September is Colorado’s golden month. The weather is cool, but sunny and inviting. The aspen put on a spectacular display before the winter. It is the perfect time to head out for a drive and enjoy the high country. Keep in mind that the aspen in the high country change much sooner than those on the front range. You will have to catch these brief blazes of glory by mid-September if you want the best show. The Smokey Mountains offers a fun interactive leaf prediction map for the entire country during the fall of 2017. You can watch the map predict when the leaves will be at their peak where you are. If you plan to head into the mountains, here are three drives that will not disappoint.
An easy loop that will take you from Denver and back again starts on Hwy 285. From C-470 take this highway south towards Fairplay. You will pass through the stunning display while the South Platte River flows down the mountains alongside the highway. The summit of Kenosha Pass offers spectacular views, access to the Colorado Trail, and a comfortable picnic area. Descending the pass into South Park, you will have an exquisite vista of this high mountain plain. Take a right at Hwy 9 in Fairplay to summit Hoosier Pass and drop into Breckenridge. Stop here and enjoy the foliage along the Blue River. Then continue on Hwy 9 to Frisco. Instead of taking I-70 from Frisco, take a right on Dillon Dam Road and savor the scenic views along Lake Dillon. From the Dillon/Silverthorne area you can get back on I-70 and return to Denver. This entire route is paved and is easy for any vehicle to manage.
If you are feeling adventurous, Boreas Pass offers an alternative to Hwy 9 and Hoosier Pass. Take Hwy 285 as you would toward Fairplay. After Kenosha Pass, take a right in Como (before Fairplay) off of Hwy 285 and follow Boreas Pass into Breckenridge. This pass is unpaved for the majority of the route, but is passable for most vehicles. At the top of the pass stop to take a hike on the well-developed Black Powder Pass trail. The aspen and views along this pass are magical. Boreas Pass is closed in the winter, so be sure to go before the snow flies. If you stay in Breckenridge for a day or two, hike McCullough Gulch or take the Gondola to the top of Peak 8 for even more golden vistas.
Aspen is named for the trees that are so irresistible in September. There are several enticing leaf peeping drives in this area and getting there can be another adventure! To take the long way, drive Hwy 285 South all the way to Buena Vista. Go north on Hwy 24 through Buena Vista. The Arkansas River rolls along this road and there are beautiful cliffs and canyons to take in. At In-dependence Pass or Hwy 82, head towards Aspen. This will bring you along Twin Lakes and to the summit for high alpine views of fall foliage. Once in Aspen, The Aspen Chamber suggests driving Maroon Creek Drive and Castle Creek Road. See the famously photographed Maroon Bells in person. Take I-70 home and stop in Glenwood Spring for a soak in the hot springs, or hike the spectacular Hanging Lakes Trail.
Trail Ridge Road
Rocky Mountain National Park is right in Denver’s backyard. For one of the most scenic loops through the park and back, take Hwy 6 through Golden, head north on Hwy 119 towards Black Hawk. Stay on Hwy 72 to Estes Park. Enter the park on the east side and drive the famous Trail Ridge Road across the top of the park. Exit through Grand Lake on the west side. Go south on HWY 40, through the Winter Park area, taking Berthoud Pass back to I-70. Rocky Mountain National Park is extremely busy on the weekends during peak leaf season, so plan to visit during the week, or start out early in the morning to avoid long lines. Remember that entrance to the park will require a fee.
These three leaf peeping trips will inspire awe and wonder as you experience the most stunning views Colorado has to offer. As you head out, keep in mind that early in the morning is often the best time for views. Afternoon thunderstorms can obscures views at high altitudes. Also, be pre-pared for cooler temperatures and intense sun. High altitudes are often much chillier than weather on the Front Range. Don’t forget sunscreen. Even a few minutes of exposure at high altitudes can cause skin damage. With a little planning you can spend a day or weekend enjoying one of Colorado’s most glorious seasons.