It’s not hard to find fall colors in Colorado. There are more than two million acres of aspen trees in the state — one billion trees. If placed together, they would cover Rhode Island and Delaware. Add Colorado’s riverbanks, which are lined with cottonwoods (the close cousin of aspens and just as brilliant yellow) and all the reds, burnt orange, and gold of hardwood maples, oaks, and locust down on the high plains east of the Rockies, and you’ll discover that fall in Colorado is one giant firework display of color. And the show lasts a long time. The high country aspens turn in mid-September; the hardwoods of Denver put on a spectacle until Halloween and beyond.
So it’s easy to find fall colors – but how you do it is the trick. Here are seven suggestions.
1. From a Gondola in Telluride
The narrow, steep valley leading to Telluride is ablaze with fall colors. The paved road ends here in this box canyon, and unless you have a jeep and a lot of nerve, there is nowhere else to go. Telluride is famous for its “end-of-the-world” feeling. And for its free gondolas. There’s a series of them that climb from the historic old town to the modern resort, and then on to other resort bases. You can ride the gondolas endlessly for free over a sea of gold aspens that run to the horizon in all directions.
2. From a train pulled by a steam locomotive
The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is the highest, longest, and most authentic steam train ride in America, chugging for 64 miles between Antonito CO and Chama NM through a forest of aspens. The railroad crosses state borders 11 times, and travels for hours through bright yellow and gold trees, hanging along the lip of a gorge, burrowing through tunnels, and crossing trestles over roaring rivers. Passengers can ride outside in a gondola car, where aspen leaves will fall from above, mixed with smoke and the smell of coal and the haunting sound of a steam whistle. It’s the ultimate bucket list trip for those with railroading in their blood.
3. Hike through a forest
Put together by the state, the Colorado Trail Explorer Map shows how to find and walk 17,099 trails and 1,432 trailheads. Google it and start hiking. You can’t go wrong in the resort towns of Vail and Beaver Creek, where European-style pedestrian villages are lined with chic shops and outdoor cafes and surrounded by trails into mountainsides of glowing aspens.
4. Bike through a forest
The same Colorado Trail Explorer Map shows 6,821 miles of mountain bike trails and 1,746 miles of paved bike trails in Colorado. Summit County is the biking capital with paved trails through aspens connecting the resorts of Breckenridge, Keystone, Frisco, and Copper Mountain. You can easily bike from resort to resort along streams, around Lake Dillon, and through groves of aspens. Have lunch in one of the cute towns, and if you’re lazy, throw your bike on a free shuttle bus that connects all the towns.
5. Drive through fall colors
Few interstate highways are scenic roads, but I-70 through Colorado is. From the moment you leave Denver until you get to Utah driving west, there is an array of colorful aspens as you climb up to and down from Eisenhower Tunnel, which at 11,000 feet is the highest in North America. On the western slope, follow the cottonwoods as the highway snakes along the curving headwaters of the Colorado River as it twists and turns towards its final destiny in the Grand Canyon.
6. Sit by a river
Sit by a river. You can do this almost anywhere in Colorado, but nowhere is prettier than the appropriately named Golden. Just 12 miles from Denver, pretty Clear Creek flows through the town, with a wonderful paved trail that follows the creek up into the mountains, much of it lined with vibrant cottonwoods. Looking for more gold and amber? There are six outdoor craft beer gardens in Golden, which brews more beer than any other town in the world.
7. See Aspens by sunrise
The ultimate fall experience in Colorado is to see and photograph sunrise over the Maroon Bells near Aspen. It’s also the most crowded, requiring — to be safe — a 5 am arrival. There are a few parking spots, and when they are gone, you have to take a later shuttle bus. Expect crowds of photographers to line the lake, and don’t accidentally walk into someone else’s frame unless you want a fight. This is a serious, calendar-photography business. But as soon as the sun is up, everyone disappears on hikes, there’s plenty of room to stretch your legs along a creek lined with beaver dams. As a reward, you’ll learn what only a relatively few people know. The hype is real. Sunrise over the Maroon Bells is a moment you will never forget.