Colorado Fall Drives – 5 Fabulous Daytrips

By Bette Erickson- Spotlight Magazine

From the furthest reaches of Colorado’s northwestern mountains to Denver and the quiet plains, the choices are seemingly limitless.

So it’s no wonder taking in a leisurely drive to savor the burning reds, fiery oranges and electric yellows that characterize fall in Colorado appeals to so many of us. There’s drama in the wide-open mountain ranges, towering bluffs, quiet forests and expansive eastern plains in our state.

The month of September into mid-October is the ideal time to see the gilded aspen spectacle on a scenic drive, but you’ll be lucky if you time it just right. The colors peak for only about two weeks in most areas.

So head out for a bright weekend—or midweek to avoid the crowds–to the foothills or high mountain passes where the air above sparkles and serenity awaits.

Following are a few particularly colorful routes to consider:

Kebler Pass

During fall, visitors along the 10,007-foot pass are treated to the mottled hues of the surrounding West Elk Mountains and the Ruby Range, offering an interesting contrast to the delicate, golden aspen in the lower elevations. An old railway grade, the two-lane gravel road that goes up and over Kebler Pass is a popular route for anyone travelling between Crested Butte and Carbondale, Paonia, Delta or Montrose. To begin, head west out of Crested Butte along CR 12 (Whiterock Ave.) – the scenic drive stretching some 30 miles connects Crested Butte and Highway 133.

Santa Fe Trail

This lengthy (184-miles) scenic byway follows the route of the Santa Fe Trail along U.S. Highway 50 and the Arkansas River from the Kansas border to La Junta, crosses the high plains to Trinidad on U.S. Highway 350, and then climbs Raton Pass on I-25. Along the way, enjoy the Sierra Vista Overlook (1/2-mile north on CO 71) offering travelers their first view of the Rocky Mountains. A three-mile section of the original Santa Fe Trail leads to Timpas Picnic Area, a watering hole for the original trail travelers. Begin and/or end at Raton Pass or Highway 50 at the Kansas border.

The Peak to Peak Highway

It’s not uncommon to see supervised youngsters selling cookies and lemonade on the wide shoulder of the Peak to Peak Highway during fall aspen viewing in September and October. The 55-mile scenic byway showcases the foothills of Colorado’s Front Range within a short drive of the Denver Metro Area. This route, mapped out in 1918, wanders through the upper foothills from Estes Park to Black Hawk, framing the mountains that form the Continental Divide. Access it via Highway 7 out of Estes Park or CO 119 out of Black Hawk.

Collegiate Peaks via Cottonwood Pass

Arguably one of Colorado’s most aspen-laden valleys, the cozy route stretching west from Buena Vista (Cottonwood Pass Road) is bordered by the Collegiate Peaks on both sides. “The forests are shouting with color,” John Steinbeck once wrote. As you marvel at the multihued flanks of the Sawatch Range, you’ll be treated to the highest section of the Rockies, with 15 peaks over 14,000 feet. For a nice picture opportunity of the Arkansas River Valley, stop at the overlook on U.S. 24 just east of Johnson Village. Launch your drive via Buena Vista.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Starting in quaint, touristy Estes Park, access Trail Ridge Road via U.S. Highway 34 or Beaver Meadow Road (U.S. 36). Either route joins Trail Ridge Road – the country’s highest paved federal highway, reaching 12,183 feet before descending into the upper Colorado River Valley and Grand Lake. It’s the sudden September frost that produces the spectacle that exalts Coloradans and brings them out of their homes autumn after autumn. Visitors to RMNP will not only be treated to vistas of vibrant color, but also, if you’re lucky, bugling elk and otherworldly views. Trail Ridge Road typically closes mid-October to late May. Entrance fees for RMNP apply.