Colorado color begins at higher altitudes and works its way down, yielding golden foliage from mid-September through early-October. This is a quiet time in Aspen, Colorado’s ritzy resort in the Rockies. Streets empty, restaurants seat without lines and opulent hotels, such as the St. Regis, The Little Nell and Jerome, offer caviar-quality quarters at steak-and-potato prices.
Plus, there are mountains of gilded leaves to ogle over as you travel to Aspen for a long weekend getaway.
Maroon Creek Road, which begins 0.5 mile west of downtown, provides introductory views of Aspen’s autumn hues. The 9-mile route traverses a corridor of color to reach Maroon Lake. There, the famous Maroon Bells, a pair of 14,000-foot pyramids, reflect like twin diamonds in a 24-carat, gold-leaf setting.
Castle Creek Road branches from the Maroon Creek Road about a quarter-mile from Colorado Highway 82. After 11-miles through a Midas-touched valley, the pavement terminates at the ghost town of Ashcroft, whose weather-beaten structures stand against a backdrop of somber crags and brilliant leaves.
Another ghost town, Independence, lies near the top of Independence Pass. One of the state’s most dramatic auto routes, Colorado Highway 82 leads southeast from Aspen on a twisting, 19-mile jaunt to the Continental Divide, 12,095-feet above sea level. Translucent-leafed aspen, some lemon yellow and others tangerine orange, line the highway. Fir and spruce add dollops of forest green. The sky glows cerulean blue, and mountains tower brick red and battleship gray. The scene could take every crayon in the box to draw.
In the opposite direction from Aspen, Colorado Highway 82 drops 30 miles down the Roaring Fork Valley to Carbondale where it meets Colorado Highway 133. Sixteen miles up this roadway lies Redstone, a shady hamlet inhabited by artisans and shopkeepers for whom lifestyle seems more important than profit.
The highway continues another 10 miles toward the 8,763-foot summit of McClure Pass. Chair Mountain dominates the skyline, with its autumn-upholstered slopes looking like the victim of a mustard-and-relish food fight.
At the base of the pass, a county road turns toward the tiny community of Marble, where stone for the Lincoln Memorial was quarried. Beyond its restaurant and few inns, the track turns to dirt, and four-wheel-drive is soon needed. Those lacking a suitable vehicle can ride with Crystal River 4×4 Tours (970-963-1991, www.coloradodirectory.com/crystaltours).
Six miles from Marble, the road passes the oft-photographed Crystal Mill and enters Crystal City, an 1880s silver-mining ghost town awash in auric aspen. Many of the timeworn miners’ shacks, now privately owned, serve as rustic retreats with wood-burning stoves and two-hole outhouses. It’s a far cry from the posh luxury of Aspen.
Swimmers can splash in the world’s largest outdoor hot-springs pool in Glenwood Springs (800-537-7946, www.hotspringspool.com). Anglers can fling flies at football-sized rainbows in the Frying Pan River, one of Colorado’s “Gold Medal Waters” east of Ashcroft. Hikers can tax muscles in Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area, while those whose muscles need kneading can try out the new Remede Spa (970-429-9038, www.stregisaspen.com/spa) at the St. Regis.
If You Go
For reservations and fall foliage information, contact the Aspen Chamber of Commerce, 800-670-0792, www.aspenchamber.org.
For luxury hotel accommodations, contact:
St. Regis, 970-920-3300, www.stregisaspen.com
Little Nell, 888-843-6355, www.thelittlenell.com
or Hotel Jerome, 970-920-1000, www.hoteljerome.rockresorts.com
Dan Leeth is a freelance writer who lives in Aurora. Visit his website, lookingfortheworld.com.