Autumn in Colorado is a special time of year — and not just because the Broncos are back in action. The cold crisp mornings and warm sunny afternoons mark the perfect time to enjoy the blazing golds and reds of aspens at their fall-color peak.
The wave of color starts in the north about the middle of September and moves south across the state from the highest points to the lower valleys.
Here’s a guide to the best locations to enjoy and photograph changing aspens in Colorado.
• Guanella Pass Scenic Byway. To avoid daytime construction and periodic road closures on Guanella Pass road near Georgetown, take Highway 285 south from C470 through Conifer and Bailey. At Grant, head north on the Guanella Pass Scenic and Historic Byway to the top of the pass. The best aspen views are on this side of the pass. If you want to approach this area from I-70 and Georgetown, you can avoid road closures by visiting on the weekend and following the scenic byway out of town to the pass.
• Georgetown Loop Railroad side trip. Let the engineer do the driving and take the family on a short ride from Georgetown to Silver Plume through conifer and aspen forests. More information here.
• Peak-to-Peak Scenic and Historic Byway from Black Hawk to Estes Park. Take Colorado 119 from Black Hawk and head north to Nederland. Then take Colorado 72 to Raymond. Continue on Colorado 7 all the way to Estes Park.This route offers beautiful mountain scenery, peak views and pockets of golden aspens along the way. Make a day out of it and end your journey in Rocky Mountain National Park and check out the bugling elk. There are several good spots in the park to see aspens. One area is along Bear Lake Road and on the path around the lake itself. The other option is to head up Trail Ridge Road to Many Parks Curve, the point at which the road is most likely closed at this time of year. Aspens frame the view of peaks and valleys in this area.
• Colorado 14 through Poudre Canyon west of Fort Collins, to the top of Cameron Pass. Take I-25 north to exit 249 (Colorado 14) and head west. This drive takes you through the town of LaPorte before entering Poudre Canyon. The rushing water of the Poudre River offers an additional scenic element to aspen photography along this route. Bring a tripod for slow-speed images of moving water and colorful trees. End your ride at 10,276-ft Cameron Pass, which offers great views into Wyoming and Northern Colorado.
• Boreas Pass and Kenosha Pass. Take I-70 west to U.S. 9 south through Breckenridge. Watch for a stoplight at the south side of town and a left turn onto Boreas Pass Road. After the pavement ends you can follow the road another 11 miles to the small town of Como. Pick up U.S. 285 there and head back to Denver over Kenosha Pass. This route features great views of the Continental Divide, hillsides of Aspen and changeable weather.
Northwest (Aspen-Grand Junction-Yampa)
• Colorado 82 and Independence Pass. This drive has it all — high mountain lakes, historic mining structures, sweeping views and lots of golden aspen. Take U.S. 24 south out of Leadville 14.9 miles and turn west on Colorado 82 to Independence Pass. The road takes you past Twin Lakes Reservoir, which offers colorful mountain reflections at sunrise and sunset. Beyond the tiny town of Twin Lakes, the aspen party begins. There are many photo opportunities all the way to Independence Pass and down into the town of Aspen. Drive carefully, this road is narrow near the pass. The ghost town of Independence features several picturesque buildings in various stages of disrepair and restoration. There are good photo opportunities here for capturing a taste of Colorado’s past.
• Maroon Bells near Aspen. This perfect storm of scenery is quite possibly the most photographed location in North America. At sunrise, a warm orange light bathes the triangular peaks of the Maroon Bells framed by hillsides of golden aspen. As if that’s not enough, Maroon Lake offers a watery blue reflection of this picture-perfect scene. Because of its popularity, access to the Bells is limited to shuttle buses that depart on a regular basis from the Aspen roundabout near Maroon Creek Road. However, if you reserve a campsite along Maroon Creek Road you can drive the road all the way to a small parking lot at Maroon Lake. You’ll want to allow plenty of time to hike and photograph in this stunning area.
• Grand Mesa Scenic and Historic Byway. This less-frequented drive begins at exit 49 off I-70. Follow Colorado 65 east to Cedaredge. The road passes quiet farms and ranches and climbs the Grand Mesa to thick forests of aspen and sweeping views toward Utah. Aspen groves abound. Island Lake offers fishing and more photo opportunities. If you have a few days to spend, you may want to continue south on U.S. 550 to Ridgway and Ouray for even more spectacular scenery.
• Flat Tops Trail Scenic Byway. Take I-70 west to exit 105 and New Castle. Follow Buford Rd north out of town until it turns into County Road 245. Stay on 245 into the Flat Tops Wilderness. Enjoy the mountain scenery along the way to Buford and then turn right (east) on County Road 8. There are several campgrounds along this byway if you choose to stay for a night or two. The turn to Trappers Lake Road (Colorado 155) is a can’t-miss side trip that leads to a lovely lake and reflections of aspen-covered hillsides and the Flat Tops Range. Return to County Road 8 and head east to Yampa. Colorado 131 leads south from Yampa to I-70.
South Central (Colorado Springs/Buena Vista/Antonito)
• Cottonwood Pass. Take the Cottonwood Pass Road (Colorado 306) west out of Buena Vista. A short side tour on Colorado 343 leads to cozy Cottonwood Lake and many photo opportunities. Return to Colorado 306 and head west, climbing into the Collegiate Peaks area. The road passes in the shadow of four fourteeners — Mt. Princeton, Mt. Yale, Mt. Harvard and Mt. Antero — and into one of Colorado’s thickest stands of aspen. Picture possibilities abound, so stop along the way and get out with your camera. End your drive at Taylor Park reservoir and return to Buena Vista, or continue southwest on Colorado 742 to emerge at Almont on Colorado 135 north of Gunnison.
• St. Elmo “ghost” town. A well-maintained dirt road southwest of Buena Vista offers a pleasant ride through aspen covered hillsides with a treat at the end —the quaint, historic town of St. Elmo. Some books refer to this place as a ghost town, but people still live there and take good care of the historic general store and main street buildings. The rustic 1880s buildings are set against rugged hillsides of golden aspen and make for the quintessential Colorado mining town portrait. Take U.S. 285 south from Buena Vista to Nathrop. Just south of Nathrop go west on County Road 162 16 miles to St. Elmo.
• Colorado 17 from Antonito to the New Mexico border. Combine stunning aspen scenery with a ride on the historic Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. The railroad offers great views not accessible from the highway. If you’d rather not take the rail ride, simply drive highway 17 to New Mexico and enjoy seeing the train peak out from the aspens in several places along the road.
• Colorado 67 between Divide and Cripple Creek. Take I-25 south to Colorado Springs and take exit 141 west on U.S. 24 toward Woodland Park. Take Highway 67 at Divide and head for Cripple Creek and Victor. This route offers beautiful fall colors views, as well as historic mining relics and the Cripple Creek and Victor Scenic Railroad. Highway 67 between Cripple Creek and Victor also offers a ride across Colorado’s highest bridge on the state highway system. The 250-ft tall bridge crosses Arequa Gulch just west of Victor.
Southwest (Crested Butte/Ouray/Ridgway)
• Ridgway and Dallas Divide to Telluride. From Ridgway head west on Colorado 62 over Dallas Divide. The rugged peaks of the Sneffels Range offer a dramatic backdrop to the hillsides of aspen that line this route. Just after Dallas Divide, turn off the highway onto Last Dollar Road to get up close and personal with the miles of aspen and rustic fence lines that climb toward the Sneffels Range. After exploring this area, return to Colorado 62 and head west. At Placerville, head for Telluride on Colorado 145, where more stunning scenery dots your route into town.
• Crested Butte and Kebler Pass to McClure Pass. This classic fall color tour takes you west out of Crested Butte on County Road 12, Kebler Pass Road, high into the Elk Mountains and deep into autumn glory. You pass through thick stands of golden aspen set against the red rocks of the Ruby Range. The Kebler Pass Road emerges at Colorado 133 where you can continue north toward McClure Pass in case you just can’t get enough of one of the state’s best areas for aspen viewing.
• Gunnison to Lake City. Take U.S. 50 west from Gunnison and then south on Colorado 149 to Lake City. The Lake City area offers wonderful photo opportunities for fall colors. An easy, very scenic drive begins at First Avenue in Lake City. From First Avenue head west on County Road 20 along Henson Creek. Follow this dirt road along the creek into a wide and beautiful valley filled with aspens. Stop and explore the area around Capitol City. All that remains of this town that once hoped to be the state capital is a single crumbling building, and some scattered, newer homes, but the scenery is stunning. You may continue west toward Engineer Pass for a few more miles of aspens and then turnaround and head back to Lake City. Only skilled drivers with high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicles should attempt to drive over rugged Engineer Pass.
• Lake City to Slumgullion Pass. Another short but dramatic drive leads south out of Lake City on Colorado 149 over Slumgullion Pass. Get there at dawn and look west for great views of the sun hitting 14,231-foot Uncompahgre Peak, a shark’s tooth-shaped rock that marks the highest spot in the San Juan Mountains.
• Slumgullion Pass to North Clear Creek Falls. For more unique Colorado scenery, continue east from the pass on Colorado 149, The Silver Thread Scenic Byway, to North Clear Creek Falls. You’ll pass thick stands of aspen and other photo opportunities such as the headwaters of the Rio Grande, before arriving at this unusual and picturesque falls. Watch for the turnout to the falls on Forest Road 510. The half-mile driveway leads to a parking area with great views of the falls, which seems to appear from nowhere and rushes 100 ft over basalt rock into a box canyon below.
• The San Juan Skyway and The Million Dollar Highway, Durango to Ouray. The views along this dramatic feat of engineering are definitely worth a million bucks. Start the morning along Highway 550 north of Durango and wait for the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad to chug by. Follow 550 north to Silverton. Be prepared to ooh and aah all the way to town, especially as you catch your first glimpse of Silverton from on high. The view down into town is worth a photo but be careful on the small and narrow turnouts along the road. Have lunch in Silverton and then continue on 550 on the Million Dollar Highway to Ouray. Stop at Crystal Lake on Red Mountain Pass for photos of Red Mountain and golden aspens reflected in the glassy water. Mining structures in the area dot the mountainsides and provide an historic, human element to your scenic photos.
If you go:
• Before you plan your fall color trip, check the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region fall color Web site for the latest report on where the peak colors are at the moment.
• Be aware that many of the high mountain passes mentioned here close when the snow flies, so check the Colorado Department of Transportation’s traveler Web site before heading out.