Catch Them Before They Fall
Leaves crunch underfoot. The first whiffs of smoke drift from a far-off fireplace. Autumn has arrived in Colorado—and there's no better time to take a drive into the mountains. Here, four can't-miss routes covering nearly 250 miles of fall splendor.
The Route: Follow Colorado Highway 82 out of the Twin Lakes/Leadville area going northwest toward Aspen. You'll go up over 12,095-foot Independence Pass, the highest mountain pass in the state. The most brilliant color appears on the downhill side of the pass as you near Aspen, which isn't named after the tree for nothing.
Total Miles: 37
Where to Eat: Check out Cloud City Coffee House (719-486-1317) in Leadville for a breakfast sandwich or semi-sweet mocha before hitting the road. Once you reach Aspen, you'll have no problem finding a bite to eat. Our recommendation? For a crisp September evening, order a wood-fired pizza or a heaping bowl of penne at Mezzaluna (970-925-5882; www.mezzalunaaspen.com), one of Aspen's restaurant mainstays. Complement your dinner with a bottle of the Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva. Of course, the children will dig on the treats—soda, popcorn, crêpes, hotdogs—at the Popcorn Wagon (970-925-2718), located just off of Mill Street.
Where to Stay: Spend the night before your tour at the Mt. Elbert Lodge (719-486-0594; www.mount-elbert.com) in Twin Lakes. This bed-and-breakfast-style lodge, which rests at the base of massive Mt. Elbert, offers five guest rooms and nine on-site cabins. You'll be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful—or more reasonably priced ($72-$103)—place to stay. In Aspen, the Sky Hotel offers its Aspen Gold package (15 percent off the best available rate, plus a $25 gas card) from Sept. 15 through Oct. 31.
The Kids Will Love: Four miles from the top of the pass, you'll find the ghost town of Independence. Legend has it that prospectors tapped into the Independence Gold Lode on July 4, 1879. At its peak, nearly 1,500 people called this mining town home. But the mining bust soon followed, and all that's now left of this town is a general store, a few cabins and boarding houses, and a mill. Still, a walk through the ruins gives the kids a perspective on history—and some time out of the car to expend a little energy.
Photo Op: Turn onto Maroon Creek Road west of downtown and take the right fork to check out the splendor of Maroon Lake. On blue-sky fall days, the aspen-covered Maroon Bells are often mirrored perfectly in the clear alpine water. Go early in the morning (before 8:30) or in the evening for the best light—and to avoid the mandatory shuttle ride when the road closes to private cars.
Quick Tip: Stop at the top of the pass for a picnic near the pond. (Find picnic fodder at Specialty Foods of Aspen & The Cheese Shop, 970-544-6656.) From this point at the top of the Divide, water on the west side flows into the Roaring Fork River, then joins the Colorado River on its path to the Gulf of California. Water on the east side flows into the Arkansas River, then joins the Mississippi River on its way to the Gulf of Mexico.