Best road trips to enjoy Colorado's fall colors

Morgan Tilton
The Maroon Bells in autumn.(Photo by the Aspen Chamber.)

Colorado has more nationally designated scenic byways than any other state in the country.

Across the Centennial State, 13 byways have been recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation’s National Scenic Byways Program because of their scenic, recreational, cultural, natural, and archeological qualities.

Many of the most acclaimed roadways are also home to the state’s white-barked aspen groves with bright green leaves that transition to rich tones of apricot, gold, and crimson once the days shorten.

Here are a handful of iconic byways and mountain passes to put on your bucket list for a leaf-peeping road trip this fall.

Don’t forget your camera.
The Interlaken Resort at Twin Lakes.(Photo by Colorado Tourism Office.)

Top of the Rockies

Designated in 1998, the original route of the Top of the Rockies National Scenic Byway connected Minturn to Leadville to Copper Mountain in a giant horseshoe-shaped route through the mountains.

Recently, a 40-mile extension was inducted from Twin Lakes, south of Leadville, over Independence Pass to Aspen, which offers stunning views of honey-pot aspens and is well worth the time.

If you venture from Minturn to Leadville then Aspen and return back to Copper Mountain, the entire route is 171 miles, due to the out-and-back on Independence Pass.

At 10,200 feet, the historic mining town of Leadville is the highest-altitude incorporated community in the nation.

  • Region: Northeast
  • Start/End: Minturn to Copper Mountain (or vice versa)
  • Roadway: US-24, CO-82, CO-91
  • Mileage: 171 miles
  • Time: 4 hours, 10 minutes
  • Towns: Minturn, Leadville, Aspen, Copper Mountain
A tunnel of golden aspens on Kebler Pass.(Photo by Danica Bona.)

Peak to Peak Scenic Byway

Established more than 100 years ago, the Peak to Peak Highway is the state’s first-ever designated Scenic Byway, dating back to 1918.

The drive begins at Estes Park with immediate views of Lily Mountain and Twin Sisters Peaks.

In Nederland, be sure to stop at the Carousel of Happiness, which features 57 hand-carved animals on a restored 1910 Looff carousel.

After stopping in Black Hawk, consider heading over to Golden Gate Canyon State Park to enjoy a hike through the foliage.

  • Region: North-central
  • Start/End: Estes Park to Black Hawk (or vice versa)
  • Roadway: CO-119, CO-72 W, CO-7 W
  • Mileage: 55 miles
  • Time: 1 hour, 27 min
  • Towns: Estes Park, Meeker Park, Allenspark, Ward, Nederland, Rollinsville, Black Hawk
The Kebler Pass aspen grove is potentially the largest living organism on the planet(Photo by Danica Bona)

Kebler Pass

Rivaled only by Utah’s Pando grove, the enormous grove of aspens on Kebler Pass are potentially the largest living organism in the world. The root systems of aspen colonies are completely interconnected, reports 5280 Magazine.

The two-lane dirt road meanders through tunnels of bright yellow aspens and past meadows bordered by sky-reaching mountains from Ruby Peak to Marcellina and West Beckwith.

Pull over at Horse Ranch Park to soak up the glistening colors and views of the Anthracite Range to the south.

  • Region: Southwest
  • Start/End: Crested Butte and Paonia (or vice versa)
  • Roadway: Co Rd 12, CO-133
  • Mileage: 47 miles
  • Time: 2 hours
  • Towns: Crested Butte, Paonia
A fall foliage drive along Kebler Pass.(Photo by Danica Bona.)

Highway of Legends

The Scenic Highway of Legends is a route through Spanish Peaks Country and was designated as a National Scenic Byway in 2021 by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation.

Iconic, far-reaching 14,000-foot peaks sit to the west: the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. To the east are the area’s namesake Spanish Peaks, which are batholiths of granite mixed with prominent dikes of eroded magma.

Keep your eyes open for the Devil’s Stairway formation, a series of dikes, to the east.

In Trinidad, walk downtown through the El Córazon de Trinidad, which means “the heart of Trinidad,” a National Historic District chock-full of adobe and brick buildings that were constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Like a cardinal ribbon rolling through town, the streets are paved with red bricks, each of which is branded with Trinidad.

  • Region: Southeast
  • Start/End: Trinidad to Walsenburg (or vice versa)
  • Roadway: U.S. 160, State Highway 12
  • Mileage: 82 miles
  • Time: 1 hour, 49 min
  • Towns: Walsenburg, La Veta, Cuchara, Stonewall, Weston, Cokedale, Trinidad
Butter and mandarin-colored cottonwoods near Fruita, Colorado.(Photo by Colorado Tourism Office.)

Kenosha Pass

Reaching 10,000 feet in altitude, the heart of Kenosha Pass connects the towns of Jefferson and Grant, which sit within the extended route from Conifer to Fairplay.

To the north, look for the prominent 14,000-foot peaks Mount Evans and Mount Bierstadt.

The top of the pass is a popular intersection for folks enjoying the foliage as well as hikers, backpackers, and bikepackers enjoying the 567-mile Colorado Trail from Durango to Denver.

Across the highway from Kenosha Pass Campground is the Kenosha Pass Interpretive Area, which showcases wetlands as well as remnants of the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad.

On the south side of Kenosha Pass, you’ll enter South Park Basin, a 1,000-square mile grassland and rare wetlands that was designated a National Heritage Area in 2008. (Yes, this region inspired the famous television show South Park.)

By the time you reach Fairplay, the 14,000-foot peaks of the Mosquito Range are visible to the west.

  • Region: North-central
  • Start/End: Conifer to Fairplay (or vice versa)
  • Roadway: Highway 285
  • Mileage: 54 miles
  • Time: 59 min
  • Towns: Conifer, Bailey, Jefferson, Como, Fairplay

Comments / 0

Published by

Adventure journalist Morgan Tilton covers the outdoors with a focus on travel, industry news and human endurance. Featured in more than 70 publications, she’s a recipient of more than a dozen North American Travel Journalists Association awards.

Crested Butte, CO

More from Morgan Tilton

Comments / 0