It’s a heck of a time for a drive up Buffalo Pass. The road can be rough, and it's closed on weekdays, but there are few better places in Routt County to really enjoy the changing of the leaves.

Photo by Joel Reichenberger

It’s a heck of a time for a drive up Buffalo Pass. The road can be rough, and it's closed on weekdays, but there are few better places in Routt County to really enjoy the changing of the leaves.

Buffalo Pass one of Steamboat's autumn gold mines

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Shooting toward the sun can make the already-vibrant colors of fall glow even more.

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It doesn't happen all at once. Some of the aspens on Buffalo Pass have gone for gold while plenty more still are clinging to their green.

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Don't set a time limit on a fall-colors excursion. Instead, take time to enjoy the details, like a rotting log covered in bright yellow leaves.

— The Flat Tops Trail may be the pre-eminent way to soak up Routt County’s fall colors. It’s a long and beautiful drive, starting near the town of Yampa and winding on mostly dirt roads intermittently through tightly packed aspen forests and wide-open yellow and orange valleys.

I didn’t expect to find anything better Thursday, when I was hoping to plot a new great fall drive for Routt County peepers. As I set out to check a series of distant waypoints — Routt County spots I’ve grown to love this time of year and others that were a bit more speculative — I was entirely unsure what I would find.

An hour after setting off from Steamboat, my great loop became a severely truncated out-and-back because Buffalo Pass Road is closed soon after Summit Lake thanks to logging of beetle-killed trees. Magellan I was not.

I didn’t stop in front of the tremendous and often-photographed U.S. Highway 40 Rabbit Ears Peak vantage point, where a grove of aspens is so perfectly placed it seems like it was planted by a wise photographer.

I didn’t check out one of my favorite corners of color, a triangle of aspens tucked inside a crevice of the canyon just north of Oak Creek, and I didn’t hike up Tepee Creek to a thick patch of aspens that has lingered in my memory since I first hiked that trail years ago.

Instead, I had many of the best lessons of fall color spotting and autumn photography thoroughly reinforced.

Go with the flow

The road’s closed — oops — but that’s far from the end of the day. (Buffalo Pass Road is open from 5 p.m. Friday through 7 a.m. Monday but closed through the work week, so the grand loops of your own invention are possible with a little planning.)

So much about this season can be about the great sweeping panoramas of splotchy golden vistas. Just as much can be about the details, but it takes some time to focus on those. A trip up Buffalo Pass can yield plenty of wide views and intricate details.

A fall foliage car trip is best planned when there’s no specific time to be back because half the fun is rolling down some small side road or getting distracted or spending 45 minutes in the golden palace that is an aspen thicket this time of year. Along those same lines, simply putting things on pause can be a great way to enjoy it all. Don’t hurry off to the next checkpoint. Stop, stand and stare. Sometimes, entirely new ways of looking at a view can appear from seemingly nowhere.

Turn around

Not only did having to turn around reinforce basics such as “go with the flow,” it also served as a reminder of how important perspective can be when it comes to soaking up premium views. I rattled and rolled all the way up the bumpy Buffalo Pass Road, then all the way back down. I stopped several times on the way up and at several different places on the way down — almost an entirely different experience.

Checking in the rearview isn’t enough. If you’re on a one-way trip, it’s worthwhile to stop, get out and simply soak up the landscape you just drove past. Maybe there’s nothing new, but frequently there is.

Backlight is beautiful

The first rule of photography these days should be “don’t forget your memory card.” The second could be “shoot with the sun at your back” (except in the case of sunsets). Of course, there’s a time and place to break all the rules — except the memory card one — and fall can be a great time to break the sun-at-your-back one. Nothing sets the orange and yellow trees off quite like the sun beaming down behind them. Trees simply can glow in those situations.

A drive up and down Buffalo Pass may not go down in the grand annals of mountain adventures, but the early fall colors already are breathtaking, and a hop in the car reveals more layers to the majesty. On a blue-sky day with that welcome bit of fall already nipping, it definitely will be one of those experiences residents and visitors should take a moment to savor, even if only as an afternoon jaunt.

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com

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