My favorite trails in Mueller are the Cahill Pond, Cheesman Ranch, and Buffalo Rock trails on the north end of the park. They are easy to moderate trails and offer views of Pikes Peak, lots of aspens and the old buildings at the Cheesman Ranch site. Nearby Dome Rock State Wildlife Area is another great place for fall colors, especially the moderate to difficult Willow Creek Trail.
About 20 miles north of the crossroads town of Fairplay on Highway 285, Kenosha Pass is another great place for fall colors. The Colorado Trail crosses over the pass, providing plenty of hiking opportunities. Start with these places and then branch out on your own and discover your favorite places. Happy Trails!