Make the drive the best part of the trip

By Christine Mahoney

 

Tourists flock to Colorado for its world-class skiing in winter, but the months leading up to the region’s renowned Champagne powder provide the state’s most showy spectacle. (It’s not called Colorful Colorado for nothing!) Fall colors abound along drives spanning the state. On your next adventure, slow down to enjoy the ride, do it! Because getting there is half the fun.

TRAIL RIDGE ROAD FROM ESTES PARK TO GRAND LAKE

You’ll need an entrance pass to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) to complete this stretch of U.S. Highway 34, which is the highest continuously paved road in America, reaching an elevation of 12,183 feet. The road is closed to vehicle traffic when heavy snow flies, so time this drive earlier rather than later in autumn. Visit the shops in Estes Park and stroll the riverwalk to stretch your legs before the drive over the Continental Divide. Or stretch your arms with some axe throwing at Open Air Adventure Park. Note: Before heading to RMNP, be sure to check the website for timed entrance and other restrictions that may affect your plans.

I-70 FROM GLENWOOD SPRINGS TO GRAND JUNCTION

Summer travelers found this route closed sporadically in summer, due to mudslides from last year’s Grizzly Creek Fire burn scar, so be sure to check with CDOT (cotrip.org—see “travel alerts”) before you venture out. Along with vivid fall colors along the Colorado River, you can challenge yourself with the 1.2-mile backcountry hike at Hanging Lake Trail. Permits are required year-round for this rocky but rewarding trek with 1,200 feet of elevation gain. This National Natural Landmark features awe-inspiring scenery and gentle waterfalls.

TOP OF THE ROCKIES SCENIC BYWAY/ INDEPENDENCE PASS

This drive features stunning autumn colors, and charging stations have been added along the byway, so drivers can charge electric vehicles along the way. Fall colors will never look the same after you witness them from the air: Aspen Paragliding tandem guides take guests to the top of Aspen Mountain to witness the vivid golden hues. Top of the Rockies is open all year, while Independence Pass closes seasonally as winter approaches. Driving time typically lasts a few hours, but may take up to a day due to the numerous photo ops. Cyclists are also drawn to this scenic drive, which means drivers need to be extra alert.

U.S. HIGHWAY 285 ALONG THE ARKANSAS RIVER

Climb over Poncha Pass (elevation 9,012 feet) and drop into the Arkansas River Valley. Get your fishing on along this scenic drive south of Buena Vista, where the river has up to 5,000 trout (rainbow and brown) per mile! Drivers will find more than 70 miles of public access along the river, as well as plenty of sites to launch boats and float-and-fish. While whitewater rafting is king in summer, hiking, mountain biking and climbing are favorite fall activities in this region. It’s also home to 12 of Colorado’s 14ers.

RED MOUNTAIN PASS

Drivers brave enough to navigate 8-percent grades, sharp turns and potential rockfall may seek out U.S. Highway 550, the stunning 11,018-foot summit of the Million Dollar Highway in Southwest Colorado. Consistently rated one of the most scenic routes in the country, it’s also one of the most treacherous, as the 25-mile stretch of road is frequently without guardrails. Closures can occur during times of heavy snowfall, so plan to traverse this pass early in the season. Soar above the fall colors in the San Juan National Forest on one of the longest zipline courses in the nation at Soaring Treetop Adventures. The course is isolated and can only be reached via the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad or helicopter, but after driving Red Mountain Pass, you might prefer to be a passenger for a while.

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