Soar through the fiery red and yellow treetops on a zip line, lift off in a hot air balloon, ride the rails or take a leisurely scenic drive. Whatever the activity threshold, touring Colorado in September and October promises to be a vacation to remember.
If adventure is not your style, sit back and enjoy the kaleidoscope of color from the comfort of a motorcoach while traveling on one of the five Colorado Scenic Byways. These leafy routes provide eye-popping vistas around every curve and reveal significant slices of Colorado history.
Top of the Rockies: This sky-high excursion travels from Copper Mountain to Leadville and west to Aspen. The majority of the 82-mile byway winds above 9,000 feet, crosses the Continental Divide and follows the Arkansas River past old mining camps, high-country lakes and towering 14,433-foot Mt. Elbert. Explore historic downtown Leadville, the nation’s highest-elevation incorporated city. The city is a National Historic Landmark and features mining museums, antique shops and Victorian-era architecture. It is the departure point for the Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad. Along the way, visit the Independence Ghost Town Site. Between Twin Lakes and Aspen, Independence Pass twists around stunning groves of aspen to the former gold rush tent city.
West Elk Loop: This 205-mile byway circles the West Elk Mountains, passing through Paonia, Gunnison, Crested Butte and Carbondale. Encompassing three national forests, the drive crosses diverse landscapes of meadows, rivers, canyons and enormous aspen stands. Make a photo stop at McClure, where views to either side of the high mountain corridor make for a perfect fall photograph. A recommended stop for a picnic lunch is in the Curecanti National Recreation Area at the intersection of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park with Morrow Point, Blue Mesa and Crystal lakes.
Cache la Poudre-North Park: Travel from Fort Collins to the secluded valley of North Park, where wildlife and fall foliage abound on the banks of the Cache la Poudre River. Stop at East Sand Dunes Natural Area, where rare cold-climate dunes rise and fall in the Medicine Bow Range. The byway covers 101 miles.
Peak to Peak: Established in 1918, Colorado’s oldest scenic byway (55 miles) offers fantastic views of aspen valleys and the Continental Divide as it winds from the mining and casino towns of Black Hawk and Central City to Estes Park. The journey concludes at Rocky Mountain National Park where the colors are truly singular − they are all yellow. Gorgeous expanses of yellow aspen color the mountainsides, contrasting with the dark green spruces and firs. The mountains are especially good places to view fall color because the steep slopes display the spectacle as though it were a painting hanging on a wall.
San Juan Skyway: Jaw-dropping cliffs, dramatic scenery and the autumn colors of amber, bronze and gold define the 236-mile “Road to the Sky” as it dips into the five-million-acre San Juan and Uncompahgre national forests and passes through the Colorado mountain towns of Telluride, Durango and Ouray. Enjoy the Hot Springs of Ouray and tour Mesa Verde National Park, where Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings reside in the only national park dedicated solely to the works of man. The Old West town of Durango is the departure point for the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
Riding the Rails
Colorado is home to the many of the finest scenic railroads in the country. From classic 1950s-era streamliners of the Royal Gorge Route railroad to steam trains that traverse the Rockies, these trains provide a great way to experience Colorado’s fall foliage along with a taste of history.
Travel through the scenic San Juan Mountains aboard the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Voted one of the “Top Ten Most Exciting Train Journeys in the World” by the Society of American Travel Writers, this route winds through the breathtaking canyons in the remote wilderness of the two-million-acre San Juan National Forest. Traveling between Durango and the historic mining town of Silverton, the journey spotlights color-drenched aspens that line the Animas River and ascend the rugged mountain peaks.
Every autumn, the Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad offers a special three-hour ride along the Arkansas River Valley, rising to about 1,000 feet from the valley floor. Traveling through tunnels of yellow, gold and orange, passengers feel they can reach out and pluck a leaf as the train rumbles through the groves. The special fall excursion, offered only in late September, includes traveling an extra mile of track to a location across from a red aspen grove.
Around mid-September, the leaves in the mountains of Southern Colorado turn gold, and many believe there is no better way to experience the foliage than aboard the Cumbres & Toltec Railroad. Originally constructed in 1880 as part of the Rio Grande’s San Juan Extension, which served the silver mining district of the San Juan Mountains in Southwestern Colorado, the narrow gauge steam train travels 50 miles of wild and rugged territory between Chama, New Mexico and Antonito, Colorado.
Bird’s Eye View
Float above pockets of fall foliage and marvel at mountains, plains and wildlife as far as the eye can see aboard a balloon launched by Fair Winds of Boulder. Or sail through the trees on Telluride’s Box Canyon Gondola and view the colors from 10,500 feet. The first and only free public transportation of its kind in the U.S., this gondola connects riders between Telluride and Mountain Village, providing an ever-changing view of the crimson and golden leaves along the way. For further adventure, groups can load the gondola in either Mountain Village or Telluride and ride to the midway point where hiking and biking trails are accessed.
For thrill seekers, zip lines are another option. The landscapes of fiery red, orange and golden leaves shift while soaring through autumn-tinted treetops and above deep valleys on one of 14 zip lines throughout the state.
So, the next time your group yearns for a taste of fall foliage, heed the call “Go West, young man.” Look no further than Colorado Gold.
−By Sue Arko