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Where to See Colorado's Fall Colors

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Fall in Colorado: drives and hikes

Looking for those golden fall aspen leaves for the perfect family picture? Or are you searching for great, colorful Colorado hikes after the summer travelers have faded away?

If you’re a big fat YES!, then fill up the gas tank, pull out your driving map, and tug on those hiking boots. We’ve got the 411 on where to go to see Colorado’s fall colors.

Fall colors tend to start changing in Colorado from mid-September through mid-October, depending on the elevation and if summer started on time or not. At higher elevations in the mountains, the Aspens begin to turn around September 15th, while at lower elevations, like around Denver and Colorado Springs, the colors begin to change a bit later, say around the first part of October.

Charge up your favorite camera, pack a picnic lunch, and fill up your water bottle. Arranged by distance from Denver, here’s a list of 22+ fantastic places to see Colorado’s colors change in Autumn.

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Within 1 hour of Denver:

Guanella Pass | georgetown

Part of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, this scenic byway begins in historic Georgetown, a historic mining town along Clear Creek, and meanders south to the town of Grant for 22 miles.

Drive there: Take I-70 W from Denver to Exit 228 in Georgetown; follow signs for Guanella Pass from the Gateway Visitors Center.

Take off: Divert up to Ganley Mountain for more scenic view off of Guanella Pass.

Golden Gate Canyon State Park

Sitting just northwest of the town of Golden, and also on the Front Range, this 12,000 acre park has 42 miles of hiking trails and gorgeous views in elevation ranging from 7,600 to 10,400 feet.

Drive there: From Denver, head out on US-6 W to Golden Gate Canyon Rd in Golden. 92 Crawford Gulch Rd, Golden, CO 80403

Take a hike: Try a kid-friendly trek through aspens via Horseshoe Trail to Frazer Meadow.

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Peak to Peak Highway | Idaho Springs

Hop on the Peak to Peak Highway from Nederland and head west. Drive all the way to Estes and feast your eyes on fall in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Drive there: Head out on US-36 W to Boulder, then take CO-119/Boulder Canyon Dr to Nederland. Switch to CO-72 W west at Nederland, then later hop on CO-7 W towards Allenspark and Estes Park if you want to go the whole way.

Take a hike: Beat the crowds by starting early on the moderate 1.9 mile hike up to Saint Mary’s Glacier near Idaho Springs.

Berthoud Pass | Winter Park

Berthoud Pass tops off at 11,306 feet in elevation on your way to Winter Park - a grand ski resort since 1940. You can find great wilderness camping spots along the way.

Drive there: Hop on I-70 W, then exit at Empire and head west on US-40 W towards Winter Park via Berthoud Pass.

Take a hike: For some high 360 degree views, head out on the 5.5 mile out and back Berthoud Pass Trail. Do part of the hike or the whole thing; you won’t be disappointed.

fall-aspens-colorado

Within 2 hours of Denver:

Trail Ridge Road | Rocky Mountain National Park

Enjoy 39 miles of jaw-dropping views when driving Trail Ridge Road from Estes Park to Grand Lake through Rocky Mountain National Park. It's the highest paved road in the U.S., topping off at an elevation of 12,183 feet.

Drive there: From Denver, take US-36 W towards Estes Park, and then hit US-34 W, aka Trail Ridge Road.

Take a hike: The short, easy-going Adams Falls Trail is a treat in any season; near Grand Lake.

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Vail Pass | Vail

A popular ski town, Vail is also known for gorgeous fall colors in the Rocky Mountain Gore Range. All kinds of outdoor activities can fill your time here year-round.

Drive there: Under 100 miles from Denver, take the straight shot to Vail via I-70 W.

Take a hike or bike: Booth Falls Trail is a 3.9 mile trail with a waterfall and magical views. We loved biking Vail Pass for its long downhill scenic view. Exit before Vail at CDOT Rest Area / Vail Pass. Local Frisco bike rental companies will drive you up and drop you off for the ride down.

Tennessee Pass via Leadville

Tennessee Pass via Leadville

Tennessee Pass | Leadville

Just north of Leadville sitting above 10,000 feet, Tennessee Pass winds through the Rocky Mountains of central Colorado. Leadville sits in a valley of the headwaters of the Arkansas River in the southern part of the Rockies.

Drive there: Take I-70 W to CO-91 S to Leadville. Then head on US-24 W from Leadville to drive Tennessee Pass.

Take a hike or sleep in a yurt: Hike at least part of the moderate Tennessee Pass to Longs Gulch. Even better, try sleeping in a Tennessee Pass yurt.

Hoosier Pass | Breckenridge to fairplay

Linking Breckenridge to Fairplay, Hoosier Pass will take you on hair-raising turns with great views of the Continental Divide in the Rockies.

Drive there: Head on I-70 W from Denver and exit at Frisco; take CO-9 S through Breckenridge and on towards Fairplay.

Take a hike: Catch some grand vistas along the 2.8 mile Hoosier Pass Loop.

boreas pass | Breckenridge

Just outside of the ski town and summer haven of Breckenridge, you’ll find Boreas Pass and some of the best views of aspen groves and wildlife. Breck is part of the Tenmile Mountain Range.

Drive there: You have two choices: Take I-70 W to Frisco and drop down on CO-9 S to Breckenridge OR take US-285 S to CO-9 N via Fairplay. Then, head to Boreas Pass from town.

Take a hike: Hike or mountain bike the Boreas Pass Road. Another great fall hike near Breckenridge is the 6.2 mile out and back hike to McCullough Gulch.

frisco-colorado-fall-color

Kenosha Pass | Fairplay

Part of the Front Range, Kenosha Pass peaks at 10,000 feet

Drive there: From the far west side of Denver, take I-70 W to I-470 E to US-285 S. Drive 6 miles past Grant to hit Kenosha Pass on your way to Fairplay.

Feeling like a longer scenic road trip? Go on to Buena Vista, followed by Crested Butte via Cottonwood Pass if it’s open, or Monarch Pass to Gunnison. More on those places below.

Take a hike: Learn more about hiking Section 6 of the Colorado Trail at Kenosha Pass here.

Frisco

I like the town of Frisco in Summit County due to its small town feel and cute main street. Lots of hiking in this area of the Rocky Mountains.

Drive there: Start out on I-70 W, drive 71 miles, and slip into Frisco from exit 203.

Take a hike: An easy moderate out and back 6.5 mile hike along North Ten Mile Creek Trail is a great choice for viewing aspens in fall - this hike is also doable year round.

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Within 3-4 hours of Denver:

Rabbit ears pass | Steamboat Springs

The drive to Steamboat Springs in the Sierra Madre Mountain Range aims to please in any season. We loved our time in Steamboat over July 4th — but fall is especially colorful as you cross Rabbit Ears Pass.

Drive there: From Denver, head west on I-70, then take CO-9 N to US-40 W towards Steamboat Springs*. You will approach Rabbit Ears Pass about 20 miles before hitting Steamboat.

Take a hike: Try the easy 3 mile round trip high elevation hike along the Continental Divide Trail to Fishhook and Lost Lakes.

*You can also take a different scenic route by hopping on UW Hwy 40 West earlier at Empire off of I-70. This will add 23 minutes driving and take you up through Winter Park via Berthoud Pass, another lovely fall drive.

Buena Vista

Our personal favorite little mountain town in all of Colorado, Buena Vista is great for family vacations in any season.

Drive there: Hop on I-70 West coming from Denver, then I-470 E towards Colorado Springs for a quick minute, then US-285 S the rest of the way to Buena Vista. Coming from Colorado Springs, we love the drive west on US-24 W all the way to Buena Vista.

Take a hike: The Collegiate Range surrounding Buena Vista offers some dandies, including Harvard Lakes Trail, a 5.4 out and back trail to two lakes - this trail meets up with part of the Colorado Trail.

Bonus Tip: From Buena Vista, consider driving Cottonwood Pass to Crested Butte if it’s open. Otherwise head over Monarch Pass — both are gorgeous passes in their own right. If you’re one for hiking fourteeners, this area has the most concentrated bunch.

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Independence Pass

Hang on to the edge of your seat, the drive over Independence Pass (and the Continental Divide!) alone is one thrilling drive, peaking at 12,095 feet in the Sawatch Range.

Drive there: The same route as if driving to Aspen (see below): take I-70 W to exit 195, then proceed south on CO-91 S to Leadville. From Leadville, head south on US-24 E to CO-82 W, and drive over Independence Pass all the way to Aspen

Take a hike: The lower portion of the South Mt. Elbert Trail takes you through a huge aspen grove as you ascend. Hike as long as you like, and turn back when you like.* Hop on the South Elbert Trailhead above Twin Lakes on County Road 24. Four-wheel drive vehicles can travel an additional 1.8 miles on Forest Service Road 125-B during the summer season.

*The “easiest way” to summit Mt. Elbert (14,433 feet), South Mt. Elbert Trail is 11.6 miles long out and back for fourteener fans. That was my first fourteener and I loved it. Hiking poles recommended.

maroon-bells-in-fall

Maroon Bells | Aspen

A photographer’s dream, the Maroon Bells near Aspen are particularly stunning in Autumn. Start your hike early in the day for the most serene, photographic views found in this part of the Elk Mountain Range, and possibly all of the Rockies.

Drive there: From Denver, take I-70 W to exit 195, then proceed south on CO-91 S to Leadville. From Leadville, head out on US-24 E to CO-82 W and drive over Independence Pass to Aspen. Drive through Aspen and take CO-82 to the roundabout on the west edge of town, choosing the exit for Maroon Creek Road. Drive up 4.7 miles until you reach a welcome station. Through the first week of October, you will most likely have to park and ride the shuttle up from the Aspen Highlands ski area.

Take a hike: One of our favorite family hikes in all of Colorado is the moderate 3.8 mile out and back Crater Lake Trail from Maroon Lake up to Crater Lake, which sits at the base of the Maroon Bells. Start early and take a picnic lunch.

Grand Mesa | Grand Junction

If you’re sticking close to I-70 to shoot you off onto different views and drives, maybe you’ll choose to drive all the way to Grand Junction and the Grand Mesa area.

Drive there: I-70 W will take you all the way to Grand Junction. To enjoy the fall colors, head for hikes and drives around Cedaredge in the Grand Mesa National Forest, about an hour or more from Grand Junction.

Take a long hike: Head out on the Crag Crest Trail, 12.6 miles out and back, but worth the views according to many hikers.

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Further out from Denver (4+ hours)

Cottonwood Pass | Buena vista to Crested Butte

Between Crested Butte to Buena Vista, Cottonwood Pass is a great alternative driving route between these two sweet mountain towns in the Elk Mountains Range. The breath-taking drive is about 90 minutes without stops, just check to be sure it is open.

Drive there: From Denver, head southwest to Buena Vista via I-70 W, then I-470 E to US-285 W all the way. You’ll see signs from Buena Vista’s Main Street pointing you west up to Cottonwood Pass / State Hwy 306. State Hwy 306 turns slightly right and becomes County Rd 209. Turn left onto County Rd 742 driving past Taylor Reservoir, then CO-135 N to Crested Butte.

Take a hike: The easy 3.1 mile out and back trail also by the name of Cottonwood Pass is great with kids and hikers of all skill levels.

Kebler Pass | Crested Butte

Enter Crested Butte, the scrumptious mountain town made for skiers, mountain bike enthusiasts and everyone in between.

Drive there: From Denver, drive to Crested Butte, passing through Buena Vista if choosing to take Cottonwood Pass mentioned above, OR choose drive through nearby Salida via US-50 W and Monarch Pass all the way to Gunnison. Either way, CO-135 N takes you into Crested Butte, where you will head west on County Road 12 to hit Kebler Pass.

Take a hike: The highly recommended Three Lakes Trail, takes you exactly where it implies — to three lakes and pretty views — and it’s great with kids.

hiking-south-mount-elbert-trail-fall-aspens

Wolf Creek Pass | Pagosa Springs

These last four drives and hikes mentioned are in southwest Colorado, so a bit further out from Denver. But this area features the San Juan Mountains.

Our family drove Wolf Creek Pass to Pagosa Springs this past summer, and WHOA! is this one amazing, twisty-swirvy gorgeous drive, no matter the season.

Drive there: Out of Denver’s west side, take I-70 W to I-470 E to US-285 S and drive through Buena Vista, Salida, Saguache, and Center, where you will turn onto US-160 W to Pagosa Springs (5 hour drive). NOTE: The drive from Pagosa Springs to Cortez, continuing on US 160 West also showcases brilliant colors!

Take a hike: Pull over the car and stretch your legs with the short and easy 1 mile hike to Treasure Falls, halfway between South Fork and Pagosa Springs.

Telluride TO Dolores

The drive through the valley from Telluride to Dolores through the San Juan National Forest will have you booking a cabin for you next week-long respite.

Drive there: From Denver, drive west four hours on I-70 W to Grand Junction and head south towards Telluride via US-50 E, then US-550 S to CO-62 W, and finally CO-145 South.

Park at the free Gondola Parking Garage (455 Mountain Village Blvd.) in Mountain Village and take the gondola up and over the mountain into Telluride. The ride is SO worth it!

Once you’ve explored Telluride, drive to Dolores for more wonderful vistas.

Take a hike: Aspens line the moderate 3.1 mile loop known as Jud Wiebe Trail. This trail offers grand views of Telluride and the mountains.

Durango-aspen-fall-colors

Million Dollar Highway | Ouray to Silverton

There’s many theories as to why it’s called the Million Dollar Highway. I like to think there are flecks of pure gold in the road, as well as in the aspens along the way.

Drive there: On the other side of the mountains from Telluride sit Silverton and Ouray, aka “The Switzerland of America.” Exit off of I-70 West at Grand Junction to US-50 E, which will take you to US-550 S through Ouray and Silverton. If approaching from Dolores, take US-160 E to US-550 N to Silverton and drive the Million Dollar Highway in reverse.

Take a hike: If you’re feeling up for a challenge, hike the moderate 8.1 miles of Molas Lake to Animas River for great exercise and even better views. You just might catch sight of the train coming through.

Narrow Gauge Railroad | Durango to Silverton

Another way to see more fall colors in the jagged San Juan Mountains is by taking the train from Durango to Silverton.

Drive there: Durango is about 6+ hours from Denver, you’ll take I-70 W to I-470 E, then exit to US Hwy 285 S through Buena Vista. At the town of Center, you will take CO-112 W, and then US-160 W to Durango.

Take the Train: Spend a full day on the train with a 9 hour round-trip excursion beginning with a 3.5 hour journey from Durango to Silverton. You’ll have 2 hours to explore the historic mining town of Silverton before hopping on the train back to Durango. The Silverton Silverlight Express is your ticket!

Plan your Fall Road Trip through Colorado

I bet by now you can see that many of these areas and drives through Colorado can be linked together to make one unforgettable long weekend or week long trip in late September to early October.

Search for gold in the aspen groves, and look for other Colorado fall favorites, like cottonwood and scrub oak, as they turn brilliant colors.

Spend enough time in Colorado, and you’ll learn that hikes and drives like the ones listed above are fantastic most any time of year, provided the roads are open in winter.

Our family has the awesome privilege of living in Colorado Springs, so we pull on our hiking boots and hop in the car any chance we get.

Where’s your favorite fall hike or drive?

colorado-destinations-fall-colors

colorado-destinations-fall-colors