I may not be totally ready to say goodbye to summer, but this Colorado fall colors road trip itinerary by Ben and Jenna Thomas – my go-to Colorado experts here at Bearfoot Theory – has me pretty jazzed about cooler temps and colorful changing aspens leaves.
We’ve all seen those dreamy photos of Colorado’s golden aspens and they are a sight to behold. By following this road trip itinerary you can also experience Colorado’s best fall colors first-hand. This itinerary has got me thinking that it might just be time to break out that fall sweater and hop on the next flight to Denver, or even better, head that way in the van.
Here is a 4-day fall road trip itinerary to experience Colorado’s fall colors and the best fall hikes in the Rockies.
Fall in Colorado: An Overview
Growing up in Denver, it always seemed like the warm, lazy days of summer instantly turned into dark, snowy dredge of winter. There were only a handful of days with cool temps and changing leaves. If Fall did make an appearance for more than a couple of days, though, it was in the mountains.
Although it‘s usually brief, Fall in the Colorado mountains is the greatest. Temperatures have cooled down and the weather is stable enough to spend all day outside without getting caught in afternoon thunderstorms. Fall is also a shoulder season for tourism, so the crowds are mostly gone and there are deals to be found. But most of all, the leaves, they are a-changing!
In Colorado, that means the aspens turn GOLD. Seeing the aspen colors at their peak in late September/early October is a lifetime must-do.
I have a personal affinity for road trips, so below I’ve outlined the ultimate Colorado leaf-peeping road trip. It covers the entire state, with each leg of the trip hitting the biggest and best aspen groves.
Depending on your fall road trip time constraints, you can do the whole itinerary as one trip or take on any of the individual legs for a day or weekend escape from Denver while the leaves are changing. You will not be disappointed!
4-Day Colorado Fall Colors Road Trip Itinerary
Each leg of this fall Colorado road trip includes a bonus hike as an option so you can check out the beauty of the fall colors up close and stretch your legs a bit. Detailed driving directions can be found by clicking on MAP underneath each driving leg, sending you to a Google map for that specific leg. The driving is all on highways, so any passenger car should be able to handle it, no four-wheel-drive necessary. Without further ado, let’s get rolling!
Leg 1: Denver to Vail
Via Rocky Mountain National Park and Steamboat Springs – MAP
Drive-time: 7.5 hours
We start off this fall road trip with a bang. Leaving Denver, enter the mountains through Golden Gate Canyon State Park. This little state park outside of Golden is a great quick escape into the foothills and offers more aspen viewing than nearby Clear Creek Canyon.
Eventually, you’ll hit the Peak to Peak highway, heading north through Nederland to Estes Park and the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. Enter the park and head up Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved road in the lower 48.
Trail Ridge takes you up and over the Continental Divide, rising up through pine and aspen forests to above the treeline, giving you uninterrupted views of the changing trees all the way over Colorado’s most famous national park.
Once out of the park, you’ll head west over Rabbit Ears Pass to Steamboat Springs, taking the scenic route down back south behind the Gore Range. Once you hit I-70, head east to Vail and enjoy the Colorado alpine town in all its golden splendor.
Bonus Hike: Bierstadt Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. Make the most of your park entrance fee in Rocky Mountain National Park by stretching your legs on this 2.4-mile roundtrip hike. Views stretch back into Glacier Gorge toward the Continental Divide and Longs Peak, with aspens changing below. Get more trail info here. For other hikes in the Park, check out our guide on the Best Day Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Leg 2: Vail to Crested Butte
Via Aspen and Carbondale – MAP
Drive-time: 6 hours
This leg of the road trip is the highlight. Don’t get me wrong, everywhere on this list is spectacular, but the combination of Vail, Independence, McClure, and Kebler Passes might be beauty overload. Each pass alone could be a weekend (or week-long) trip. But here they combine to form leg two of our ultimate Colorado fall colors road trip.
The driving distance on this leg is a bit shorter, but you’ll want every second to stop for photos and soak in the magnificence.
Head east on I-70 over Vail Pass and enjoy the huge aspen stands on Copper Mountain. Exit the highway at Copper and drive over Fremont Pass to Leadville and its mega-views of Mount Massive and the highest peak of Colorado, Mount Elbert.
Leadville was once considered for the capital of Colorado. Its historic downtown and incredible views warrant a stop for lunch or a quick walk around town. When you leave, take CO-24 south to Twin Lakes, then turn west onto CO-82.
Head up and over Independence Pass (where you’ll most likely see the aspens go into overdrive) and then descend down into the aptly-named town of Aspen. If you want to stop and hang out in Aspen for a bit, make sure to check out our Local’s Guide to Aspen for our favorite hikes, restaurants, and watering holes.
Once you can tear yourself away from Aspen, drive on down the Roaring Fork Valley to Carbondale. Then, head south on CO-133 up McClure Pass and the dramatic Ragged Mountains.
Stretch your legs at the top of McClure Pass in the aspen grove on the northwest side of the road. This place is magical; soak it in. Once you feel ready, head down to just past Paonia Reservoir and turn left onto CO-12.
Saving the biggest (and some would say best) for last is Kebler Pass, home of the largest aspen grove in the state. Finish your day by rolling into Crested Butte and celebrate with a pizza at the Secret Stash (and have an extra slice for me).
Bonus Hike: Capitol Lake via the Capitol Ditch Trail. Lose some of the leaf-peeping crowds that flock to Maroon Lake near Aspen and become surrounded by aspen trees on this beautiful 12-mile out and back. Heads up, the road to this trailhead requires high clearance (~7 inches) 4WD for the last mile. Get more trail info here.
Leg 3: Crested Butte to Pagosa Springs
Via Silverton and Durango – MAP
Drive-time: 5.5 hours
Leg 3 is another shorter day drive-time wise, but for good reason. You’re heading down to the western slope and then beyond into the San Juans, Colorado’s most dramatic mountain range which are often amplified by fall aspen leaf beauty.
Leave Crested Butte through Gunnison, and head west towards Montrose. Enjoy the views past Curecanti Reservoir and if you have time for a detour, check out Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
In Montrose, turn south onto US-550, enjoying the views of the Sneffels Range as it grows from a distant tease to a magnificent mountain crown! At Ridgway, stay on US-550 through Ouray up and over the Million Dollar Highway of Red Mountain Pass.
BE CAREFUL driving this section! The mountains here are steep and dramatic and sometimes the road is steep and dramatic as well. This is a paved highway, but there are long, steep drops just off the road, so pay attention.
Once you get to the top of Red Mountain Pass, the road calms down and the views keep ramping up as you drive into Silverton. Silverton is a quirky former mining town revived by the extreme sports of ultra-trail-marathons and backcountry skiing. It’s a great place to stretch your legs before the next section of this drive.
Beyond Silverton, you’ll head up and over Molas Pass to Durango, with incredible views towards the Needle Mountains into the Weminuche Wilderness, the largest wilderness area in Colorado. Once you’ve reached Durango, head east on US-160 to Pagosa Springs, continuing to border the Weminuche Wilderness.
Bonus Hike: The Colorado Trail from Molas Pass to the Animas River. This hike is a little backwards, which makes it kind of fun. Start at the top of Molas Pass and hike down on the Colorado Trail to the Animas River and the train tracks of the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge railway. On the way, you’ll pass into the tree line (and through aspens of course) with close-up views of the impressive Vestal Peak. It’s four miles down to the river, dropping 3,000 feet in the process. Remember, you’ll have to climb all the way back up if you make it all the way down to the river!
Bonus Driving Leg: Dallas Divide from Ridgway towards Telluride, CO-62. I wanted this road trip to be a true loop with no backtracking. That meant cutting off a couple of spots that didn’t quite fit. But Dallas Divide and Telluride are SO BEAUTIFUL in the fall, I have to at least mention them. If you have the time, the views in this area are well worth the effort to turn around and head back the way you came.
Leg 4: Pagosa Springs to Denver
Via Salida, Fairplay, and Georgetown – MAP
Drive-time: 8 hours
From Pagosa Springs, head east past South Fork and into the San Luis Valley, the Rift Valley of North America. While you could take US-285 all the way to Salida through the valley, I recommend taking the more scenic back way via routes 114 and 50.
Then it’s east, up and over Monarch Pass to enjoy the view of two towering fourteeners, Tabeguache and Shavano, on the way down to Salida. Head north all the way through the South Park Valley, checking off Fairplay and Jefferson and up Kenosha Pass. Kenosha Pass during peak color is one of the best, a fitting way to head back toward Denver.
But we’re not done yet! When you reach Grant, head up and over Guanella Pass into Georgetown (maybe hike Mount Bierstadt if you feel like tackling a fourteener). After Georgetown, briefly hop on I-70 until Idaho Springs. There you’ll exit for Squaw Mountain Pass, where you’ll get your last fix of aspen tree glory before meeting up with the Interstate once again and finally heading back into Denver.
Bonus Hike: Colorado Trail from Kenosha Pass south toward Georgia Pass. Kenosha Pass in the fall is too pretty to not get out of the car and wander through the trees a bit. The view to South Park Valley and Front Range mountains only gets more impressive when there are golden branches framing them! Get more trail info here.
Extra Bonus Hike: San Luis Peak between Saguache and Gunnison. If the weather is favorable, San Luis Peak is the most remote fourteener in Colorado. It is an awesome 13-mile, class 1 trail that rewards hikers with some golden aspens on the way to the top. Get more trail info here.
Whew, there you have it! Twenty-seven hours of some of the prettiest fall colors driving in the world, literally. Fall is the most wonderful time of the year in Colorado for a road trip; now get out there and enjoy!
Where is your favorite place to view fall colors in Colorado? Leave a comment below!