The changing of seasons in Colorado can not only be felt from the briskness in the air, but also seen from the colorful show the trees put on each year. Leaf-peeping season, as it’s colloquially known, is a short and magical couple of weeks when mountain ranges turn brilliant shades of gold and red before the trees’ leaves fall off, ushering in the unofficial start to winter. Coloradans and visitors often take a hike or get away to a mountain town to experience the natural beauty. But all you really need to do is jump in a car and put the pedal to the metal. Here are five scenic leaf-peeping drives to take this autumn.
Trail Ridge Road
Closest towns: Estes Park and Grand Lake
If you’ve been holding off on visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, autumn may be the perfect opportunity to make a day of it. The park’s famous Trail Ridge Road runs between the towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake, topping out at more than 12,000 feet in elevation. That is, notably, above treeline, so those looking to experience the changing leaves up close and personal will want to search at the ends of the route. Don’t hesitate to park in a pullout near a colorful grove and explore some of the numerous trailheads off the road. Wildlife activity is plentiful this time of year, as the elk mating season or rut, is in full swing. Keep your ears peeled for the high-pitched elk bugle both in Estes Park and within the national park grounds.
Sure, you could take the paved highway when traveling between Telluride and Ridgway. But during leaf-peeping season, you’d be remiss not to check out Last Dollar Road, a roughly 18-mile stretch of unpaved road that offers sweeping views of gold-speckled mountainsides. The route, for which experts recommend using a high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle, winds through aspen and spruce-fir forest, oftentimes breaking into clear spots that offer panoramic views of San Juan Mountains, including Wilson Peak and the Sneffels range.
Closest town: Crested Butte
Located west of Crested Butte, Kebler Pass is well-known as a destination for peeping fall colors. The road is unpaved, but well maintained and passable for cars with two-wheel drive. It famously traverses through the state’s largest aspen grove, lauded as one of the largest living organisms in the world. That plus the numerous peaks you’ll see along the way are what makes the pass a must-drive during leaf-peeping season.
Closest towns: Aspen and Twin Lakes
What better place to see the magic of changing aspen leaves than near Aspen? Independence Pass is widely lauded as a Colorado classic when it comes to leaf peeping. The drive follows Colorado 82 and crosses the Continental Divide between Aspen and Twin Lakes, both of which are known in their own right for spectacular fall foliage. Expect twisting roads, steep drop-offs and show-stopping views. Bonus: The Independence Ghost Town offers an extra attraction along the drive.
Closest towns: Georgetown, Silver Plume and Grant
The scenic Guanella Pass connects the towns of Georgetown and Grant, passing by Mount Bierstadt and Mount Evans, both of which are fourteeners. Along the 22-mile route, drivers travel through a variety of environments — from lush aspen, spruce and pine forest to expansive meadows to high altitude tundra — as they climb more than 3,000 feet in elevation. In the fall, the forests are radiant with leaves turning gold and red. The pass is also a popular cycling spot, so you can take in the sights by bike if you so choose.