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We’ve all seen those dreamy photos of Colorado’s golden aspens spreading across mountains and valleys as fall descends on the Rockies. They are a sight to behold, lighting up the mountainsides like fire.
As Colorado residents (and lovers of autumn), we’ve spent a lot of time roaming around our state searching for the best places to view stunning Colorado fall foliage.
In this post, we’ve put together a 4-day Colorado fall road trip itinerary so you can also experience the fall colors in Colorado first-hand. From the most scenic mountain pass drives to our favorite fall hikes, there’s something for every outdoor adventurer.
Important Reminder: As it goes in all of the destinations we share, please practice good trail etiquette and remember to Leave No Trace. This means packing out all of your garbage (including toilet paper), being respectful to others, and following the established rules.
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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 (be sure to pack your fall hiking layers though!).
Fall is also a shoulder season for tourism, so the crowds are mostly gone and there are great 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 fall 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!
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4-Day Colorado Fall Road Trip Itinerary
Each leg of this fall Colorado fall foliage itinerary 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.
Leg 1: Denver to Vail
- Route: Rocky Mountain National Park and Steamboat Springs – MAP
- Distance: 319 miles
- Drive time: 7.5 hours
We start off this fall road trip with a bang.
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
- Route: Aspen and Carbondale – MAP
- Distance: 207 miles
- Drive time: 6 hours
This leg of the road trip is the highlight. Don’t get me wrong, everywhere on this itinerary 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.
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
- Route: Silverton and Durango – MAP
- Distance: 259 miles
- 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.
Bonus Hike: The Colorado Trail from Molas Pass to the Animas River
This hike is a little backward, 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.
Check out some of the best hikes in Telluride while you’re there.
Leg 4: Pagosa Springs to Denver
- Route: Salida, Fairplay, and Georgetown – MAP
- Distance: 389 miles
- Drive time: 8 hours
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 in Colorado 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!
If you’re looking for more Colorado road trip resources, check out these blog posts:
Are you planning a Colorado fall road trip? Where is your favorite place to see Colorado fall foliage? Leave a comment below!