We're about three weeks into fall at this point, so if you haven't yet treated yourself to some substantial leaf peeping...well, the clock is ticking. Luckily, we've compiled for you a short list of the best drives, hikes, and bike rides to take in Colorado's splendid (albeit short) season of autumn gold.
Walsenburg to Trinidad via the Highway of Legends
Start with a drive along the Highway of Legends between Walsenburg and Trinidad. Drive west from Walsenburg on U.S. Highway 160 before turning south onto Colorado Highway 12 toward La Veta. Flanked by the Spanish Peaks and picturesque ranch land, this route rises up to Cuchara Pass, then descends through a winding two-lane road to Trinidad.
Aside from the scenery, this route offers several opportunities for side trips. Stop in at The Dog Bar and Grill in Cuchara for a bevvy and snack, take in a quick hike on the Spring Creek Trail, check out the defunct Cuchara Valley Ski Resort, or explore a turn-of-the-century industrial ruin in Cokedale.
The Walden Loop
This is a full-day adventure in the northern part of Colorado. Begin in Fort Collins by heading west on CO Highway 14 through Roosevelt National Forest to Walden. Try not to blink as you pass through quaint-but-tiny Walden before heading south on CO Highway 125 toward Granby. Head back to the Front Range via CO Highway 34 through Rocky Mountain National Park.
Fall colors aside, this drive is breathtaking any time of the year. The route crosses the Continental Divide twice, winds through numerous canyons, and puts you on roads where very little traffic will be encountered. The eagle-eyed will have a chance to see elk, eagles (duh), deer, and even the occasional moose.
It’s easy to get distracted if you’re traveling south along U.S. Highway 50 between Grand Junction and Montrose. The San Juan Mountains loom ahead while the Grand Mesa towers to the east. Many travelers fail to notice the Grand Mesa Uncompahgre, gateway to Canyonlands National Park, rising to the west. From Delta, drive west on 5th Street until it turns into G Road. G Road will eventually turn into Sawmill Mesa Road. Soon, you'll will find yourself ascending up the plateau with a myriad of turnoffs. There's really no "right" route at this point—it’s simply time to explore and enjoy the solitude of one of Colorado’s most overlooked natural regions.
While most leaf peepers will find themselves drawn to the aspen of the high country, the scrub oak and small pockets of aspen trees on the Uncompahgre Plateau offer a broader palette of colors. Those with ATVs or OHVs will particularly enjoy the expansive forest roads this area has to offer.
For the Ambitious
Believe it or not, an early morning drive along I-70 to Vail is the perfect appetizer for viewing fall colors. Early morning sun glints off stands of aspen trees high above Clear Creek, Summit, and Eagle Counties, and the view can be awe-inspiring—even at 75 mph.
Once in Vail, head to Lionshead and hike the Berry Picker Trail. The trail winds through 2,000 vertical feet of aspen trees. At the top, enjoy wide views of the Holy Cross wilderness on one side, and the Vail Valley on the other. After you descend, treat yourself to a beverage and snack at the many outdoor patios at the base.
Continue on I-70 west to Minturn; mountain bikers will definitely want to stop here to ride Meadow Mountain to Whiskey Creek for maximum aspen exposure. Then, continue on U.S. Highway 24 to Leadville. The road rises up and over Battle Mountain, and is flanked on both sides by aspen much of the way. Once in Leadville, stop for a bite to eat before heading back to I-70 via CO Highway 91 and Tennessee Pass.
The Early Bird Gets the Worm
There is no one place or way to experience the fleeting weeks of fall color in Colorado. However, starting early and making a plan is one way to get the most out of your experience. Plunging headlong into the mountains without a plan is one way to end up with a view of an RV’s backside instead of grand vistas.
What are some of your favorite spots in Colorado to check out the changing leaves?