Article Contributer Ben and Jenna Thomas
Colorado has a weird relationship to seasons. Sometime summer temperatures show up in January, followed the next day by a blizzard; occasionally it snows in May; and there is rarely a Halloween where it hasen’t either been below freezing or over seventy degrees. In Denver, it always seemes like the warm, lazy days of summer instantly turned into dark, snowy dredge of winter. If Fall made an appearance that was more than a couple of days, it was in the mountains.
Although it’s brief, Fall in the Colorado mountains is the greatest. Temperatures have cooled down; the weather is stable enough to spend all day outside without getting caught in afternoon thunderstorms; it’s a shoulder season tourism-wise, so the crowds are mostly gone, AND there are deals to be found. But most of all, the leaves, they are a-changing! In Colorado, that means the aspens turn GOLD. Seeing the aspen colors at their peak in late September/early October is a lifetime must do.
Below I’ve outlined the ultimate Colorado leaf-peeping road trip. It covers the entire state, with each leg of the trip hitting the biggest and best aspen groves. Unless you have been saving vacation days or are (f)unemployed, you may not have time for the whole trip. But take on any of the individual legs for a day or weekend while the leaves are changing, and you will not be disappointed.
Each leg of the road trip includes a bonus hike as an option so you can check out the beauty up close and stretch your legs a bit. The driving is all on highways, so any passenger car should be able to handle it, no four-wheel-drive necessary. Without further ado, let’s get rolling!
LEG 1: DENVER TO VAIL
via Rocky Mountain National Park and Steamboat Springs –
Drive-time: 7.5 hours
We’re starting off with a bang. Leaving Denver, enter the mountains through Golden Gate Canyon State Park. This little state park outside of Golden is a great quick escape into the foothills and offers more aspen viewing than nearby Clear Creek Canyon when heading west out of the plains. Eventually you’ll hit the Peak to Peak highway, heading north through Nederland to Estes Park and the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. Enter the park and head up Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved road in the lower 48. Trail Ridge takes you up and over the Continental Divide, rising up through pine and aspen forests to way above treeline; giving you uninterrupted views of the changing trees all the way over Colorado’s most famous national park. Once out of the park, you’ll head west over Rabbit Ears Pass to Steamboat Springs, taking the scenic route down back south behind the Gore Range. Once you hit I-70, head east to Vail and enjoy the Colorado alpine town in all its golden splendor
Bonus Hike: Bierstadt Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. Make the most of your park entrance fee in Rocky Mountain National Park! Views stretch back into Glacier Gorge toward the Continental Divide and Longs Peak.
LEG 2: VAIL TO CRESTED BUTTE
via Aspen and Carbondale
Drive-time: 6 hours
This leg is the best of the best. Don’t get me wrong, everywhere on this list is spectacular, but the combination of Vail, Independence, McClure, and Kebler Passes might be beauty overload. Each pass alone could be a weekend (or week-long) trip. But here they combine to form leg two of our ultimate fall road trip. The driving distance on this leg is a bit shorter, but you’ll want every second to stop for photos and soak in the magnificence.
Head east on I-70 over Vail Pass and enjoy the huge aspen stands all the way up and over to Copper Mountain. Exit the highway at Copper and drive over Fremont Pass to Leadville and its mega-views of Mount Massive and the top of Colorado, Mount Elbert. Leadville was almost named the capital of Colorado and it’s a historic, atmospheric place to stop and walk around. When you leave, take CO-24 south to Twin Lakes, turning west onto CO-82. Here, heading up and over Independence Pass, the aspens go into overdrive, conveniently dropping you off in aptly-named Aspen. If you want to stop and hang out in Aspen for a bit, make sure to check out our Local’s Guide to Aspen for our favorite hikes, restaurants, and watering holes.
Once you are through with Aspen, drive on down the Roaring Fork Valley to Carbondale. Then, head south on CO-133 up McClure Pass and the dramatic Ragged Mountains. Stretch your legs at the top of McClure Pass in the aspen grove on the northwest side of the road. This place is magical; soak it in. Once you feel ready, head down to just past Paonia Reservoir and turn left onto CO-12. Saving the biggest (and some would say best) for last is Kebler Pass, home of the largest aspen grove in the state. Finish your day rolling into Crested Butte and celebrate with a pizza at the Secret Stash (and have an extra slice for me).
Bonus Hike Capitol Lake via the Capitol Ditch Trail. Lose some of the leaf-peeping crowds that flock to Maroon Lake and get surrounded by aspens on this beautiful 12 mile out and back. Heads up, the road to this trailhead requires high clearance (~7 inches) 4WD for the last mile.
LEG 3: CRESTED BUTTE TO PAGOSA SPRINGS
Via Silverton and Durango
Drive-time: 5.5 hours
Another shorter day drive-time wise, but that’s for good reason. You’re heading down to the western slope and then beyond into the San Juans, Colorado’s most dramatic mountain range, amplified by some aspen leaf beauty. Leave Crested Butte through Gunnison, west towards Montrose. Enjoy the views past Curecanti Reservoir and if you have time for a detour, check out Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. In Montrose, turn south onto US-550, enjoying the views of the Sneffels Range as it grows from distant tease to magnificent mountain crown! At Ridgway, stay on US-550 through Ouray up and over the Million Dollar Highway of Red Mountain Pass. BE CAREFUL driving this section! The mountains down here are steep and dramatic and sometimes the roads have to match. This is a paved highway, but there are long, steep drops just off the road; pay attention! Once you get to the top of Red Mountain Pass, the road calms down and the views keep ramping up driving into Silverton. Silverton and Ouray are small, quirky former mining towns revived by extreme sports (ice-climbing in Ouray, ultra-trail-marathons and backcountry skiing in Silverton). Either one is great to walk around before the next section of this leg.
Beyond Silverton, you’ll head up and over Molas Pass to Durango, with incredible views towards the Needle Mountains into the Weminuche Wilderness, the largest wilderness area in Colorado. Once you’ve reached Durango, head east on US-160 to Pagosa Springs, continuing your border around the Weminuche.
Bonus Hike: The Colorado Trail from Molas Pass to the Animas River. This hike is a little backwards, which makes it kind of fun. You’ll start at the top of Molas Pass and hike down on the Colorado Trail to the Animas River and the train tracks of the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge railway. On the way, you’ll pass into tree line, through aspens of course, with close-up views of the impressive Vestal Peak. It’s four miles down to the river, dropping 3,000 feet in the process. Remember, you’ll have climb all the way back up if you head all the way down to the river.
Bonus driving leg! Dallas Divide from Ridgway towards Telluride, CO-62. I wanted this road trip to be a true loop with no backtracking. That meant cutting off a couple of spots that didn’t quite fit. But Dallas Divide and Telluride are SO BEAUTIFUL in the fall, I have to at least mention them. If you have the time, the views in this area are well worth the effort to turn around and head back the way you came afterward.
LEG 4: PAGOSA SPRINGS TO DENVER
Via Salida, Fairplay, and Georgetown
Drive-time: 8 hours
From Pagosa Springs, head east past South Fork and into the San Luis Valley, the Rift Valley of North America. While you could take US-285 all the way to Salida through the valley, we’re gonna take the back way to just outside of Gunnison and get some extra leaf time. Then it’s east, up and over Monarch Pass to enjoy the view of towering fourteeners Tabeguache and Shavano on the way down to Salida. Head north all the way through the South Park Valley, checking off Fairplay and Jefferson and up Kenosha Pass. Kenosha Pass during peak color is one of the best, a fitting way to head back toward Denver.
But we’re not done yet! When you reach Grant, head up and over Guanella Pass into Georgetown (maybe hike Mount Bierstadt if you feel like tackling a fourteener). After Georgetown, briefly hop on I-70 until Idaho Springs. There you’ll exit for Squaw Mountain Pass, where you’ll get your last fix of aspen tree goodness before meeting up with the Interstate once again and finally heading back into Denver.
Bonus Hike: Colorado Trail from Kenosha Pass south toward Georgia Pass. Kenosha Pass in the fall is too pretty to pass up getting out and wandering in the trees a bit. Even better, the view through to the South Park Valley and Front Range mountains only gets more impressive when there are golden branches framing them up!
Bonus, Bonus hike! San Luis Peak between Saguache and Gunnison. If the weather is favorable, San Luis Peak is the most remote fourteener in Colorado. Combine that with fall climbing season, and you’ll likely have the mountain (mostly) to yourself. An awesome, class 1 trail—that of course gives you some aspens to look at on the way to the top—this 13 mile hike would be a perfect way to break up the claustrophobia of a long road trip (or a perfect destination/excuse for a trip to southwestern Colorado…).
Whew! There you have it! Twenty-seven hours of some of the prettiest driving in the world, literally! Fall is the most wonderful time of the year; now get out there and enjoy next Fall.