Colorado Golden Nuggets: Autumn’s Sweet Spots

We live in a state that proudly proclaims itself to be “Colorful Colorado,” and it certainly is. From purple mountain majesties to amber waves of grain, summers here treat our eye’s color-receptor cones to a good workout. It only gets better in the fall when autumn alchemy transforms leafy hillsides into mother lodes of gold. That’s when the state truly earns its nickname.

It’s hard to miss fall brilliance in the Colorado Rockies. Drive over nearly any mountain pass, and the retinas are treated to optically-enflaming hues. From mid-September through mid-October, fiery foliage can be found somewhere on the slopes.

Here are a dozen of my favorite autumn color sites, garnered from nearly a quarter century of Rocky Mountain roaming. Each was chosen for its setting, scenery, serenity, ambience or activities available. I consider them to be Colorado’s true golden nuggets.

Lost Lake West Elk Scenic Byway
Lost Lake near West Elk Scenic Byway

Layover at Lost Lake

The road over Kebler Pass, Gunnison County Route 12, has long been a favorite drive of leaf lovers not afraid of getting their cars dirty. Part of the West Elk Scenic Byway, the unpaved road connects Crested Butte with Colorado Highway 133 near Paonia Reservoir.

While the entire route lies draped in color, my favorite spot on the road is Lost Lake Slough. This 10-acre pond lies 3 miles off the main road. That’s enough out of the way to keep most people at bay.

The pond’s sky-blue water mirrors glades of glistening aspen interspersed with swaths of dark green spruce, and the gray peaks of the Beckwith Mountains rise from the far shore. In the quiet of twilight, it’s common to spot deer, as well as birds, beavers and, some say, the occasional bear.

At 9,600 feet, mornings can be frosty, but I find that only makes the morning brew taste that much better. I sit back and watch the sun’s first rays ignite the trees, lingering through a second cup.

Touch Tundra in the Park

Those of us in Colorado sometimes forget how lucky we are to have Rocky Mountain National Park only a few hours’ drive away. Here, with the help of interpretative signs, visitor centers, nature trails and ranger-led walks and talks, we can learn about what makes our mountains so special.

One of those things is the critters. The park is famous for its elk and their fall bugling. Like paparazzi descending on Paris Hilton, animal voyeurs rush in to hear, observe and photograph this part of the antlered animal’s mating ritual.

Others of us simply come to drive Trail Ridge Road. Reaching a high point of 12,183 feet above sea level, this park-crossing highway is considered America’s highest continuous paved motorway.

While timbered slopes display veins of golden aspen, I love Trail Ridge’s stretch above timberline. Up here, it’s not trees that turn gold. It’s the groundcover. Fall turns miles of alpine tundra into a tawny carpet of color. The air smells of dry freshness, and if it wasn’t for distant craggy mountains, the views seemingly could extend forever.

Tarry Behind Telluride

Fall Foliage Throughout The State
Brilliant fall foliage can be seen from the streets of small towns throughout the state.

I first visited Telluride in the hippie days when the town showers were coed and the annual Bluegrass Festival was in its single-digit infancy. I’ve returned many times since. In spite of all my wandering around, I had never discovered lower Bear Creek Falls.

One autumn, I was near Telluride and needed a place to stop for the night. Instead of opting for sheets, I decided to roll my sleeping bag out in the town campground. Early the next morning, I ambled off for a walk.

A small trail led through the woods behind the town park where autumn-tinged leaves hung from the trees. The indirect morning light muted the colors, which ranged from greens and yellows to reds and maroons.

I soon heard Bear Creek gushing over stones, with leaves resting atop rocks and lazily floating in eddies. I followed the flow upstream toward the unmistakable bellow of cascading water. Ahead, the creek tumbled through a notch in the canyon, plummeting perhaps 10 feet down. Cheese-colored leaves banked its sides and patches of gilded aspen shimmered in the canyon above.

I stood, staring at the scene. There wasn’t anything here that was exceptionally spectacular. Instead, it was the setting’s softness. I felt I had reached a new level of subtleness in my Colorado autumn experience.

Creep to Crystal

The Crystal Mill has become a Colorado cliché. This iconic wooden structure, which sits on a cliff above the Crystal River, remains one of the most photographed buildings in the state. The challenge is getting there.

The first part of the drive is easy. From Carbondale, turn south on Colorado Highway 133 and follow the blacktop along the Crystal River toward McClure Pass. From where the stream and highway separate, a paved side road leads toward the hamlet of Marble.

Chair Mountain looms in the background, its flanks flaked in gold. For leaf-peepers in the family Buick, this is pretty much the end of the line.

The final leg to Crystal requires four-wheel-drive and decent ground clearance. The journey is slow and jolting. Those harboring a morbid fear of heights will find ample opportunity to leave grip marks in the grab handles.

Six miles from Marble, the 1880s silver-mining town of Crystal City appears, its timeworn structures surrounded by an aura of aspen. Surprisingly, the town is still inhabited by summer residents. Many of Crystal’s cabins sport new roofs and curtained windows.

While the community is intriguing, it’s the mill at town’s edge that draws me here. Sure, it’s a cliché, but I always take more pictures.

Frying Pan River
Visit the Frying Pan River to share fall’s beauty with the wildlife.

Do Dirt at the Dallas Divide

The San Juan Skyway offers a highway loop running from Ridgway to Durango, turning to Cortez and circling back to Ridgway. While the entire 236-mile route provides eye-popping color, many of us argue that its most scenic section lies between Ridgway and Placerville across the Dallas Divide.

The towering north face of Mount Sneffels looms above, a rocky pyramid flanked by Mordor-like dark and craggy ridges. At the height of autumn, golden aspen hem roadways, streak hillsides and line creeks. While leaf-peeping from the pavement can be exciting, I prefer to hit the dirt. Away from the highway, the leaves seem brighter, and I don’t need earplugs to hear the quiet.

The Dallas Divide offers several dirt-driving alternatives. Last Dollar Road departs the highway 1 mile west of the Dallas Divide summit. In dry weather, SUV owners can motor all the way to Telluride without once needing to hit the four-wheel-drive button.

Other off-pavement escapes include East Dallas Creek (Ouray County Route 7), about 5 miles west of Ridgway, and West Dallas Creek (Ouray County Route 9), another mile to the west. This latter public roadway crosses a corner of Ralph Lauren’s 22,000-acre Double RL Ranch, so be sure to close the gate. You wouldn’t want to let those polo ponies out.

Flying a Fly into the Frying Pan

I love fly fishing. I could watch it all day. Doing it, however, is another matter. When I tried it years ago, I ended up hooking more willows than fish.

I once asked a fisherman what he liked most about the sport, expecting to hear something about challenge, grace or thrill. He said it was none of that. He loved fly fishing because trout live in beautiful places, which he got to share with them.

One of those beautiful places is the Frying Pan River east of Basalt. Anglers joke that the river got its name because fish jump straight into the pan. In fall, that grandeur doubles as the riverside vegetation blushes in shades of yellow, orange and crimson. Seeing rainbow trout landed amid a rainbow of color is something I could watch all day.

Pedal the Paved Mineral Belt Trail

Mineral Belt Trail
Mineral Belt Trail and other paths are lined with autumn’s colors.

I’ve always liked Leadville. Maybe it’s the gritty aura exuded by this holdover mining town – its last big mine closed a decade ago. Or maybe it’s that Leadville reminds me a bit of Telluride back in the ‘70s – a mountain town not yet swamped by the rich and famous. Or maybe it’s simply the brain-muddling altitude – Leadville claims to be the loftiest city in the country, albeit a “city” with only two traffic lights.

When its last mine closed, city leaders realized that economic survival might depend on their ability to attract tourists. They spruced up Harrison Avenue, the town’s main street, and they installed old-fashioned street lamps to provide a more Victorian flavor. Best of all, they built the Mineral Belt Trail.

In the fall, when color mottles the hillsides, this pathway through history is one of my preferred places to pedal. The route passes deserted mining cabins, shacks, mines, head frames, loading docks, mills, cribbing, ore bins and smelter sites. Beside the rusted iron, broken glass and splintery boards stretch the silky smooth leaves of autumn. It’s Father Time meeting Mother Nature in a contrast of color and textures.

Stroll Silverton
Silverton is best known as a railway town. In the height of summer, arriving narrow-gauge train travelers descend on its shops like Potter fans besieging bookstores. Come autumn, trains are fewer and the town quiets down. That’s the best time for a stop ‘n’ stroll.

At one end of town, Storm Peak looks like a painter’s drop cloth. Its autumn slopes appear to be splattered with as many natural pigments as the artificial ones coloring its Victorian storefronts. On the other end of town lies Sultan Mountain. The aspen studding its conifer-clad slopes make it look like mustard splotches in mounds of relish.

For the historically inclined, the visitor center located near the entrance to town dispenses self-guided walking tour brochures. Strolling down the streets, I try to imagine what it must have been like to live here in the 1880s. Back then, Silverton boasted five hotels, 10 restaurants and 34 saloons. Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday visited town, and Wyatt Earp dealt cards at the Arlington Saloon not long after his famed fight at Arizona’s OK Corral.

Clomp Hooves Above Crested Butte

In summer, Crested Butte is the Wildflower Capital of Colorado. Come autumn, it could equally be the state’s gold-leaf capital. The hills around town are covered with swaths of aspen that shimmer in 24-carat autumn brilliance.

There are many ways to enjoy Crested Butte color. Street strollers can amble past unpretentious Victorian homes, their lawns dappled with falling leaves.

Those favoring two-wheel movement can mountain bike single-track paths into hills. Crested Butte claims a major role in the development of mountain biking, and the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame resides in the Crested Butte Mountain Heritage Museum.

For the hiker, trails beckon. My favorite is an overnight backpacking trip from nearby Gothic to Conundrum Hot Springs. The lung-taxing journey over Triangle Pass provides not only eye-candy color, but also the relaxing pleasure of a hot soak at the end. I just never remember to bring a masseuse.

When not perambulating, pedaling or packing, I like to ogle leaves from the back of a horse. The gentle sound of braying, the rhythmic clomp of hooves and the view from high in the saddle make riding autumn trails special. Best of all, I get to wear a cowboy hat and not feel silly.

Aspen Leaves Colorado Autumn
Aspen leaves make for a signature Colorado autumn.

Alight in Aspen

While Colorado ski resorts can be fantastic in the fall, probably none does a bigger seasonal transformation than Aspen.

In summer, this enclave on the Roaring Fork buzzes as residents and visitors enjoy the mountain atmosphere. Chords from the Aspen Music Festival ring in the air, Frisbees fly in the park, and Cadillac Escalades can be seen parked everywhere.

In a few months, winter will blanket the area in the white, and once again the town will buzz with residents and visitors enjoying the atmosphere. Then, the sound of chairlifts will ring in the air, skiers will fly down the slopes, and Cadillac Escalades will be seen parked everywhere.

Between the seasons, the town winds down. Streets empty. Restaurants seat without reservations. Shops offer clearance discounts and posh hostelries rent rooms at bargain prices. These fall lodging specials allow those of us with hamburger incomes an affordable opportunity to sample gourmet accommodations. Not only do I get to look out my four-star window and see neighboring hillsides caressed by the hand of Midas, but I get to pretend that the good king’s pinkie flicked a bit of that gold into my bank account.

Access Ashcroft

In their silver-mining heydays, Aspen and Ashcroft were contemporary rivals. The change came when Aspen got the railroad, and Ashcroft was left behind. Today, Aspen is the second-wealthiest zip code in America. Ashcroft is a ghost town at pavement’s end.

The communities sit a dozen miles apart, and the road between them is my favorite fall drive in the area. The route follows Castle Creek, twisting past hillsides gladed in gold. Because the trees spread from common roots, clusters of aspen share identical genetics. Leaves from the common stock change color concurrently. With groupings going at slightly different times, the valley ends up looking like a quilt of colors ranging from dainty yellow to burnt orange.

Ashcroft received minor stardom in the mid-’50s. Several of its structures provided a “Yukon” backdrop for the Sergeant Preston television series. Today, a few weather-beaten buildings in various states of disrepair stand scattered around a grassy meadow.

Wander the Weminuche

From a minimalist viewpoint, I think one of the most intimate ways to enjoy autumn color is to camp in it, and for that backpacking is best. In a backcountry camp, little more than the thin wall of a nylon tent ever separates me from the vibrant leaves.

One of my favorite places for color camping is the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. My first of many ventures into the area was over three decades ago.

I was living in Arizona at the time. Feeling the burning need to escape summer’s triple-digit heat, I persuaded friends to join me for a cool week of roaming the Weminuche Wilderness area. Little did we realize that we’d be going from scorching temperatures to blazing leaves.

We started near Vallecito Campground east of Durango. Over the next seven days, we tramped up creeks, valleys and hillsides toward the Continental Divide.

One day, I sat alone on a rock at the apex of an obscure pass. Below, aspen-bejeweled hillsides. Overhead, a hawk soared high on unseen thermals. Then it happened. I was young, naïve and couldn’t help myself, but looking at the scene, I actually started humming a John Denver song.

As we continued our journey, I innocently expected to find the now-departed singer camped somewhere around the corner or maybe at the next lake. I didn’t realize his “Starwood in Aspen” was actually a gated mansion community.

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

If You Go

The road over Kebler Pass, Gunnison County Route 12, has long been a favorite drive of leaf lovers not afraid of getting their cars dirty. Part of the West Elk Scenic Byway, the unpaved road connects Crested Butte with Colorado Highway 133 near Paonia Reservoir. You can also visit

Those of us in Colorado sometimes forget how lucky we are to have Rocky Mountain National Park only a few hours’ drive away. Here, with the help of interpretative signs, visitor centers, nature trails and ranger-led walks and talks, we can learn about what makes our mountains so special.

From first-time visitors to long-time locals, the Telluride area continues to captivate those with a desire to experience new adventures. Whether your interests lie in the dramatic beauty of our alpine environment, the intellectual allure of our arts community or the pleasures of just kicking back and relaxing.