Where to go leaf peeping, see fall colors in Colorado

It’s one of the best times of the year: Fall color creeps through Colorado, giving us our annual autumn show.


It’s time to start making plans. Dan West, a Colorado State Forest Service entomologist who teaches at Colorado State University, gave us a list of his favorite leaf-peeping spots:

U.S. 285 over Kenosha Pass

This is one of Colorado’s favorite road trips for aspen-viewing, although it can be difficult to score a parking spot on the pass. In fact, “It gets kind of ugly up there,” U.S. Forest Service district ranger Josh Voorhis says. If you do find a parking spot, there are trails to hike through spectacular aspen stands. For a more extended trip, continue driving west from the pass on 285 to Como, then take the gravel Boreas Pass Road over to Breckenridge. You can return to Denver by way of Interstate 70.

Peak to Peak Highway

Otherwise known as Colorado Highway 72, the stretch between Nederland on the south and Allenspark on the north is a great place for aspen-gazing by car or bike ride. You might want to consider a side trip to Brainard Lake, too, which you’ll find at a turnoff to the west about halfway between Nederland and Allenspark.

RELATED: 20 Colorado hikes for spectacular fall color

Endovalley in Rocky Mountain National Park

You’ll find this by taking U.S. 34 (also known as Fall River Road) west from Estes Park. About 2.5 miles past the Fall River Visitor Center, turn right (west) at Endovalley Road. About two miles up Endovalley Road, there is a loop with a picnic area. You can take this loop and then head east back to U.S. 34 or continue west on the Old Fall River Road. This is a gravel road that is one-way westbound until it dead-ends at the Alpine Visitor Center high on Trail Ridge Road. From there, you can take Trail Ridge to the park’s Grand Lake Entrance to view the Kawunechee Valley (see below) or return to Estes Park via Trail Ridge.

Kawunechee Valley in Rocky Mountain National Park

This valley on the west side of the park runs north and south along U.S. 34 (Trail Ridge Road), paralleling the upper reaches of the Colorado River.

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Poudre Canyon/Laramie River valley

Take Colorado Highway 14 west from Fort Collins into Poudre Canyon to see colorful cottonwoods. About 50 miles up the canyon, turn north at County Road 103 and head into the Laramie River valley for gorgeous aspens and willows.

Poudre River Trail in Fort Collins

Here you will find cottonwoods turning yellow, which can turn a simple evening stroll in town into a special autumn treat.

Vail/Eagle area

There are great aspen stands all over this area, including slopes that rise above Interstate 70 east of Vail Village. One great option is to drive south on U.S. 24 from Minturn to Leadville over Tennessee Pass. Another goes north from Vail on Red Sandstone Road to Forest Service roads 700 and 701, terminating at Piney Lake, which is simply one of the most beautiful spots in Colorado. Here, rugged peaks of the Gore Range serve as a stunning backdrop for an idyllic lake where you can see their reflections — along with changing aspens, too. “Oh my goodness, it’s gorgeous up there,” said Marcia Gilles, deputy district ranger for the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District. Yet another good drive goes west from Vail Pass over Shrine Pass to Red Cliff via Forest Road 709.

Flat Tops Trail Scenic Byway

Get away from the crowds and experience this beautiful 82-mile drive between Yampa and Meeker, much of which traverses open rangeland and about half of which is paved. It traverses the White River Plateau to the north of the Flat Tops Wilderness Area. Dunckley Pass (9,763 feet) and Ripple Creek Pass (10,343) offer panoramic views. Visitors are advised to check their fuel gauges before making the drive because there are no gas stations between Yampa and Meeker.

La Veta Pass

This drive on U.S. 160 west of Walsenburg crosses the Sangre de Cristo Range between the eastern plains and the San Luis Valley. At the pass (9,413 feet), there is a panoramic vista overlooking an open bowl.

Crested Butte area

There are very scenic routes out of Crested Butte, but most are out-and-back dirt roads with slow speed limits, and they can be crowded in leaf-peeping season. One great drive that might prove less challenging heads up and over Kebler Pass, through one of the most renowned aspen stands in the state, and continues another 25 miles to Colorado Highway 133 at Paonia State Park. From there, you can go north to McClure Pass and Carbondale or west to Grand Mesa. Both are great for aspen-viewing.

Grand Mesa

The world’s largest flat-top mountain,15 miles east of Grand Junction, is a great destination for fall colors. Cross the mesa on the Grand Mesa Scenic Byway, a 50-mile drive from the town of Mesa on the north to Cedaredge on the south, and you’ll see fall colors pretty much the whole way. Stop at the Grand Mesa Visitor Center at the top of the mesa for more information. There are many beautiful lakes on the top of the mesa, and don’t miss the Lands End Overlook, about 10 miles west of the scenic byway via Lands End Road on the western rim of the mesa, which offers soaring views of the Grand Valley.

A view of Mount Sneffels

Finally, here’s one from a reader: “About 6 miles west of Ridgway on Highway 62, there is a pull-off where photographers assemble to photograph Mount Sneffels with magnificent color. A great panorama photograph.” Mount Sneffels is a beautiful fourteener.

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