Many Coloradans will tell you that fall is their favorite season. Aspen-covered slopes dripping with yellow, orange and red leaves draw day-trippers, weekend vacationers and shoulder-season campers into the Rocky Mountains for their last hurrahs before winter wraps its snowy arms around the high country.
The exact timing of peak fall color can change from year to year, and in some locations, it may last just a week. It’s important to plan your trip — not just mapping your route, but also checking to see what color conditions are like in your chosen area. Here are a few resources to get started: U.S. Forest Service Fall Color Hotline: 800-354-4595, fs.fed.us/fallcolors/2013Colorado State Parks’ suggestions on enjoying fall foliage:parks.state.co.us/ pages/fall.aspxColorado State Parks Fall Colors Search:parks.state.co.us/ ParksSearch/ Pages/ParksSearch.aspx Head to this page, check the ‘Fall Colors’ box and search to see which state parks are experiencing fall colors.
Conventional wisdom dictates that if you want to see Colorado’s aspen trees in all their fall glory, you need to head for the hills in September. While it’s true that the northern and north-central mountains’ foliage usually hits its peak in mid- to late September, there are still plenty of places to visit at the end of the month and even into early October. Here are a few of our favorites:
Head There Now!
It’s not too late to see color in and around Rocky Mountain National Park. Drive your car, or hop out and hit one of the area’s many hiking trails to enjoy blazing old-growth aspen forests. Although colors start to change here in mid-September, you’ll still find plenty to see in the lower elevations through the first days of October.
Drive along the Big Cimarron Road near Cimarron, Colo., as it heads into the Uncompahgre National Forest. You’ll find Silver Jack Reservoir, with its aspen-filled shores, lovely mountain views and great picnic spots. The leaves usually change at the end of September and into the first week of October.
Visit the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and drive along its North Rim. Between the old-growth aspen and the jaw-dropping overlooks, you won’t be disappointed. Again, peak in this region is around the fourth week of September and into early October.
Slightly Later Peak
Since it’s farther south, fall colors around Pueblo tend to peak in early October. Don’t miss the opportunity to drive the Frontier Pathways Scenic and Historic Byway, which begins west of Pueblo on Colorado 96 and winds through the Wet Mountains and Wet Mountain Valley. When you come back, turn south on Colorado 165 to add cottonwood and scrub oak to your fall color repertoire.
Then, there is the Highway of Legends Scenic and Historic Byway, which runs from Trinidad to Walsenburg and takes roughly two hours to drive (not including all the stops you’ll want to make!). You’ll get an up-close-and-personal look at West and East Spanish peaks, Trinidad Lake and Lathrop state parks, ancient volcanic formations, plenty of dramatic fall color and a variety of natural and historic landmarks.
If you have the time and are on a longer weekend break, drive U.S. 160 between Pagosa Springs and Cortez, and take the time to visit the Navajo and Mancos reservoirs. This will be a Colorado fall experience with a distinctive southwest flavor.
Another favorite: Take Colorado 550 south from Ridgeway, and drive through Ouray, Silverton and Durango. This is a Four Corners fall at its finest, and you have time to plan the trip. This region doesn’t typically experience peak color until mid-October, according to 9news.com.
Finally, take Colorado 17 from Antonito to the New Mexico border, driving along the Conejos River Valley. The area around La Manga Pass boasts some of the state’s oldest aspen trees.
Closer to Home
If you don’t have the time or inclination to undertake a major road trip, look no further than the Pikes Peak region near Colorado Springs. Drive west out of the Springs on U.S. Highway 24 to Divide, Mueller State Park, Eleven Mile State Parkand the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area. Color in this region depends on the elevation, but 9news.com says it’s expected to run from from late September to early October. It’s a good idea to check the Colorado State Parks Fall Colors Search before you go. In addition to leaf viewing, there are plenty of places to hike, picnic and camp, and you’ll revel in the mix of mountain and river scenery. Be sure to stop in Buena Vista and Salida for shopping, dining and strolling the historic districts. Recommended by the Editors: