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Home Road Trip 8 fall road trip itineraries for Colorado leaf season

8 fall road trip itineraries for Colorado leaf season

by Staff

Fall colors along Tigiwon Road near Minturn. (Jonathan Shikes)

September is here, and leaf-peeping season is just a couple of crisp nights away. Although Coloradans are spoiled living so close to this annual spectacle, it’s worth remembering that the golden and red (if you’re lucky) displays of aspen and other trees far surpass any other region of the country. So, it’s worth taking a weekend, a day, or even a few hours checking it out.

Not only that, but Colorado boasts other fall delights, from pumpkin patches and roadside peach stands to seasonal flavors in coffee, beers and restaurant dishes.

Here are eight of our favorite fall itineraries.

Autumn color lines a big looping turn on U.S. 550 south of Ouray, Million Dollar Highway, San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway, Colorado. Dan Leeth, special to The Denver Post file
Autumn color lines a big looping turn on U.S. 550 south of Ouray, Million Dollar Highway, San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway, Colorado. Dan Leeth, special to The Denver Post file

Ouray

Ouray is called the Switzerland of America, due in no small part to the towering peaks that surround this quaint town on the Western Slope. And like the Alps, these mountains get pretty chilly in the winter, which is why fall is a great time to don a flannel shirt and enjoy.

Start your adventure with a beginner-friendly hike at Box Cañon Falls Park, where you can see the namesake waterfall up close, alongside wildlife like hummingbirds and chipmunks. (Entry is $5-$7 per person.) Hikers looking for more of a challenge should climb up to Cascade Falls Park and then hop on the Perimeter Trail, which circles the entire town over the course of about six miles. The hike traverses exposed rock faces, forested areas and the iron-laden river that runs through town, offering continued variety and awe – especially when the leaves are changing color.

The Ouray Via Ferrata also remains open until Oct. 31 (weather permitting), as do guiding companies such as San Juan Mountain Guides, Mountain Trip and Cirque Guides.

Now that you’ve worked up an appetite, splurge for a meal at the newly renovated hotel, The Western, at 210 7th Ave., which is serving shareable appetizers and a delectable steak dish with a cheese-and-squash fondue for dipping. (A larger portion of the fondue will be offered as a seasonal side this fall.) On Friday nights, a trumpeter plays pop music covers to compliment the chic atmosphere. (Reservations recommended.)

Craving something more casual? Pop into Ouray Brewery, 607 Main St., where the burgers and beers (try a Silvershield Stout on a cold day) are as good as the view. Well, almost. — Tiney Ricciardi 

Fall colors are starting to peak ...
Fall colors were starting to peak on Kenosha Pass on Sept. 27, 2022 in Park County. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Crested Butte

Kebler Pass west of Crested Butte is one of Colorado’s top driving destinations for autumn leaf-peeping since it famously passes through the state’s largest aspen grove, lauded as one of the largest living organisms — and possibly the very largest — in the world.

Plan to drive the pass — a windy dirt road that nevertheless should be passable for regular cars — early in the day, so you can avoid traffic jams and land in town for happy hour and dinner. Rum fans will find paradise by the glass at Montanya Distillers, 204 Elk Ave., which makes four variations of the spirit to serve in flights and cocktails, including hot beverages on cold days. (Did someone say Rum Chai?) The company also offers tours ($10-$25) of its production facility located 10 minutes from downtown by car.

Do yourself a favor and make a dinner reservation at The Breadery, 209 Elk Ave. The restaurant serves a variety of pizzas that start with sourdough crust. Truthfully, anything involving bread – whether a panzanella salad or “fancy toast” with cantaloupe and prosciutto – will be a winner.

And if you have room for dessert, visit Tin Cup Ice Cream & Desserts, 313 3rd St., for a sweet finish. If you crave a liquid nightcap, the Talk of the Town bar, 230 Elk Ave., has you covered.

Crested Butte is surrounded by forest with plenty of dispersed camping, so if you plan to stay overnight, head north of Mount Crested Butte up Road 317 toward Gothic or west up Road 811 to find a spot. After seeing the starry night sky, you’ll be glad you did. — Tiney Ricciardi 

Fall colors along Tigiwon Road near Minturn, Colorado. (Staff photo/Jonathan Shikes)
Fall colors along Tigiwon Road near Minturn, Colorado. (Staff photo/Jonathan Shikes)

Minturn to Buena Vista

Looks can be deceiving in the Vail Valley where a Tesla-packed stretch of I-70 cuts through a forest of million-dollar ski condos and glitzy hotels. Hidden, almost out of sight, is U.S. 24, which can take you through the rougher-edged town of Minturn and along the outskirts of the Holy Cross Wilderness before winding its way up to 10,158-foot Leadville. It’s in this corridor where you can find some of the most beautiful views and stellar leaf-peeping in Colorado.

Start your day with a breakfast burrito from Northside Kitchen, 20 Nottingham Road, in Avon, or Benderz Burgers, 105 Edwards Village Blvd. in Edwards, ($6 at Benderz gets you a fat chunk of an egg-and-chorizo handheld). Or, try the coffee at Yeti’s Grind (Vail and Edwards), which offers fall flavors like pumpkin spice and salted maple. Then get on I-70 and off at the Minturn exit for a slow drive through town along the Eagle River. Follow U.S. 24 for about three miles to Tigiwon Road and take it to the Cross Creek Trailhead, where parking is sparse.

Cross Creek Trail can take hikers for many miles deep into the wilderness, but the first two miles also serve as a lovely day hike that runs along a creek, through aspen groves, past a vast meadow that is filled with wildflowers and wild raspberries in the late summer, and along a stunning lookout where you can see Vail’s back bowls as well as the Mount of the Holy Cross. Eventually, there is a bridge crossing and some rock-scrambling to make things interesting, but all in all, the path here is blessedly flat. Moose are known to frequent the area, so keep your eyes out. There are also beavers around – though they are less likely to trample you.

Once you are back at your vehicle, continue up Tigiwon road – it’s dirt but should be passable for most cars – as it switchbacks upward, offering increasingly gorgeous golden aspen groves and vistas. There are pull-offs and dispersed camping sites along the way where you can take a break. Bring camping chairs and a cooler full of seasonal Marzen lagers (for your passengers) and enjoy the sound of the wind in the leaves.

Once you’ve had your fill, retrace your steps to U.S. 24 and continue along the 30 scenic miles up to Leadville. The Golden Burro Cafe will hit the spot for lunch, and you can do some antiquing along Harrison Avenue as well. Oh, and bring your flannel shirt, because the temperatures are likely to be low way up here.

From there, it’s another 40 minutes down the other side to Buena Vista, but keep your camera handy because the views of Collegiate Peaks will take your breath away. Once in town, order a seasonal Pumpkin Patch Ale at Eddyline Brewery, 102 Linderman Ave. Need a place to stay? Check out the stylish but retro Amigo Motor Lodge in neighboring Salida. And don’t forget to book a spot at a local hot spring, like Cottonwood Hot Springs Inn & Spa or Mount Princeton Hot Springs – so nice when the weather turns crisp and the leaves turn yellow. — Jonathan Shikes

A bright pop of yellow aspens near the boathouse at Grand Lake. (Barbara Ellis, The Denver Post)
A bright pop of yellow aspens near the boathouse at Grand Lake. (Barbara Ellis, The Denver Post)

Grand Lake

There’s nothing like being a tourist in your own state to help you realize why people come from all over the world to see Colorado in the fall. The Grand Lake area, which borders the eastern — and less used — entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park is the perfect place to do that.

A few years ago, during the COVID-19 pandemic, a friend offered me a weekend getaway at their cabin on Shadow Mountain Lake, the deep blue reservoir that sits between Lake Granby and Grand Lake. These bodies of water are all enormously popular for people with sailboats, canoes, jet skis and other watercraft, but we were there to enjoy town and some nearby trails.

The 2 1/2 hour drive west from Denver along I-70 and then north on U.S. 40 past Winter Park and Fraser is always scenic, but no more so than when the aspen leaves are in the middle of turning yellow and gold. Like us, you’ll want to pull over a few times to snap photos.

If you’re staying at one of the many cabins that dot Grand County, then it makes sense to stop at the Safeway in Fraser to stock up on groceries and snacks. Once in town, most people walk along the Boardwalk on Grand Avenue, stopping into the cute shops to browse or grabbing a drink and a bite to eat. We enjoyed our dinner at Sagebrush BBQ & Grill.

For hiking, we enjoyed the Adams Falls Trail at the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park and the East Inlet Trail, but there are dozens of hikes available, in varying difficulties. And waterfalls and wildlife abound. Because evergreens dominate at that elevation, you won’t always see leaves changing colors, but when you do? Kapow. — Barbara Ellis

Fall colors in Grand Mesa. (Provided by Kathy Hayes)
Fall colors in Grand Mesa. (Provided by Kathy Hayes)

Grand Mesa National Forest

Located east of Grand Junction, the Grand Mesa National Forest is one of the Western Slope’s most accessible wilderness areas, with a paved road that traverses from the north to the south ends. And yet, it still seems like a hidden gem that’s rarely overflowing with crowds.

Start by filling up your gas tank and your tummy in Palisade. Head to Peach Street Distillers,144 Kluge Ave., for pub-grub-like pizzas and sandwiches or Fidel’s Cocina & Bar, 113 W. 3rd St., for modern Mexican fare. Then pop by The Ordinary Fellow or Sauvage Spectrum wineries to grab a bottle to toast to your adventure later in the day.

If you’d rather end the day in Palisade, consider making a reservation at Pêche, which has earned a reputation for its chef-driven menu and intimate atmosphere.

The Grand Mesa is a sprawling area home to dozens of lakes popular for fishing, hiking and leaf peeping in the fall. The Mesa Lakes picnic and day-use area is an excellent landing spot with a variety of hikes that cater to many skill levels. One of the best is a 2-mile climb through the pine and aspen forests to the stunning, turquoise-colored Lost Lake.

Trails abound near the Grand Mesa Visitors Center, as well. Advanced hikers might like the Crag Crest Recreation Trail, a 10.3-mile loop that climbs more than 1,000 feet in elevation and offers sweeping views of the mesa, its numerous lakes and surrounding mountain ranges.

Those who travel to the south side of the mesa should consider timing it with Ciderfest at Big B’s orchard in Paonia on Oct. 27-29. The weekend includes live music, house-made cider tastings, and a chance to camp among the apple, peach and apricot trees. — Tiney Ricciardi 

Aspen trees are at their peak as they change from green to yellow and red along Highway 119, the Peak to Peak highway, on Sept. 18, 2018 in Nederland. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post)
Aspen trees are at their peak as they change from green to yellow and red along Highway 119, the Peak to Peak highway, on Sept. 18, 2018 in Nederland. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post)

Nederland to Brainard Lake by bike

The 55-mile Peak to Peak Highway between Central City and Estes Park is Colorado’s oldest scenic byway, designated as such in 1918. Much of it is great for leaf-peeping by car, but there is a section on Colorado 72 between Nederland and the Brainard Lake turnoff that makes for a fabulous bike ride.

This ride offers views of the Indian Peaks along the Continental Divide, which are seven to eight miles west of the highway, with miles and miles of aspen in the foreground. About 12 miles north of Nederland, take a left turn off the highway onto the Brainard Lake Road. The lake is about 4.5 miles west of there, with plenty of aspen along the road. The ride’s distance from town to the lake to about 16.5 miles, with a 2,000-foot elevation gain.

The road from Nederland to the Brainard Lake turnoff rises about 1,000 feet, and the road from the turnoff to the lake adds another 1,000 feet of climbing. Motorists are required to have reservations to park in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area ($16), but cyclists don’t need them, and there is no cost for them to enter.

At an elevation of nearly 10,400 feet, Brainard Lake is set at the foot of 13,000-foot peaks and is one of the most picturesque spots in the Front Range. Once at the lake, cyclists can ride a one-mile loop in the park before heading back to Nederland.

Perhaps the best parking option in Nederland is an RTD Park & Ride, two blocks west of the town’s roundabout. Good places in Nederland for food and drink include Knotted Root Brewing Company for beer and the Crosscut Pizzeria and Taphouse for beer and great pizza. — John Meyer

Fall colors seen at Guanella Pass ...

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

Fall colors seen at Guanella Pass by Georgetown, Colorado on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021.

Georgetown to Guanella Pass by bike

The Guanella Pass Road is well known as one of the best leaf-peeping drives on the Front Range. It’s also one of the best road rides for cyclists in the mountains. Admiring the aspen at the slower pace of cycling on one of Colorado’s official scenic byways allows time to savor every vista.

It’s not for everyone, of course. From the parking lot at Georgetown Lake to the summit of the pass, it’s a 12-mile ride with an altitude gain of 3,200 feet. It’s especially challenging on the switchbacks just south of town, which climb 500 feet in a little more than a mile. The rest of the ride climbs pretty gradually, though, and the ride from the pass back to town is all downhill.

In addition to gorgeous views of aspen and other colorful foliage, the rugged backside of Mount Evans rises to the east. South of Evans is a neighboring fourteener, Mount Bierstadt, which is just a couple of miles east of the top of the pass. Riders should be sure to bring plenty of fluids and a jacket, because it can get pretty chilly up there, especially at the high speed of the descent.

The Guanella Pass Brewery in Georgetown, near where the road starts to climb up the pass, is a great place for hydration recovery on a patio with aspen views. Another good option is Cooper’s on the Creek. If you want a table on the patio there, reservations are recommended. — John Meyer

Everywhere you turn as you wander along the walkways and corridors around the plaza in Santa Fe, the colors and trappings of Southwestern style can be found. (Denver Post file photo)
Everywhere you turn as you wander along the walkways and corridors around the plaza in Santa Fe, the colors and trappings of Southwestern style can be found. (Denver Post file photo)

Trinidad to Santa Fe, N.M.

The gorgeous drive south between Trinidad and Santa Fe along I-25 trades dense bouquets of high-country trees for earth-toned expanses and, at your destination, one of the southwest’s prettiest little towns. Believe it or not, Santa Fe has a leaf-peeping window too, although it’s even shorter than Colorado’s (about a week).

If you’re driving from Denver, stop in Trinidad for a wood-fired pie and people-watching at Bella Luna Pizzeria, or a drink at the triniDAD Lounge — a lovingly preserved bit of late 20th-century western decor that offers live music (punk, honkytonk, roots) and a hip atmosphere.

From there it’s a little less than 3 hours to Santa Fe. Situated about 7,200 feet above sea level, Santa Fe is reputed for its ritzy spas, Kokopelli-soaked galleries and well-heeled artists and collectors. It’s got a world-class collection of southwest U.S. art and a growing, thoughtful emphasis on Indigenous art and artists. Be sure to visit the acclaimed Georgia O’Keefe Museum, but also browse one of the 200-plus other galleries and dozen-plus museums. Indigenous craftspeople and artists sell items along the street, where you can get handmade jewelry, toys and other items for cheap.

Lesser-known are the area’s kid-friendly offerings, which my wife and I take advantage of when we visit each September with our two children. The walkable city’s central square is usually bustling with booths, vendors and/or live music, and is ringed by historic churches, handsome hotels (Inn of the Governors is our fave) and excellent food.

You can’t miss the Plaza Cafe Downtown, a quirky, retro-minded diner with phenomenal breakfast and some of the freshest and tastiest green chile anywhere, thanks to the fall harvest. For fire lovers, Horseman’s Haven (outside of town along Cerillos Road) offers insanely spicy green chile — along with savory carne adovada and meat enchiladas. (Don’t even attempt to try the Level 2 unless you are a veteran spice warrior. Trust me.).

There’s plenty of hiking and exploration available, as the city sits in the Rio Grande valley, right in the middle of 1.5 million acres of national forest. Peaking in late September, the hillsides between Hyde Memorial State Park and Ski Santa Fe feature an eye-popping array of fall colors, along the Santa Fe National Forest Scenic Byway.

But for a more modest, semi-outdoors experience, you can also rent a yurt on a llama farm, as we did once. For guests on Fridays, owners Bill and Robin Spencer offer free admission to their Roswell alien-themed roller rink, Rockin’ Rollers. It’s a trip. — John Wenzel

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