Colorado Gold: Back Roads to Beauty

Colorado Gold: Back Roads to Beauty 3Come September, the mountains of Colorado make their annual grand-to-gaudy transformation. Alpine meadows turn straw yellow, and aspen-plastered hillsides become swaths of quaking gold.

While virtually any road ascending the Rockies offers glimpses of gilded color, drivers with good tread, a bit of time and a willingness to do dirt will discover that the best leaf-peeping comes well back of the blacktop.

Away from pavement, the environment tends to be more intimate. Trees, grasses and shrubs often grow mere feet from the roadway, with gold-leafed branches frequently forming tunnel-like canopies across the route.

The pace of travel becomes slower and more relaxing. People greet fellow motorists with a wave instead of a finger. Speeds stay grandparently slow, and traffic generally remains light. Instead of contending with impatient tailgaters, leaf-peepers can (and should) simply move over and let the faster folks by.

Colorado Gold: Back Roads to Beauty 4
Leaf peepers venture out this time of year to see Colorado's autumn display.

For those willing to bunk in the backcountry, most back-road routes pass quiet campgrounds, which remain deliciously underused this time of year. Those same sites provide prime picnic spots.

There are, of course, some disadvantages to gravel travel. For example, cars are going to get dirty. Flying rocks may chip windshields, which is why courteous drivers slow down when approaching other vehicles. Rain can turn dirt roads into muddy quagmires, and snow can make uphill climbs Teflon-slick. Worst of all, cellaholics in the outback may actually have to hang up and drive due to an absence of coverage.

For those interested in experiencing autumn away from asphalt, here are five Colorado color routes to try. All are normally suitable for the family sedan or minivan. Since weather and the road grader’s vacation schedule can affect driving conditions, it’s always good to inquire locally before setting out. Pack food and water, make sure the gas tank is filled, and think about prepaying for a carwash.

FLAT TOPS TRAIL SCENIC BYWAY

The route:
This 82-mile byway (40 of which remain unpaved) in northwestern Colorado crosses the White River Plateau. Take Routt County Road 17 west from Yampa (Colorado Highway 131) or Rio Blanco County Road 8 east from Meeker and follow the scenic byway signs.

The drive:
From Yampa, the route passes ranch pastures and meadows garnished with mustard-hued aspen. Low peaks cap the view along a road that is wide, well graded and rife with pullouts. Atop 9,763-foot Dunckley Pass, leaf-lovers can ogle a Noah-worthy flood of aspen yellow inundating the valley below.

The road descends to the East Fork of the Williams Fork River where silvery cascades splash past golden grasses. In this bucolic backcountry, family outfitters offer horseback rides and pack trips, and shepherds and sheepdogs herd flocks down the roadway.

Thick aspen groves flank both sides of the road. Colors range from lemon yellow to watermelon pink, with slices of pomegranate, papaya and pumpkin thrown in the leafy compote mix. As the route climbs toward 10,343-foot Ripple Creek Pass, gilded aspen give way to coniferous evergreens. Flaming hues ignite again as the road winds down into White River Valley and ranchlands near Meeker.

Looking for more?
An 11-mile spur road leads to Trappers Lake where a forest fire burned 17,000 acres in 2002. Hillsides still show an interesting array of blackened trunks and charred stumps. Firefighters saved many structures in the area, but unfortunately, some of the buildings at the historic Trappers Lake Lodge (970-878-3336, www.trapperslake.com) lodge became part of the big barbecue. A new lodge dining room has since been built, and it still serves a tasty lunch.

Colorado Gold: Back Roads to Beauty 5
Autumn road travelers can choose to camp in Colorado's colorful country.

BUFFALO PASS

The route:
This 34-mile route crosses the Park Range between Hebron (off Colorado Highway 14) and Steamboat Springs in northwestern Colorado. From the east, follow Jackson County Road 24. From the west, turn up Routt County Road 38 from the north side of Steamboat Springs.

The drive:
The well-graded roadway from Hebron ascends toward the mountains, passing ranchlands along the way. Nearby aspen burst with 24-carat hues of yellow and orange. Higher up, the golden trees give way to brassy grass and bronze willows. Near Buffalo Pass sits Summit Lake and adjoining campground. From here, hiking trails lead north into the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area.

Gilded color soon reappears on the west side of the pass, where distant hillsides look like a sloppy painter’s drop cloth splattered with Sherwin-Williams’ best. An arboreal wall of yellow soon lines the twisty roadway. In the valley below, tall conifers poke through the sea of aspen, looking like dark-green sails set adrift in an ocean of leafy gold. Backlit by an afternoon sun, the scene appears iridescent.

Looking for more?
Instead of turning toward Steamboat Springs at road’s end, head 5 miles north on Routt County Road 36 toward Strawberry Park Hot Springs (970-879-0342, www.strawberryhotsprings.com) for a soak in the woods. Geothermally heated water, which flows from the rock at a scalding 150 degrees, is tempered by a cool mountain stream in rock-studded soaking pools. Prices run $10 for adults, $5 for teens (13-17) and $3 for kids (3-12).

SHRINE PASS

The route:
From the Interstate 70 rest area at Exit 190 on Vail Pass, take Forest Service Road 712 toward 11,089-foot Shrine Pass. The 11-mile drive ends in Red Cliff off U.S. Highway 24 between Minturn and Leadville. The surface can be more dirt than gravel in places, so this is not a suggested route after heavy precipitation.

The drive:
The road starts from Vail Pass, climbing 2 miles to the broad saddle of Shrine Pass. Up high, grasses and willows provide the bulk of the color, scenting the air with the vegetable-like aroma of a farmers’ market. One soon catches glimpses across the valley to Mount of the Holy Cross, one of Colorado’s famed 14,000-foot peaks.

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On many mountain passes, aspen groves create walls of color.

As the road drops, the color becomes more robust with south-facing hillsides appearing to be garbed in robes of leafy gold. Silvery cliff bands accent the gilded ensemble. The road soon follows Turkey Creek, a willow-lined mountain stream with beaver dams in its lower reaches. Gravel turns to blacktop in the bygone mining town of Red Cliff where Mango’s Mountain Grill (970-827-9109, mangosmountaingrill.com) can satiate hunger with mounds of colorful cuisine.

Looking for more?
Park the car at the Holy Cross lookout, about 3.7 miles from Vail Pass, and take the quarter-mile walk to Julia’s Deck. The open structure overlooks Mount of the Holy Cross, which got its name from a pair of face-slicing gorges that resemble the Christian cross when packed with snow. Unfortunately, those holy gullies will have long melted dry by fall foliage season.

WESTON PASS

The route:
The 27-mile route over the Mosquito Range connects South Park with the upper Arkansas River Valley. From U.S. Highway 285, turn on Park County Route 5, about 11 miles south of Fairplay. The 16-mile drive to the summit is suitable for most passenger cars.

The drive:
The first few miles of this historic stagecoach route stand dappled with color. Homes dot hillsides and ranches quilt the lowlands. Out here, horses gallop across pastures bordered with aspen. On its lower reaches, the feeling is of broad valleys and wide open spaces. The merging of yellow grasses and amber hillsides can make the scene appear almost monochromic.

The big sky aura soon gives way to towering mountains as the valley tightens around the South Fork of the South Platte River. Trees become less shy, and color soon lines the climbing roadway. A final reward comes at the top of the 11,921-foot pass with unimpeded views toward South Park to the east and the towering Sawatch Range to the west.

Looking for more?
Drivers with four-wheel-drive and a willingness to tackle rocky terrain can continue over Weston Pass. High clearance is highly desirable, with mini-SUVs in danger of banging bottoms. Fortunately, the 11-mile road improves with every mile of descent. Nuggets of gold speckle the hills from about midway down. Pavement returns at Mount Massive Lakes, a hillside home development 2 miles from U.S. Highway 24.

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On fall foliage trips there's enough photo ops to keep any shutter bug happy.

KEBLER PASS

The route:
Part of the West Elk Scenic Byway, this 31-mile route over Kebler Pass connects Crested Butte with Colorado Highway 133 south of Paonia Reservoir. In Crested Butte, turn up White Rock Avenue, which becomes Gunnison County Road 12. From the west, follow Colorado 133 to the Gunnison County Road 12 turnoff, about 19 miles south of McClure Pass.

The drive:
If there’s a serious photographer in the vehicle, traversing Kebler Pass can be painfully slow. After all, shutterbugs consider this Rocky Mountain classic to be one of the most photogenic fall drives in Colorado.

From Crested Butte, the color comes quickly as the route dances its way upward beside a trout stream. Ahead, a palette of eye-pleasing pigments paints the scene as if the landscape were a surrealistic fruit bowl bursting with bananas, mangos and oranges.

The best color comes past the pass where peaks of the Ruby Range loom over the aptly named Raggeds Wilderness Area to the north. Entire hillsides appear to be covered with fluffy clumps of gilded texture. The closeness of the color bestows a feeling of autumnal intimacy with leaves speckling roads, cloaking hillsides and canopying the route with a tunnel of gold.

On its western end, the road drops into riverside ranchlands studded with yellow-hued cottonwoods and willows. All too soon, pavement reappears and carwashes beckon.

Looking for more?

For camping, a picnic or a trout’s-eye glimpse of the area, take the side trip to Lake Irwin. The open views of towering mountains and reflective water are worth the short detour. A 1-mile spur road leads to the lake from just east of Kebler Pass.

Dan Leeth is a freelance writer who lives in Aurora. Visit his website, lookingfortheworld.com.

If You Go

FLAT TOPS TRAIL SCENIC BYWAY

The route:
This 82-mile byway (40 of which remain unpaved) in northwestern Colorado crosses the White River Plateau. Take Routt County Road 17 west from Yampa (Colorado Highway 131) or Rio Blanco County Road 8 east from Meeker and follow the scenic byway signs.

BUFFALO PASS

The route:
This 34-mile route crosses the Park Range between Hebron (off Colorado Highway 14) and Steamboat Springs in northwestern Colorado. From the east, follow Jackson County Road 24. From the west, turn up Routt County Road 38 from the north side of Steamboat Springs.

SHRINE PASS

The route:
From the Interstate 70 rest area at Exit 190 on Vail Pass, take Forest Service Road 712 toward 11,089-foot Shrine Pass. The 11-mile drive ends in Red Cliff off U.S. Highway 24 between Minturn and Leadville. The surface can be more dirt than gravel in places, so this is not a suggested route after heavy precipitation.

WESTON PASS

The route:
The 27-mile route over the Mosquito Range connects South Park with the upper Arkansas River Valley. From U.S. Highway 285, turn on Park County Route 5, about 11 miles south of Fairplay. The 16-mile drive to the summit is suitable for most passenger cars.

KEBLER PASS

The route:
Part of the West Elk Scenic Byway, this 31-mile route over Kebler Pass connects Crested Butte with Colorado Highway 133 south of Paonia Reservoir. In Crested Butte, turn up White Rock Avenue, which becomes Gunnison County Road 12. From the west, follow Colorado 133 to the Gunnison County Road 12 turnoff, about 19 miles south of McClure Pass.

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