“Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
It’s that time of the year again. Fall is upon us in the northern hemisphere. And I have to admit – I think this may just be one of my favorite seasons. I love the feel of autumn; the crispness in the air and the changing of the leaves. I happen to live in a place where the changing colors of the leaves have a cult-like following. Thousands of locals and visitors alike travel to the Rocky Mountain state between September and October to experience this magnificent time of the year.
Colorado’s state’s slogan is Colorful Colorado for a reason, as you’ll see from the photographs below.
The most photographed tree in Colorado is the Aspen tree. A photographer’s favorite is to capture the bright yellow of the leaves against Colorado’s cobalt blue sky. The decrease in sunlight as we move from summer to autumn switches off the mechanism in the leaves that creates chlorophyll, and the leaves start to turn gold and then orange before they fall.
Aspens are also known as “quacking Aspens” (populus tremuloides) because they shimmer with just the slightest of breezes. This particular effect is the result of the shape and color of the leaves: They are flat, sort of heart-shaped, and dark on one side and lighter on the other. When even the suggestion of a breeze hits the thin branches and small leaves – all you see is a show of sparkles.
I’m no arborist or dendrologist, but I ever since I saw a shimmering Aspen, I fell in love with these trees. Okay, I had to Google it – a dendrologist is one who studies trees 😉 Aspens will always be a symbol by which I will remember Colorado – especially when the seasons change.
Colorado is not as famous as, say, New England, to view fall foliage. But if you miss the Aspen trees doing their thing – I think you’re missing something very special.
What makes the Aspen particularly photogenic is that they grow in groves among the Evergreens, which remain green throughout the year, so what you see are patches of green, interspersed with patches of bright green, yellow, gold, and even orange blanketing the mountain sides.
When to See Fall Foliage in Colorado
You’re most likely to catch Aspen fall foliage in Colorado starting as early as Labor Day (end of first week in September) through the first two weeks in October. Colors will generally peak on the third week of September. Keep in mind leaves change color at different times not only depending on climate, but also altitude. So, for example, the northernmost areas like Steamboat Springs will see colors start to appear much earlier than areas towards the south, like Durango – where it’s possible to still see color into the third week of October.
Meteorologists and the local news do a good job of giving you an idea when the colors will start to peak. While it’s not possible to predict just how intense the color will be and how long it’ll last, weather can give some indication. A too dry summer cause the leaves to fall quickly, while a too wet summer will turn the leaves to brown or black. September’s ideal conditions would include mild days, with just the right amount of moisture, and cool (but not cold) nights. Strong winds, too much rain, and… even snow can, of course, affect the process by accelerating it – or wiping out the leaves altogether – like it happened a couple of years ago.
It shouldn’t be a surprise living in the Rocky Mountains, yet I was pretty shocked when our first snow of the year was mid-September two seasons ago. Needless to say, the trees lost their leaves very quickly after this.
Where to See Fall Foliage in Colorado
Below are some of my personal favorite spots, although there are many more. I will share a map at the end of this post with the places I recommend here, plus others, which are still on my list.
Kenosha Pass – High Country
These are last years photos. Kenosha Pass is definitely at the top of my list for a beautiful drive outside of the city of Denver. At an altitude of 9,997 ft (3,047 m) above sea level, you get a combination of both stunning mountains and Aspen trees as far as your eyes can see. This is a favorite area of mine because it’s easily accessible and the colors are stunning. Plus, there’s a pond where you can practice reflection photography. From here, you can also hike along the very famous Colorado Trail.
From Denver, take U.S. 285 South to Kenosha Campground (about 66 miles). You can park in front of the campground, on your right, or across the road. It takes approximately 1.5 hrs to get to the pass, but obviously, this depends on weather/traffic and how many times you stop along the way. The drive is curvy and hilly, with vast views of the Rockies, and stunning photo ops.
Guanella Pass – High Country
The pass climbs to 11,670 feet taking you through a succession of distinct environments, with beautiful aspen groves on both sides as you drive along the lower elevations and stunning views above treeline.
Directions: You can get to Guanella Pass via U.S. 285 South (actually, this is before Kenosha Pass) from Denver. The pass is off of the town of Grant, and it will take you to the historical mining town of Georgetown, which is a great stop for lunch and walking around the picturesque town. From Georgetown, take I-70 East back to Denver.
This is one of my particularly favorite spots year-round. If you want to extend your trip from Kenosha Pass, you can do so by visiting the skiing mountain town of Breckenridge. There’s a lot to do in Breck, so you may also want to make it a full day. Check out Go Breck for information on restaurants, what to see, seasonal events and activities. If you have limited time and you want to spend the whole day in Breck, then you can skip Kenosha and go to Breckenridge straight from Denver, taking Interstate 70 West, which will be faster than U.S. 285.
Directions: From Kenosha, continue driving South on U.S. 285, cross the South Park valley (where the famous cartoon show, “South Park” originated), and turn right on Hwy 9, which will take you down to Breckenridge. Make sure to stop at Hoosier pass for some photos. This will be past the Colorado Hwy 9 exit but before Breckenridge. Hoosier Pass lies on the Continental Divide, the lofty meandering spine of mountains that separates the Atlantic and Pacific watersheds. Elevation at Hoosier Pass: 11,542′ (3,518 m) above sea level.
From Denver: Take I-70 West and drive approximately 80 miles. Take exit #203 (CO-9 ) toward Frisco/Breckenridge.
This is a road you can easily take while you’re in Breckenridge. Boreas Pass road climbs from downtown Breckenridge to over 11,400 feet. Access Boreas Pass road off of Colorado Hwy 9, on the south side of town. From the top, you’ll have awesome views of the ski resort, downtown and other surrounding mountains.
The drive from Denver along the I-70 corridor offers spectacular views of the mountains, with many Aspen groves along the highway, like you see below. Plus, Vail is a gorgeous town with lots of restaurants, bars, shops, and perfect spots for photography. The town was modeled after a Bavarian village and it draws tourists from all over the world. You can find out more about activities and where to eat/stay in Vail here.
Directions: From Denver, take I-70 West and drive approximately 98 miles. Take exit #176 toward Vail/Town Center.
At its high point of 12,095′ (3,933 m) above sea level, Independence Pass is the highest paved mountain pass in North America. The scenery along the route is some of the most spectacular in all of the state. The road is open for only 1/2 the year, opening just before Memorial Day (weather permitting) and closing the first week (or just before) of November.
Directions: From Denver – Take I-70 West to State Highway 91 South through Leadville to US 24 South, then west onto Hwy 82 over Independence Pass. After reaching the top of the pass, you can continue on to the town of Aspen (or backtrack and go to Leadville). Both towns are worth a visit – and both are completely different.
After 15 years in Colorado (and many, many times in Aspen), I can’t believe I just got to experience this amazing sight – Maroon Bells, known as the most photographed mountains in North America. This is about 10 miles from the famous skiing town of Aspen – White River National Forest is a hiker’s paradise, where you can admire pristine National Forest lands and explore the glacial valley while surrounded by 14,000′ (4,267′ m) peaks. This amazing place is especially stunning in the fall, where you can photograph the golden and orange Aspen trees.
Directions: From Denver: Take I-70 to CO-91 (exit #195). Continue on CO-91, which turns slightly right and becomes US-24. Drive another 38 miles, approx. and make a right on CO-82. From here it’s about another 50 miles (you’ll pass Twin Lakes, which is worth a stop). Go through Aspen to the roundabout on the west edge of town. Take exit for Maroon Creek Road, keep going about 4.7 miles until you reach the welcome station. (From 5pm to 8 am, you can drive your car up there, $10 fee. After 8am, you must take a bus from town).
Hope you can make it to Colorado for fall foliage – and if you live here, then you have no excuse to miss a few good spots!