The beginning of October marks the peak of the fall season in Wyoming. The state’s aspen, cottonwood and other trees are full of color, and the snowstorms that typically blow the leaves from their branches haven’t settled in.
There are plenty of places to see the best of Wyoming’s fall foliage this year, and nobody knows this better than professional photographers looking for the best shots of the season. At the peak of the fall color season, some of the state’s best outdoors photographers share their secrets of where and when to go find the best fall colors.
I’m Going To Jackson
When looking for Wyoming’s fall colors, the easiest place to start is Jackson. It’s fortunate that one of the best places to see fall colors has some of the most beautiful vistas in the United States.
Many Wyoming photographers told Cowboy State Daily that probably say the best place for an image full of fall color is Oxbow Bend outside Moran. The location at the bend where Mount Moran reflects in the water is a famous spot for photographers. But much of Grand Teton National Park can present a spectacular backdrop for fall colors.
“The Oxbow Bend of the Snake River is pretty awesome,” said Daryl Hunter, a photographer out of Jackson. “It’s a classic spot, the favorite spot.”
Hunter literally wrote the book on photography in Jackson, publishing “The Grand Teton Photography and Field Guide” in 2014. He makes finding the best fall colors a constant effort, so he never settles at Oxbow Bend.
“I do a lot of driving until I find something that’s shining,” he said. “Searching and finding is part of the fun.”
Many photographers keep their favorite spots secret, but Hunter shared one that would please anyone looking for an iconic shot of color in the Tetons.
“There are some places up off Flagstaff Road outside (Grand Teton National Park) just above the Hatchet Ranch. You have to drive five miles up a US Forest Service Road to get there. That’s one of my favorite places because you get the Grand Tetons in the back.”
For anyone who doesn’t want to stray too far from Jackson Hole, Hunter recommends the red of the maple trees throughout the area and he thinks the cottonwoods at the iconic Snake River Overlook should reach their peak soon.
Dave Bell in Sublette County has a simple rule he uses to find the best fall color.
“Where's there's water, there's trees. And this is the time of year to go see them,” he said. “The Green River is brilliant right now, and the New Fork River is the same. I’d bet that the major rivers, from the Greybull River to the Wind River, have brilliant displays of cottonwood gold right now.”
He also has a favorite spot near Jackson he calls the Wheatfield. It’s a somewhat removed location between the Jackson Lake Lodge and the South Entrance of Yellowstone National Park.
“The grass in that area grows to 3 or 5 feet tall. It looks amazing with the golden aspen trees behind it,” he said. “There are no signs leading you there, but anyone can find it.”
Bell has several “top spots” throughout the state. His recommendations include the area surrounding the Flaming Gorge area near the Utah border, South Pass, the Upper Green River and the legendary Aspen Alley west of Encampment and just north of the Colorado border.
“There’s so many good spots,” he said.
Yellowstone’s Red And Gold
Tim O’Leary makes multiple trips to Yellowstone National Park and across northwest Wyoming from his home in Cody, and he says it’s a good year for color, especially in Yellowstone.
“The Lamar Valley is fabulous,” he said. “The cottonwoods bring you some great colors. There’s aspen in Lamar as well, of course. I think the best part of Lamar is between the Northeast Entrance and the Yellowstone Institute. That stretch of road has a lot of color to it.”
O’Leary also recommends Sylvan Pass, although taking a chance to capture color on the high-altitude road risks getting caught in the snow.
“There’s a lot of oranges and reds around Sylvan Lake, especially on the little island. That gets a lot of color,” he said.
Anyone looking for more than yellow in Yellowstone can take the loop through northwest Wyoming for more color. O’Leary usually finds good shots at the Wapiti Ranger Station in Shoshone National Forest and “The Holy City,” a rock formation along the highway between Wapiti and Yellowstone’s East Entrance.
“Those areas have a lot of orange and red rock,” he said. “With the aspen around them, they really pop with color.”
Quality And Brevity
The current fall season is a mixed bag for many. While there is plenty of fall color, it’s not as spectacular as some were expecting. Hunter is admittedly “bummed” after visiting some of his go-to spots.
“I expected a more robust autumn this year because we were so wet. But it’s been a bit odd because the trees are losing their leaves early,” he said.
O’Leary noticed the same thing at some of his go-to places in Yellowstone.
“I’ve seen some trees that are already missing leaves,” he said. “Not sure what brings that on, but the colors are good overall. We're definitely reaching our peak now.
The peak of the fall color season in Wyoming is usually the last days of September and the first days of October. But seeing and capturing the color are different concepts, and capturing requires effort and planning.
“Morning is always better than the evenings because you have the good morning light,” Hunter said. “Plus, it’s the rutting season, so there are several places you can find elk around early in the morning and right before dark.”
Bell agrees that timing is essential and that it's running out.
“Everything moves really fast,” Bell said “You’ve got maybe a week, depending on what Don Day’s weather system brings to us this weekend. But it’s changing quickly.
A Good Time, Not A Long Time
As for the weather, Cowboy State Daily meteorologist Don Day said the mild weather of late summer and early fall means many trees are still hanging onto their leaves.
“So far this season, we have not had a big storm that’s taken the leaves off,” he said. “We have not seen any big snows in the central and southern parts of the state. That means there are a lot of leaves on the trees.
“There are two things: elevation and latitude. The colors in the northern part of Wyoming are going to change earlier. The next week or two is going to be the peak in the higher elevations. The lower elevations can extend deeper into October.”
Just because the fall color season could be extended doesn’t mean it will be. Day thinks anyone who has a desire or a plan to see fall colors needs to get out and go.
“In my experience, the first week of October is the opportunity you want to take a drive and go see them,” he said. “After that, you’re really rolling the dice. One storm in October can not only take off the leaves at the higher elevations but also make it difficult to get up those mountain roads.”
There’s wet weather in the forecast for Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks for the weekend, but nothing too serious. The first weekend of October could bring the first of the storms powerful enough to end the fall color season this year.
Many autumn enthusiasts are already out and about, savoring the season while it lasts. Bell, Hunter, O’Leary, and others are taking every shot and encouraging all Wyomingites to get some color in their lives for the moment it’s there. Soon, the only color in the landscape will be white.
“The leaves are brilliant right now. I don’t know what they’re going to look like after this week, but right now, they are something,” Bell said.