The Most Beautiful Fall Foliage Within Driving Distance of Denver
Check out some seriously breathtaking views as the seasons change.
Though it doesn’t have the same kinds of trees that the deep reds and oranges of New England’s forests provide, Colorado does owe some seriously breathtaking fall foliage to its abundance of aspens. Once fall arrives, the deep green of the mountains begins to transform into expansive swaths of bright yellow (and yes, the occasional red-orange), striping the state and enticing visitors from all over to see the magic in person. If you’re using Denver as a jumping off point, you’re lucky in that nearly any direction you drive, you’re sure to stumble upon some magnificent foliage. Here are a few suggestions that comprise well-loved—and lesser-known—leaf-peeping destinations.
Peaks ~Oct. 10
Iconic: Heading south on I-25, you might not think there’d be changing leaves to ogle–and you’d be wrong. Enter: the Highway of Legends, taking you from Walsenburg to Trinidad over a span of 82 miles and about two hours. Once you hit Walsenburg on your way south, branch off to Highway 160 and then again to Highway 12, which will have you coasting the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Spanish Peaks, and part of the San Isabel National Forest. Part of this “detour” stretches over County Road 46 to Aguilar, but keep in mind that a portion of Cordova Pass closes in the winter. Aside from that, notable stops include checking out the Dakota Wall and the Devil’s Stairsteps.
Lesser known: “San Juan Skyway Byway” may sound a tad silly, but the vistas along this drive are no joke. Chances are (if you’re driving in from the direction of Denver or Grand Junction), your first stop will either be Durango or Ridgway, and from there it's 236 miles (roughly six hours) of mountains, valleys, small, quintessential Colorado mountain towns, and wildlife spotting in some strange polygon-shaped loop. Be amazed by the colors of the San Juan Mountains and San Juan National Forest, and delight in the beauty and charm of towns like Dolores, Telluride, and Ouray; it may be a long trek, but nearly every second of driving offers an unparalleled view of Southern Colorado in its prettiest season.
Close to home: Monarch Pass is a bit southwest of Denver but not so much that you can’t get out and back in a day. It takes about three hours from the city to reach it, where it’s nestled in the thick of the Pike, Gunnison, and San Isabel National Forests. It’s also only an hour to get through, with a summit overlooking the Sawatch Range and featuring a small gift shop and restaurant for pit-stops and refueling for the journey home. In addition to its accessibility depending on weather conditions, it also sees a fair amount of traffic from other leaf-peepers and outdoor enthusiasts, so be sure to build a little buffer time into your schedule just to be safe.
Peaks ~Oct. 10
Iconic: Known for being one of the most scenic drives in the state, you may also recognize Trail Ridge Road as the premier cruise through Rocky Mountain National Park. Beginning in Estes Park and ending in Grand Lake, the road stretches 48 miles through aspen, pine, fir, and spruce forests, sprawling valleys, and rugged alpine tundra. Hitting its highest point at 12,183 feet elevation, you’ll ascend above the treeline and just as quickly dip back below, meaning close-up and faraway landscape views of the changing leaves are equally available.
Lesser known: Perhaps not as lesser-known as some, Buffalo Pass still comes in a few notches down the fall foliage list from names like Trail Ridge Road and Independence Pass, despite its own impeccable views this time of year. The path is found just northeast of Steamboat Springs in the thick of Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests, whose golden aspens you’ll witness changing as soon as you begin heading uphill. This one’s a dirt road so 4WD is recommended, and another cool sight to see (aside from the leaves and mountain views) is the popular Fish Creek Falls. And if you made it out and back early enough in the day, consider continuing east via the Cache La Poudre North Park Byway, which connects nearby Walden and Fort Collins. Just be sure you have enough gas and snacks for the 101-mile trip.
Close to home: The Peak to Peak Scenic Byway—Colorado’s first scenic byway—can be found just west of Boulder, connecting picturesque Estes Park with the formidable I-70. Though not far from the major cities of central Colorado, this stretch of highway is one of the most scenic when it comes to fall foliage. All in all, it takes about three hours to complete, assuming you’re stopping along the way for the incredible photo ops. You’ll find a brilliant mix of shining gold aspens among deep evergreens, and if you’re feeling adventurous (and willing/able to traverse some gravel), you can explore the ghost towns of Hesse and Apex or feel the coolness breeze off some high altitude lakes.
Peaks ~Oct 17.
Iconic: This drive might be the quintessential fall foliage drive if you had to pick one. It’s got all the major players (Independence Pass, Maroon Bells, and a projected stopping point of Aspen) and can be completed in less than half a day. If you’ve got four-to-five hours to kill and a full tank of gas—and you’ve ensured that Independence Pass is indeed open to traffic—set out on a journey that’ll take you through Colorado’s highest incorporated community, past the impressive Mt. Elbert and Mt. Massive, over the Continental Divide (thrice) and on two additional passes: Tennessee and Fremont. You may frequent other leaf-peepers on this route, but rest assured it’s popular for good reason.
Lesser known: A particular part of this loop, Kebler Pass, is probably more well-known than some of the other—but equally exciting—sections that make up the West Elk Loop Scenic Byway. This drive is 205 miles and takes anywhere between six-to-eight hours to complete, but you’re getting a lot of bang for your buck given you’ll be cruising through Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, Gunnison, and White River National Forests. And that’s not even mentioning the views of Castle and Capitol Peaks. The 31-mile stretch of Kebler Pass is a gravel road and therefore only accessible given the right weather conditions, but the rest of the journey is available year-round. Start at Carbondale and head south down State Highway 133, then make the loop that connects Hotchkiss, Sapinero, Gunnison, and Crested Butte before landing you back at the intersection of Highway 133 and County Road 12.
Close to home: For this autumnal drive, we’re considering Grand Junction (or thereabouts) because while the Grand Mesa Scenic Byway is quite a ways away from Denver, it’s only a few miles east of Grand Valley and well worth the backroad navigation. Ideally, you’ll want to begin down in Cedaredge, making your way north until you reconnect with I-70 beyond Palisade. Keep in mind that this is yet another road at the mercy of weather conditions, so plan accordingly as you’re heading out (and be mindful that a portion is seasonal). This is also a shorter trip (about two hours) so if you’re in the area already, it’s a perfect leaf-peep to throw into the schedule. Expect the loveliness and history of Cedaredge, the sapphire-blue waters of Grand Mesa Lakes, and total beauty of the Grand Mesa National Forest.
Peaks ~Oct. 10
Iconic: You may know Guanella Pass for being the connector between Georgetown and Grant, and if you’ve ever braved the winding road up from (or down into) Georgetown, you know the climb is quick, high, and thick with trees. Meaning: the fall foliage is on-point. The road is closed seasonally once the real cold weather starts rolling in, but if you can make the trip out from Denver (it’s only an hour!) it’s worth it for the changing colors, especially passing the peak of Mt. Evans and alongside the pristine waters of Georgetown Lake.
Lesser known: Mestaa’Ėhehe Pass (formerly known as Squaw Pass) is often the precursor to the iconic climb up Mount Evans Scenic Byway—a 28-mile trip and the nation’s highest paved road at over 14,000 feet elevation—but is an autumnal delight all its own. Connecting off of Colorado State Highway 103, Mestaa’Ėhehe Pass provides connection among Idaho Springs, Echo Lake, and Evergreen via fully paved (though seasonal and weather-dependent) roads. While the fall foliage views are particularly epic, don’t bring any friends who can’t handle sharp turns and steep elevation changes; this road isn’t for the faint of heart.
Close to home: The Pikes Peak Highway has served as an elevation-gaining scenic byway for over 100 years, leading from Cascade, CO up to the summit of Pikes Peak. In addition to sweeping views of the valley below, climbing up the almost-7,000 feet in elevation change offers some close encounters with the changing leaves. Head west on Highway US-24 and turn left on Fountain Ave., then follow the signs. This is another road susceptible to weather conditions, so be sure to check before you head out. For stops along the way up (or once you’re at the top), check out Crystal Reservoir and Devils Playground.