5 top spots for fall color in the mountains

Maroon Bells with fall color near Aspen
The Maroon Bells reflected in Maroon Lake are an iconic Colorado photo. | Photo by Von Fumetti / flickr.com

By John Leach

Fall’s arrival in Colorado means it’s time to head to the mountains and take in the fall color – aspen trees in yellows, oranges and reds.

The festivities begin at an altitude of 9,000 to 11,000 feet in early September and move down to 8,000 to 9,500 feet by late October. The show lasts longer in cool, dry weather and may get cut short by wet weather, especially snow. There are other trees seeking attention, but the aspens are the big draw with their brilliant color, a wall of gold on a mountainside.

Experts head into the mountains in late September to improve their odds of seeing the foliage at its best. Check local forecasts and photographer websites for advice on when the aspens are at their peak.

Aspen leaves change color as declines in daylight and temperatures trigger a breakdown of the chlorophyll that makes leaves green. As the green fades, yellow, orange and red pigments are revealed.

Aspens, for newcomers to the state, are from the poplar family and also are known as quaking aspen (populus tremuloides) because the way the leaves tremble in a breeze. The trees have white to gray trunks and grow in large groves or clonal colonies on sunny slopes, with an extensive root system that sprouts new trees as others die and as opportunities arise to expand the grove. The trees grow quickly to a height of 60 to 80 feet.

There are many places in Colorado’s mountains to see aspens in their glory, so just keep your eyes open as you travel.

Here are five of the state’s best spots for fall color:

Kebler Pass near Crested Butte

Photographers rave about Kebler Pass because it boasts the largest aspen grove in North America.

The 31-mile county road runs west from Crested Butte (the town, not the ski area) to Colorado 133 near Paonia State Park (between Paonia and Carbondale). The road is mostly gravel and dirt and reaches an altitude of 10,007 feet, so keep an eye out for rain or even snow.

Allow two hours for the drive, plus time for taking photographs. From Paonia State Park, the quick way back to Denver is to head to Glenwood Springs and get on Interstate 70.

Maroon Bells near Aspen

The Maroon Bells, two 14,000-foot mountains towering over pristine Maroon Lake, are a popular spot for sightseeing when the aspens are at their peak. Photographers love to capture the reflection of the peaks and the colorful aspens on the lake’s placid surface.

The flat Maroon Lake Trail is an easy two miles around the lake and offers picturesque views of the peaks reflected in the lake. The nearby Crater Lake Trail is a steep and rolling 3.6-mile round-trip through aspen groves and rock fields to Crater Lake, which sits at the foot of the peaks.

Motorists can drive to a spot near the lake, though the road and parking lot can get crowded on weekends. Bus service is available from Aspen Highlands ski area on weekends only until Oct. 6. Motorists may park at the ski area. There also is a bus from downtown Aspen to Aspen Highlands.

Interstate 70 from Georgetown to Vail

Interstate 70 is the easiest drive for fall foliage but also one of the most crowded on peak weekends.

The aspens begin at Georgetown and continue up to the Eisenhower Tunnel, then resume near Lake Granby and continue across Vail Pass into Vail.

The gondola to the top of Eagle’s Nest provides excellent views of aspens.

Trail Ridge Road near Estes Park

Trail Ridge Road is one of the highlights of a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s the highest continuous paved road in North America, rising out of Estes Park west across the Continental Divide at 12,183 feet and then descending into Grand Lake.

The highway passes through aspen groves and pine forests but also spends eight miles crossing the barren alpine tundra above 11,000 feet. There are several viewpoints with panoramic mountain views and a visitor center at the top. Keep an eye on the weather for rain or even snow.

Allow two hours for the drive, plus time for photos.

The elk mating season, with its characteristic elk bugling, coincides with the fall color season. The peak of the elk rut is from mid-September to mid-October, with tens to hundreds of elk congregating in a single spot. Elk bugling may signal that a bull is in the area with his harem, or that the cows are straying too far away from the bull, or that other bulls are getting too close to the harem.

The chief remaining route starts by heading west from Denver to Interstate 70 and getting off at the Central City Parkway exit. Head up the parkway and continue on Colorado 72 and 7, known as the Peak-to-Peak Highway, passing through Nederland to Estes Park. Reverse the route to return to Denver.

Allow 2 1/2 hours each way, plus time for taking photos just to reach Estes Park. Crossing Trail Ridge Road will add another two hours each way, plus time for photos.

For a weekend trip, head from Denver through Nederland to Estes Park, then over the Trail Ridge Road into Grand Lake. To return to Denver, head south from Grand Lake through Winter Park to Interstate 70.

Crested Butte, Aspen and three passes

Better yet, take a weekend trip that covers Kebler Pass plus three others, Independence, Tennessee and Vail, and takes in several 14,000-foot peaks on the way.

Start by heading from Denver to Crested Butte and going over Kebler Pass, which is legendary for aspens in the fall. Then come back to Denver through Aspen, over Independence Pass, through Leadville, over Tennessee Pass, then through Vail and over Vail Pass. Those passes also are highly rated for fall color. Pick a spot to spend the night – Crested Butte, Aspen or Leadville.

Kebler Pass is on a 31-mile county road from from Crested Butte (the town, not the ski area) to Colorado 133 near Paonia State Park (between Paonia and Carbondale). From there, head north to Colorado 82 and east to Aspen.

Independence Pass is on Colorado 82 between Aspen and Twin Lakes. There are aspen groves at both ends of the pass, but the highway rises above timberline for a stretch. (No trees means no fall color.) The route offers views of the Sawatch Range, home to several 14,000-foot peaks, before descending into Twin Lakes. Head north from Twin Lakes to Leadville, checking out 14,428-foot Mount Massive to the west.

Tennessee Pass is on U.S. 24 from Leadville to Vail, which follows the Arkansas River and Rio Grande Railroad and also has its share of aspens. The stretch after the pass follows the Eagle River to the mining towns of Minturn and Belden, then meets Interstate 70.

Vail Pass is on Interstate 70, and the best of the fall color is in the Vail Valley as I-70 begins to climb the pass and on the far side of the pass as I-70 descends near the Copper Mountain Ski Area.

San Juan Mountains with Durango, Ouray and Telluride

The San Juan Skyway, a 233-mile loop through southwestern Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, features a handful of the state’s best spots for fall color. The loop can be started at a number of spots, but most visitors enter it at Ridgeway on the north or Durango or Cortez on the south.

The best spots for fall color are, starting from Ridgeway:

• Dallas Divide, a stretch of Colorado 62 between Ridgeway and Telluride, offers a panoramic view of 14,150-foot Mount Sneffels and other peaks in the San Juans, with fashion designer Ralph Lauren’s 17,000-acre Double RL Ranch in the foreground. One of the most-photographed spots features a meadow, aspens and rustic wooden fence in the foreground and the peaks in the distance.

• The free gondola in Telluride climbs 1,750 feet from the town to the ski area in 10 minutes. There are aspens at the top of the mountain. The ride is even better on the way down, offering panoramic views of Telluride and the mountains that surround it, which feature golden aspens in season.

• Lizard Head Pass, the stretch of Colorado 145 between Telluride and Dolores, climbs through aspens and evergreens to the barren land above timberline, then descends back into aspens and evergreens before reaching the Dolores Valley and Cortez. Don’t miss the Lizard Head Peak and Wilson Peak, which reportedly inspired the mountain in the logo on cans and bottles of Coors beer.

• U.S. 550 north of Durango begins by running next to the tracks used by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, so keep an eye out for the historic train with its golden-yellow passenger cars and coal-powered locomotives spewing black smoke. The highway begins picking up aspen near the Durango ski area, better known locally by the original name of Purgatory.

• The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad sets off on its own through the Animas River Gorge, whose fall color was featured in the opening scenes of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” the 1969 movie starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Passenger cars and open cars are pulled by coal-fired, steam-powered locomotives along a 45-mile route from Durango to Silverton.

• The stretch of U.S. 550 from Silverton to Ouray is known as the Million Dollar Highway and features aspens and evergreens at both ends but rises above timberline as well. There are aspens on the mountainsides around the historic mining towns of Silverton and Ouray.

The best places to stay are in Durango and Cortez on the south and in Ouray and Telluride on the north. Or just north of Ouray is Montrose.