Spectacular autumn road trips through 250 miles of Colorado's aspen country—plus where to stay, eat, and play along our best yellow leaf roads.
The Route: From Carbondale, 30 miles west of Aspen, follow Colorado Highway 133 south along the Crystal River past Mt. Sopris, past the hamlets of Redstone and Marble, up McClure Pass, and into the fruit-basket town of Paonia. Both yellow cottonwoods and golden aspens line the road along the river and sprawl up and over the pass.
Total Miles: 58
Where to Eat: Depending on the time of day you begin or end your journey, Carbondale's finest fine dining makes its home at Six89 (970-963-6890; www.six89.com). The restaurant is only open for dinner, but you don't want to miss small plates like goat cheese and roasted garlic agnolotti or large plates such as the sunflower-seed-crusted rainbow trout. If you find yourself hungry in Paonia, stop by locals' favorite Louie's Pizza My Heart (970-527-3265) for a giant calzone and a taste of live music.
Where to Stay: Resting in the middle of a 100-year-old Arts and Crafts village along the Crystal River, the Redstone Inn's (970-963-2526; www.redstoneinn.com) dark woods, classy bar, and elegant decor feels old-fashioned and fancy.
The Kids Will Love: Let the kiddos pick their own organic fruit at Orchard Valley Farms and Black Ridge Winery (970-527-6838) in Paonia. Harvest apples, pears, peaches, cherries, and raspberries before resting with a picnic along the Gunnison River. The farm also offers a huge variety of gourmet vinegars, oils, salsas, jams and jellies, syrups, butters, mustards, chutneys, and honeys in its store.
Side Trip: The view from Terror Creek Winery (970-527-3484), one of the world's highest altitude vineyards, makes this grape grower a worthy stop as you descend McClure Pass into Paonia. Fall foliage abounds across the North Fork Valley—and you can see it all from this mesa-top orchard. Plus, vintner Joan Mathewson creates award-winning Gewürztraminer. Pick up a bottle for later.
Photo Op: The Crystal Mill is one of the most photographed sites in the state. The precariously perched log structure, which was built in 1893, rests on an outcropping of rock surrounded by aspens just above the gushing Crystal River. Drive past Marble to catch a glimpse.
Bonus: If you're not in a hurry to get back home, take the 45-minute drive west from Paonia to see the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River (www.nps.gov/blca), a 2,000-foot-deep, vertigo-inducing chasm.
Why Colorado's aspens turn that famous color.
Let's face it, Colorado's fall foliage isn't going to make anyone's official Top Ten list for brilliant color. We don't have the reds, oranges, and purples it takes to compete with the trees of Appalachia and New England. Coloradans still adore the color that spreads across our state—especially as it's coupled with mountain scenery that's second to none—but there is one question that always floats from the back seat: Why do we only have yellow leaves?
During spring and summer, leaves manufacture food necessary for a tree's growth. This food-making program takes place in cells containing chlorophyll—the chemical that gives leaves their green pigment. This chemical absorbs from sunlight the energy that is used in transforming carbon dioxide and water to carbohydrates (photosynthesis). Along with chlorophyll, leaves contain other pigment chemicals called carotenoids (yellows and oranges) and anthocyanins (reds and purples). For most of the year these other chemicals are masked by huge amounts of chlorophyll. But when the cooler days of fall arrive, trees go into a growth-cessation phase—meaning they stop producing green chlorophyll. The chlorophyll breaks down and the leftover carotenoids and anthocyanins become visible in all their nongreen glory.
Of course, each tree is different and carries different pigment chemicals in its leaves. In the East, crimson-colored sugar maples and purple dogwoods display the results of high levels of anthocyanins. In Colorado, however, the change in seasons means yellow, yellow everywhere. "Aspens have predominantly yellow pigments living in their leaves," says Cecil Stushnoff, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Horticulture at Colorado State University. "You can sometimes find aspens with an orange or red tint; that's an environmentally controlled circumstance, and I don't think anyone knows why it happens for sure." Stushnoff does say that variants like early cold temps, insect damage, or mechanical injury might lead to a reddish or orange hue—but that those highly sought-after colors don't manifest themselves in the same trees every year. "I have found a few decent-size patches of orange in Rocky Mountain National Park," says Stushnoff, "but they don't stick around year to year."
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.
The Route: Maneuver your car onto U.S. 285 from Denver and stay there—this well-maintained roadway winds past Red Rocks Amphitheatre, through Conifer, Pine, and Bailey to the summit of Kenosha Pass, and down into the valley of South Park. You'll get your first glimpse of stands of quivering aspen as you drive down the hill into Bailey. But it's the gold-nugget yellow spread across the summit of Kenosha and the rim of South Park that's really spectacular. End your drive in Fairplay.
Total Miles: 75
Where to Eat: For lunch on the way or a quick dinner as you're headed down the hill, stop at Hog Heaven Bar-B-Que (303-838-8814; www.hogheavenbar-b-que.com) for a chopped pork sandwich with crunchy sweet potato fries or potato salad. If all you're craving is a snack, check out the roadside beef jerky stand near mile-marker 212.
The Kids Will Love: The Coney Island hotdog stand (303-838-4210) in Bailey. This roadside gem—a giant hotdog measuring 42 feet long—seats about 10 people and serves up delicious wieners with all the fixings.
Where to Stay: It may be only 30 minutes from downtown Denver, but a night at Meadow Creek Bed and Breakfast Inn (303-838-4167; www.meadowcreekbb.com) allows you to stay in the hills among the changing colors. Coincidentally, we like the Aspen room, which is conveniently located adjacent to the inn's outdoor hot tub on the outlook deck.
Side Trip: County roads that wind their way through large aspen groves shoot off U.S. 285 on both sides of Kenosha Pass—take CR 58, CR 60, or CR 62 for an in-the-middle-of-the-color view of the fall landscape.
Photo Op: The South Park area is home to abundant wildlife. Keep your eyes peeled for mule deer, antelope, coyote, mountain goats, elk, golden and bald eagles, and migrating cranes. Large bison herds can often be seen in the Hartsel area.
Bonus: If you're in the mood for a hike, the Colorado Trail (the state's premier long-distance trail, stretching from Denver to Durango) crosses right over the top of Kenosha Pass. The sixth segment of the Colorado Trail (Kenosha Pass to Goldhill Trailhead) begins here and is easily spotted from the road; however, you may only want to do a small section of this 33-mile-long portion that gains more than 4,000 feet in elevation.
The Route: This out-and-back route follows the jaw-dropping Highway 550, aka Million Dollar Highway, north of Durango to Ouray with a potential side-trip to Silverton, 48 miles into your journey.
Total Miles: 70
Where to Eat: Sidle up to the bar at Carver Brewing Company (970-259-2545; www.carverbrewing.com) in Durango for a hearty home-style breakfast that'll fill your tank before jumping in the car (locals swear by the Super Scramble). In Silverton, lunching at the rustic Handlebars Restaurant & Saloon (970-387-5395)—where Rocky Mountain oysters coexist with award-winning buffalo chili—is a must. If libations are on your list, check out the Silverton Brewery (970-387-5033; www.silvertonbrewing.com), but be prepared for the effects of the 8.5 percent stout. "We don't make any weak, wimpy beers," says owner Joel Harvie. In Ouray, order up a rib-eye steak at The Outlaw Restaurant (970-325-4366; www.outlawrestaurant.com).
Where to Stay: Stretch out your legs (and your trip) with an overnight stay at the Wiesbaden Hot Springs Spa & Lodge (970-325-4347; www.wiesbadenhotsprings.com) in Ouray. Soak in the warmth of the outdoor pool (99 to 102 degrees), which affords stellar views of the surrounding peaks.
The Kids Will Love: Durango's P is for Peanut (970-385-4525; www.pisforpeanut.com) will sate your pint-size travelers with freshly ground peanut-butter-infused fare—from the classic PB&J to the Anything Goes, which pairs peanut butter with M&Ms, mini marshmallows, sunflower seeds, or raisins. Don't forget to grab a few nutty items for the car. Mouse's Chocolates (970-325-7285) in Ouray, a modern emporium chock-full of fresh, handmade Belgian chocolates, makes for a great end-of-day treat or a perfect spot to grab a cup of freshly roasted joe for the return trip.
Photo Op: Pull into the Molas Pass overlook (about 42 miles from Durango at 10,899 feet) for over-the-top views of the foliage surrounding Snowdon and Electric peaks, two of Colorado's more majestic and mind-blowing thirteeners.
Bonus: Cool off in Ouray with a short hike into the thunderous Box Canyon Falls (accessed at the west end of Third Avenue)—a 285-foot waterfall pouring into a narrow canyon.
Quick Tip: Fuel stations are few and far between; fill up in Durango before you go. If you're in a pinch, Needles Country Store, just before Durango Mountain Resort, has gas; another station sits at the opposite end of Ouray from where you'll enter town.