Best Places for Photography in Colorado
Whether you’re interested in capturing wildlife or landscape images, photography in Colorado offers endless opportunies for nature photographers.
With more than 50 mountain peaks exceeding 14,000 feet, 4 national parks, 8 national wildlife refuges, 42 state parks, 11 national forests, and a plethora of county and city parks, photographers have more than 8.3 million acres of public land to explore and capture in pixels.
Colorado, nicknamed the Centennial State because of its incorporation 100 years after the birth of the United States, encompasses 8 different ecosystems each with its own diversity of wildlife, flora, and landscapes.
From the alpine tundra of the Rocky Mountains to the wide-open grasslands of the eastern plains, Colorado’s diversity is unlike most other states.
Each season offers unique photo opportunities in Colorado, with winter stretching out for many months in most of the state.
Summer can either be hot and dry at lower elevations or only a few short but colourful weeks at higher elevations. No single visit will check off all of the photo opportunities – this list is meant as a guide for nature photographers.
It covers a variety of the best and most accessible spots in different corners of the Centennial State for landscape and wildlife photography.
Colorado National Monument
Located in Grand Junction near the Colorado-Utah border on the state’s western side, this 20,500-acre park preserves cliffs, mesas, and canyons in the northeast corner of the Colorado Plateau.
Since the natural features of the Colorado National Monument run north to south, the towering monoliths, red rock walls, and formations of eroded sandstone create dramatic scenes at sunrise or sunset.
The best way to view the park is to drive the 23-mile Rim Rock Drive – the only paved road in the park. Tracing the edge of the park, the drive includes 19 pull-outs, giving any photographer ample options for scenic views of the red rock formations.
You will also notice the Colorado River, Grand Valley, and Grand Mesa filling the scene beyond the canyons.
This dry, desert landscape can be harsh for wildlife, but the monument is home to golden eagles, rock squirrels, and desert bighorn sheep. This smaller cousin of the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep thrives in this landscape, bounding up the steep canyon walls.
Any time of year can work for photography in Colorado National Monument.
The desert bighorn sheep give birth in February making late winter and early spring an ideal time to photograph lambs.
Winter weather, although rare in this desert landscape, occasionally drops snow across this red land, creating an interesting juxtaposition. May and June see vibrant greens scattered throughout the monument, bringing colour to the farms of nearby Grand Valley.
While in the area, check out other photo opportunities like the Book Cliffs, Grand Mesa, the farms in Palisade for peach blossoms (in late April), and the autumn harvest in the nearby vineyards in early September.
Be sure to have a wide-angle lens to capture the landscape’s vastness. A mid-range zoom works well for photographing the bighorn sheep and zooming in on detailed features of the sandstone formations.
Read more: Golden Hour Photography – A Landscape Photographer’s Guide
Rocky Mountain National Park
There are whole books dedicated to photographing this iconic national park. This is mainly because of the scenic views, an abundance of backcountry trails and wildlife, dark skies for astrophotography, and easy-to-access photo hotspots.
Due to these reasons, any visit to Colorado must include a stop at this popular destination. But, it is a popular park — approximately 4.4 million people visited in 2021 — making planning ahead a necessity, especially in the summer and autumn.
Although any time of year provides excellent photo opportunities, summer and early autumn offer the most access to the park.
Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuously paved road in the U.S. and the only road that traverses the park, is open from Memorial Day Weekend to about the middle of October (weather permitting).
Without this road open, a drive from the east side of the park near Estes Park to the west side by Grand Lake takes about three hours.
Large herds of elk and a growing population of moose live throughout the park. Calves for both species are born in late May and early June and can be found near the alpine lakes, like Sprague Lake (above), and in the meadows, including Moraine Park.
As the summer heats up, the elk move to higher elevations on the tundra. Moose will stay in the willow bottoms and riparian areas where they feed on willow leaves most of the summer.
As the temperatures cool down in late August, the elk will move back to the meadows for their autumn mating season. Look for them in Horseshoe Park, Moraine Park, Beaver Meadows, and Kawuneeche Valley.
For those looking for scenic photos, take the short one-mile hike to Dream Lake for sunrise. The hike, which starts at Bear Lake, takes about an hour and photographers should arrive at the eastern edge of the lake about 30 minutes before sunrise.
Sprague Lake, Bear Lake (below), and Lily Lake all offer iconic mountain scenes at sunrise or sunset. All three have easy, gravel trails around the lakes.
Finally, plan a sunset photo shoot featuring Longs Peak, the tallest mountain in the park at 14,259 feet. Trail Ridge Road offers the most accessible locations, with Rock Cut and Gore Range Overlook providing perfect views.
Rocky Mountain National Park has a timed-entry reservation system in place from Memorial Day Weekend to the third weekend in October. Reservations become available on the first day of the month preceding the month of the reservation.
Read more: Nature Photography Guide to Rocky Mountain National Park
Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge
The San Luis Valley in south-central Colorado is a high-elevation basin — much of the valley sits above 7,000 feet. It is surrounded by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east and the San Juan Mountains to the west.
The area, which is home to the headwaters of the Rio Grande River, also sees an abundant migration of sandhill cranes and other waterfowl each autumn and spring.
The spring migration is more predictable and photographic. Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, which is located on the southwest portion of the San Luis Valley about 20 miles west of Alamosa, is the favourite spot in the valley for the migrating birds in March.
It has nearly 15,000 acres of wetlands and marshes that provide prime feeding and resting areas for more than 25,000 sandhill cranes. The mountain range to the west creates an optimal background for environmental portraits of the cranes in the expansive habitat.
There are a few crane viewing areas in the refuge, including along East Country Road 8 on the south side of the refuge and at the ponds on Colorado Highway 15.
If the atmospheric conditions align (a warm day followed by a cold night), a morning shoot at these ponds may produce a scene of ducks swimming through surface fog backlit by the morning sun.
Drive along South County Road 3 for more environmental scenes of duck-filled ponds in the foreground and the peaks of the San Juan Mountains to the west.
Watch for cranes flying in from the north or south as they travel past the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. This refuge is one of the few areas where cranes can be framed in flight against the snowy peaks (above).
A long lens, such as 500mm or 150-600mm, is necessary to capture images of the cranes and ducks.
For the environmental portraits, use a mid-range zoom, like a 100-400mm lens, to compress the scene and make the mountains feel more impressive in the photograph.
Read more: What’s the Best Lens for Wildlife Photography?
Great Sand Dunes National Park
While visiting the San Luis Valley, head over to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.
Colorado’s most recently designated national park, Great Sand Dunes is home to the tallest dunes in North America, with Star Dune and Hidden Dune both topping out at 741 feet.
Located 35 miles to the northeast of Alamosa, Great Sand Dunes has become a photographer’s paradise for its autumn colours in early October, summer sunflower blooms in late August, night photography during the summer, and the running of Medano Creek in spring.
Late May through late June sees Medano Creek swell with snow runoff. Chunks of ice collect higher up the creek – when they break free the flow creates waves through the water.
Because the creek runs through the sand and is easily accessed behind the visitor centre, the scene turns into Colorado’s version of the Jersey Shore.
Visitors bring boogie boards, beach chairs, and umbrellas to bask in the warm Colorado sun and play in the tepid waves.
In 2019, Great Sand Dunes became certified as an International Dark Sky Park.
Take the astrophotography camera gear — tripod, remote shutter, fast wide-angle lens, and a camera body with high ISO capabilities — and hike out to a dune to capture the Milky Way over the rippling sand.
Read more: How to Use Foreground for Better Star Photos
Mount Evans Recreation Area and Scenic Byway
Mount Evans is Colorado’s 14th tallest mountain at 14,271 feet. It is one of the easiest to reach the summit thanks to a 28-mile paved road (the highest paved road in the U.S.) that wraps around the mountain to a parking area 141 feet from the summit.
A trail leads up the remainder of the mountain to “bag” the peak.
Sunrise or sunset presents amazing views from a variety of vantage points along the road. Start by catching the sun as it crests the horizon from the Mount Goliath Natural Area parking lot.
Protected for the 700 – 1600-year-old bristlecone pine forest at this elevation, the natural area also has a cultivated garden of high-alpine plants, the highest cultivated garden in the U.S.
The bristlecone pine trees make interesting foreground subjects for landscape photographs.
As the road continues higher, the trees fade away and visitors are transported into the alpine tundra.
Here American pikas, yellow-bellied marmots, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, mountain goats, coyotes, elk, and weasels thrive in what seems like a harsh environment.
Stop at Summit Lake to look for mountain goats and bighorn sheep. Follow the trail to the Chicago Lakes Overlook where the steep drop-offs clear the view into the basin for dramatic photographs of Gray Wolf Mountain.
Alpine wildflowers are abundant in this area in July.
Follow the road for another four miles, pulling over occasionally into a pull-out to take in the views and scan for wildlife.
Sunrise and sunset from the top offer views of nearby Mt. Bierstadt to the west, South Park to the south, and a sea of peaks to the north and west, all bathed in the warm light of the golden hour.
Located just one hour west of Denver, Mount Evans will take your breath away with its high elevation and dramatic views.
Keep in mind this is a high-altitude region where thunderstorms can be dangerous, weather changes quickly and signs of altitude sickness should be taken seriously.
Weather permitting, the road is open from Memorial Day Weekend to Labor Day Weekend but closed periodically for bike races. A timed-entry reservation is required to drive this road.
Summit Lake requires an additional fee, which can be paid at the parking lot.
Read more: Top Tips for Photographing Wildlife From a Car
Crested Butte and Gunnison National Forest
Quintessential Colorado is what you will find in the Crested Butte area. If there is only one place to go to capture the essence of Colorado, then Crested Butte is it.
In summer — from late June to early August — the mountain meadows in Gunnison National Forest explode with colour.
Starting with the lupines in late June, transitioning to paintbrush, columbine, and other colourful varieties in July, ending with an assortment of golden-hued flowers and the showy pink fireweed in late July and early August.
There is no end to the wildflower photo opportunities in this region.
The town of Crested Butte holds a wildflower festival in early July for those seeking an organized and streamlined exploration of the nearby photo hotspots.
For those up for an adventure, travel Slate River Road, Gothic Road, Kebler Pass Road, and Washington Gulch Road (all of which are dirt roads) to find meadows reminiscent of the flower fields in ‘The Sound of Music’.
Crested Butte is also a dream location for photographers seeking autumnal colours bathing Colorado’s mountains.
Peaking the last week of September and the first week of October, the aspen forests create an unbelievable number of shades of orange, yellow, red, and gold across the mountainsides.
Kebler Pass Road in particular has many lovely stands as well as some beaver ponds for creating an appealing composition. Ohio Pass Road also offers a delectable array of photo compositions.
Stretching from Gunnison to Crested Butte, this scenic drive includes cattle ranches, The Castles rock formation, and winding dirt roads flanked by stands of golden aspen.
Read more: How to Photograph Wildflowers
Pawnee National Grassland
Although the high elevations of the Rocky Mountains are what most photographers envision when they think of the ideal Colorado photo, the eastern plains also have their fair share of scenic opportunities.
Pawnee National Grassland is one of those places, and as a bonus, this area gets a lot less traffic than the more crowded mountain regions.
Located 35 miles east of Fort Collins sits more than 193,000 acres of shortgrass prairie in a 30 by 60-mile stretch of wide-open habitat.
A checkerboard pattern of private and public land provides a wide array of subjects — from wind farms and cattle ranches to undisturbed prairie and the iconic Pawnee Buttes.
The Pawnee Buttes are two prominent geologic features that jut out 300 feet from an otherwise flat landscape.
In late May and early June, if Colorado has had a wet spring, the wildflowers surrounding the buttes create a perfect foreground for the distant buttes at sunrise or sunset.
In particular, the yucca plants, with their long, sword-like leaves, bloom with a cluster of large white flowers on the tall centre stalk.
The prickly pear cactus also blooms at this time of year. Look for healthy plants, with large green pads and yellow or vibrant pink flowers near the buttes to frame the plant in the first third of the composition.
Afternoon storms created by the summer monsoon season can also present dramatic landscape photographs on the Pawnee National Grassland. Thunderhead clouds, strikes of lighting, ominous skies, rainbows, and pouch-like mammatus clouds that form as storms dissipate generate powerful images.
Wildlife is abundant on the grassland but is most active at dawn and dusk to escape the heat of the day. Pronghorn antelope, mule deer, coyotes, prairie dogs, jackrabbits, and the rare swift fox call the prairie home.
The Pawnee Loop, part of Colorado’s Birding Trail, is a scenic drive through the native grassland taking visitors past some of the best birding locations.
Spring and autumn see an abundance of birds migrating through this habitat. Many seasonal birds nest on the Pawnee National Grassland in summer, including burrowing owls, mountain plovers, longspurs, horned larks, and the lark bunting, the state bird of Colorado.
Read more: Landscape Photography Settings for Cloudy Days
Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge
One of Colorado’s 8 national wildlife refuges, and one of the largest urban wildlife refuges in the U.S., sits just 10 miles east of downtown Denver.
The 15,000 acres of shortgrass prairie at Rocky Mountain Arsenal became a national wildlife refuge after a bald eagle nest was discovered on the property in 1986 – when bald eagles were on the Endangered Species List.
They found the nest during a clean-up of a former chemical weapons plant. After a substantial environmental clean-up of the property, the Arsenal opened to the public in 2004.
Today the refuge is home to more than 300 species of wildlife, including a growing herd of bison, mule deer, white-tailed deer, black-tailed prairie dogs, raccoons, skunks, and the endangered black-footed ferret.
A wide array of birds also visits or reside in this area, including burrowing owls, great horned owls, a variety of hawks and falcons, horned larks, American avocets, and bald eagles.
With a mix of cottonwood stands and wide-open prairie, sunrise and sunset are ideal times here for photography.
As the sun rises, sunlight bathes the distant Front Range of the Rocky Mountains in shades of pink and purple. Sunset light adds a warm glow to the wildlife scenes of deer and bison.
Running from early November to early December is the autumn mating season for the abundant deer at the refuge. The period creates the most dramatic photographs as the bucks chase the does and challenge other males.
Visit in winter during or after a snowstorm for a chance to photograph bison covered in white flakes.
Follow the popular 11-mile auto tour route to the north or west sides of the refuge. This will provide an opportunity to compose a bison in front of the Denver skyline and mountains, using a long lens to compress the scene.
Take home that iconic shot of Colorado showing all the state has to offer — prairie, urban, foothill, and mountain habitats.
Colorado offers a lifetime of photo opportunities — from the wide-open plains of the eastern grassland habitat to the high peaks of the Rocky Mountains.
Each ecosystem has its own set of wildlife, plant life, and unique views for dramatic photos, grand landscapes, and intimate wildlife portraits.
Most people don’t visit just one place in Colorado but rather make it a Colorado trip, dividing their time up between a few destinations throughout the state.
Keep in mind that many mountain roads close in winter and planning ahead is important for a summer visit.
Colorado’s popularity as a tourist destination has required many places to implement reservation systems for entry. And camping goes quickly for the most popular locations, sometimes within minutes of opening!
With a little pre-planning and flexibility, a trip to Colorado will lead to many more visits to explore and capture in photos the diversity and scenic beauty of the Centennial State.