Let the masses take the shuttles to Aspen’s Maroon Bells, the crown jewel of Colorado autumn. Look elsewhere this gilded season, taking trails and rugged roads where the aspen leaves glow for smaller audiences.
It’s a brief moment when the state’s landscape shows off even more, typically from the middle of this month to the start of the next. Now is the time to set your course.
Whether you prefer to venture by foot or on the wheels of a bike or vehicle, and whether you prefer to stay close or go far, we offer this guide. But don’t wait to plan: Word is spreading about early changes in some areas.
Keep it local
The go-to drive is Colorado 67, particularly the stretch weaving south toward Cripple Creek. Good luck finding a spot to pull over for photos. You’re better off driving onward to the trailheads for the Crags or Pancake Rocks, both very popular, challenging and always extraordinary.
Or keep it closer to Woodland Park and take the lesser-traveled Lovell Gulch Trail, a 5-mile loop among glowing stands. Another option, especially for families, is Catamount Ranch Open Space. It’s an under-appreciated slice of paradise at the end of Edlowe Road, the left turn going west on U.S. 24.
But what gold-seeking hikers of the Pikes Peak region should be most excited about this season is the new Dixon Trail. It’ll be a long, hard journey from Cheyenne Mountain State Park, and a fair warning to those who get lost easily: The trail is still a bit under construction. But finally, the famous summit is yours to discover. The Top of the Mountain Trail, the figure-eight circuit after Dixon, is ready to shine with its bountiful groves.
The displays are superb through the Interstate 70 corridor beyond the metro, but the traffic, not so much.
Attempt an escape via Guanella Pass, which might not seem an escape as Denvirites flock to this dirt stretch above Georgetown on weekends. But it’s long enough and has enough foot paths for aficionados to find their own swaths.
The Booth Creek Trail, found off exit 180 toward Vail East, will take your breath along with the aspens. However short, it’s an uphill endeavor. Creek crossings and the cascading destination will refresh.
Go farther west on the interstate to Edwards for the moderate East Lake Creek Trail, with tall glades spotting the 4-mile round trip. A more family-friendly excursion is at Sylvan Lake State Park, with yellow hills framing the water.
Or, go the other way on 70, east to Breckenridge, pulling off the pavement for the aspen-covered Boreas Pass, scenic by car and bike. Riders also prize the French Gulch area, with singletrack braiding the place known as the “Golden Horseshoe.” The name is for the mining days but applies more now to the foliage here.
The other side of the Bells
After the Maroon Bells, Colorado’s next-most famous scene is the Crystal Mill. It’s the 125-year-old wooden edifice perched above blue water, surrounded by enchanting woods, and it’s far more difficult to reach than the view of those twin peaks.
To get there, you’ll need a high-clearance, four-wheel drive or the grit to endure a 6-mile hike or bike ride via rocky road. Otherwise, consult an outfitter in nearby Marble for a Jeep or ATV. The hidden hamlet that produced the material for the Lincoln Memorial is well worth a visit in the fall. An easier drive from town is the road toward the quarry, ending at a magnificent overlook of high peaks and hillsides awash with color.
It’s understandable if you can’t resist Aspen, less than 60 miles west. But rather than the Bells, how about opting for another Colorado rite of passage? That would be the 11-mile trip on the West Maroon Trail, spanning one postcard town to the next, Crested Butte.
If basing your leaf watch in CB, then Kebler Pass is the way to go. You might also look the other direction for a rugged, gorgeous drive on Tincup Pass, also requiring a four-wheeler. The road reaches above 12,000 feet, connecting with one of the state’s most photogenic ghost towns, St. Elmo.
Front Range dwellers are wise to carve out staycation time around now, bound for the Western Slope. They’ll need time, all right, for the splendor amid the Centennial State’s most dramatic peaks.
The aspens are wall-to-wall on Owl Creek Pass, the maintained gravel road boasting the epic scenery from the original “True Grit.” Chimney Rock and Courthouse Mountain are among the delights backdropping the painted forest.
East of Ridgway, a locals’ favorite is the multiuse Lou Creek Trail. The 9-mile round trip will net you classic vistas of alpine lakes and San Juan Mountain glory accented by the aspens. A steeper trek with more rewards is through the glacial basin on the Blue Lakes Trail, topping out near 11,700 feet.
From Ouray, Red Mountain Pass is a fine way to see the grandeur surrounding the town and the mining history above. Get that plus the fresh air on the Perimeter Trail, the 6.5-mile ring in the woods overlooking town.
Last Dollar Road is stunning and, yes, typically busy. Consider the roads less traveled by taking four-wheeling tours from Telluride to Tomboy Basin and Imogene Pass, realizing the dream above treeline.