I’ve heard a lot about the Ouray area, but I have to start by recommending that you stay in Ridgway. It’s a beautiful area, and more central than Ouray, Telluride, or the other population centers in the area.
We stayed at the Ridgway Lodge, and it was great - the kids loved the pool, and it had a fridge to accommodate my odd hours and snack requirements. The staff was awesome.
If I go by myself, I’ll camp at Ridgway State Park. Camping is a challenge with little kids, but is a ton of fun. Camping for a sunrise/sunset photography trip is extra challenging, so I usually only do it when the kids stay home. That's okay, but when they're a bit older I think they'll love the adventure it brings.
Wildflowers! Check out Yankee Boy Basin for an incredible show of flowers. It requires some hiking, and lots of rough roads - but it's worth every jarring second once you see the views!
Waterfalls are at their peak in early summer, and provide a beautiful feature in your shot. There are a ton of waterfalls around - Yankee Boy Basin, Ouray, and just off the dirt roads all over the county.
Trees are at their peak color for just a few days, so flexible timing is key. Usually, the peak is at the end of September, but it can range by a couple of weeks on either side.
Mountain scenes are perfect at this time of year. They're particularly spectacular off of Last Dollar Road and County Road 7 and 9. Truly, and drive around the area is bound to witness incredibly vistas and color.
Ice climbing is very popular, and can provide some great shots. Try to get above or below the climbers to give some perspective.
Hot springs provide a nice contrast and a nice steam layer in the morning.
Traditional mountain locations also work well in the winter - overlooking Ouray, Dallas Divide, and Crystal Lake are all gorgeous in the winter. Aim for blue skies and wispy clouds - either at golden hour slightly brighter. Intense sunrise/sunset colors tend to crush the landscape in the winter.
Where to shoot
Maggie’s Meadow - about a half mile below Owl Creek Pass - from which I took my photos of Chimney Rock. There were a dozen photographers there the night I got my pictures, and we were still too early for prime colors. It’s easy to find the right location, as there is ample parking and a wide open view from an otherwise vacant dirt road. With several angles on the huge scene in front of you, get creative and see the various options before you select your favorite.
Above Owl Creek Pass, you can get a wider angle shot of Chimney Rock, with a forest of trees and an incredible scene of rolling hills. The angle requires sunset, since you’ll end up with a lot of sky. Make sure you go when there are some clouds.
County Road 5-7-9
Incredible views, on awful roads. I hope they’re never improved, because if the masses can get there, the solitude will disappear quickly.
County Road 7 was my favorite - by far. About 6.8 miles from the highway, the road turns left and opens up a wonderful view of the valley towards Mt Sneffels. I loved this shot, and spent quite a bit of time here. When I got home, I found that a coworker had a very similar photo on his wall. It's a gorgeous location, and returning is high on my list.
After another mile, stop and shoot the mountains from the bottom of the valley you were just looking at. If you hike out just behind the fence, you can get a nice foreground in the shot, too.
CR 9 was filled with great views, too. We drove it twice - once in mid-afternoon, and once at sunset. While sunset didn't work out for us, it wasn't for the lack of views. The ranch land provides a nice foreground (I've seen it with cattle and hay bales), or you can drive a few miles further and get a more traditional mountain frame.
Last Dollar Road
Tough drive, but worth it. Even the kids agreed. I stopped many dozens of times, and got incredible photos from all angles. It was such an incredible drive, we did it twice.
I don't have many specific shots on this drive, but on the south side of the road, near the pass, there are incredible views. Get out of the car and walk around a little bit to find different angles. I have nearly a dozen shots from this area that are either on the site or ready to cycle through when I need a change of inventory.
Incredibly beautiful town in the Rockies, with even better views. In the winter, they have great skiing, too.
Some of my best shots from this trip came from Trout Lake, just south of town. We almost skipped it, but I'm so glad we didn't. Shoot over the lake from the western side.
Yankee Boy Basin
The prize of the summer - I’ll have to get back to you on this one though, since it was inaccessible during my trip. I hear that it's incredible, and I'm tempted to learn how to ride a dirt bike to get the best access!
The parking lot doesn’t have the views of the traditional Dallas Divide shot. That’s actually in a different location - and requires some trespassing to get to. It’s not legal, and I won’t recommend it.
There are still incredible views of Mt Sneffels and the rest of the San Juan range. It’s a great location at both sunrise and sunset. I walked west a few hundred yards to shoot down the fenceline at sunrise, and shot straight over the parking lot fence at sunset.
Million Dollar Highway
Wow. Start here on any drive. From Ridgway to Durango, this drive is worth every second. For much of it, there simply is no way to capture the beauty in a camera lens - but that shouldn’t stop you from trying.
Some of my favorite photos are of simple mountain peaks without much consideration for composition. They’re not all commercial winners - but they make me happy and remind me of an incredible day.
Crystal Lake was great at sunrise - the lack of clouds was disappointing, the color was still incredible. I left the kids at the hotel one morning, and they were jealous of my pictures and made me promise to take them along the next day. They were cold, but very happy with the scenery - and that’s at 2 and 4 years old. There aren’t many places that can hold kids’ attention like that!
Switzerland of the Rockies, and is a quaint mountain town. Complete with western shops, jeep rentals, and a brewery, it was a nice stopping point and had everything you need. It has some nice hot springs (though we didn’t partake), and enough souvenir shops to keep anybody busy (or running away).
It’s a cute town, so try to get a shot here at sunrise if the mountains aren’t cooperating. Sunset can work too, but there is a lot more activity to navigate.
In addition to the gear in my camera bag, here’s the critical list of things to bring:
Vehicle - a 4x4 is best, for many of the incredibly rough roads, but any vehicle with reasonable clearance does a good job. Sedans will have limited access on some roads, and you may want to look into renting an ATV, depending on your goals.
Macro Lens - If you’re around for wildflower season, don’t be afraid to get down low and take close-ups! This isn’t my style of photography, so check out Ken Rockwell's recommendations.