Fall Colors in Colorado: My Favorite Places

I’ve always been a person that loves everything about Fall; the colors, the weather, the hikes, and everything in-between (and also the boots, scarves, and pumpkin spiced lattes of course). My birthday also just happens to be at the end of September, so it’s the perfect excuse to celebrate and go leafing!

We went on a fabulous trip last year, the high point being the chairlift in Crested Butte, where I saw some of the largest aspen groves I’ve ever seen. This year, we also went on a trip – to the Telluride, Ridgway, Silverton, and Ouray; as we have heard great things about the fall colors Southwest Colorado. It may be quite a drive from Denver…but it was more than worth it. The colors were like something out of one of the best dreams.

With those two trips under my belt, and countless other small trips near Denver to view colors, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite places to go and leaf.

This list isn’t in order of my favorites, because it would be way too difficult to decide. Instead, I have tried to list them in order of drive time from Denver. However, please remember that the drive times may vary depending on which side of the mountain passes you start, and are dependent on traffic of course.

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Boreas Pass (Photo Credit: Bill Chopp)

  1. Boreas Pass

Drive time from Denver: about 2 hours

This is one of the more popular locations to view fall colors, and for good reason. It’s filled with amazing views of Breckenridge at the beginning and aspens nearly the whole drive. I would get an early start on this one, it will get busy really early. If you want to avoid the I70 traffic on the way home and are just doing a day trip, I recommend starting on the Breckenridge side and taking highway 285 back to Denver. There’s also several dispersed camping areas along the pass, just make sure to bring extra blankets since it’s at a very high elevation, and speaking from experience…it gets very cold at night!

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Boreas Pass

2. Weston Pass

Drive time from Denver: 2 hours 15 minutes

I have a soft spot for this drive because not only is it exceptionally gorgeous – it is nowhere near as crowded. It also might have helped that we did this on a Friday afternoon as opposed to a weekend, but it was one of those drives that sticks with you forever as a favorite. There were only a few spots along this pass where having a four-wheel drive car was nice, but I would at least recommend an SUV for this drive. Weston Pass may take a little longer than the others in the area, but it is worth the detour.

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Weston Pass

3. Aspen

Drive time from Denver: 3 hours 30 minutes

I can’t forget about a little place called Aspen. Probably the most photographed location in all of Colorado is located here: Maroon Bells. The most popular time to photograph the bells is at sunrise – in fact if you want a spot on Maroon Lake to catch the sunrise glow, odds are you should get there by 4am. However, we went to Maroon Bells at sunset and waited in line for a half hour, so I would be prepared for crowds either way.

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Maroon Bells

The most beautiful way to get to Aspen in the fall in my opinion, is by taking Independence Pass. It starts below treeline, following aspen groves, then takes you above treeline, crosses the Continental Divide, and returns to aspens before entering the town of Aspen. Along the way there are several spots to take pictures, hike, and camp. This road is extremely popular so if you do expect to camp here, arriving early is best, or making reservations is better!

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Independence Pass

4. Crested Butte

Drive time from Denver: 4 hours 15 minutes

Last year for my birthday we went to Crested Butte for the first time. On the we took Kebler Pass, which is home to some of the largest aspen groves in the United States. It absolutely lived up to the hype – especially getting there about a day after peak (we were there September 25, for reference). This gravel road is filled with huge aspen groves, big mountain views, and we even got to see ranchers herding their sheep.

When we arrived to Crested Butte we checked into the hotel and they let us know that with our reservation we received free passes for the chairlift. Normally in the summer and fall the mountains that have the chair lifts going are for mountain bikers…but we had a different idea in mind (although mountain biking there would be awesome). We wanted to take the chairlift to see all the fall colors, and boy, was it worth it. The views were unparalleled to anything I’ve seen at the top of any mountain (but taking the chairlift to the top to ski down is a close second).

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Crested Butte

5. Telluride area

Drive time from Denver: 6 hours

This year as I said, we went to the Telluride area for my birthday. We camped at Ridgway State Park to be centrally located between Telluride and Silverton/Ouray, which worked out really well. We started out with a snowy day on the Million Dollar Highway, and while it was cold; seeing two seasons collide was beautiful, and like nothing I have ever seen before. In talking to some locals, it sounds like it’s not uncommon for this to happen; but that didn’t make it any less special. The Million Dollar Highway, between Silverton and Ouray, provided heart-stopping views, and not just because of the colors! This road is known for one of the more dangerous highways with its thousand foot drops and lack of guard rails, so prepare yourself if you are scared of heights.

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Million Dollar Highway (Photo Credit: Bill Chopp)

On the way to Telluride we explored Woods Lake, which ended up to be my second favorite spot on the whole trip. The drive to the lake was complete with aspens in their peak the entire way. Woods Lake isn’t huge, but on a clear day you can see the mountains in the background and the colors seemed to go on forever.

In the town of Telluride, the fall colors were just as gorgeous. Telluride is home to the only gondola in the United States that connects the town and the mountain village, and better yet, it’s free to travel between the two. At the top of the gondola there are several trails that provide you with 360 degree views of the San Juan Mountains, the largest range in Colorado by area.

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Woods Lake (Photo Credit: Bill Chopp)

When we left Ridgway State Park to go home, we decided to take Owl Creek Pass instead of the highway. It added about 45 minutes, but it was the best end to an already beautiful trip. Owl Creek Pass has beautiful views complete with fall colors and the jagged peaks of Cimarron Ridge. As we were coming up on the turn to Silver Jack Reservoir, we stopped to take a picture of the views, and out of nowhere a few minutes later, a huge bull moose came out of the brush. We talked to someone who was working for the forest service and he said he only saw a moose here one other time this year, and one time last year. Both of us stayed a safe distance from the moose, he could tell we were around and he was definitely not happy about it…but man were we happy about it!

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Owl Creek Pass

The colors in Colorado are my absolute favorite, and if you play your cards right you can have fall colors in your life for nearly a month or more while exploring this beautiful state…at least that’s what I try to do. If you need any advice planning your next Colorado fall adventure please let me know, I would be more than happy to help!

Fancy Lake Hike

Most of the time when I read about a hike, I have to do it. I add it to a list in my phone, and know that one day (even if it’s a year from now), I’ll do it. To make it on my list, there isn’t a lot of criteria I have – mostly I just want it to be pretty, which I mean, aren’t 99% of hikes pretty anyways? I don’t care how long it is, how short it is, or where it is – if it looks pretty, it probably made the cut.

About six months ago I added a hike called Fancy Lake to my list. The only thing I knew about it was a photo I saw on Instagram – that of course made it look absolutely beautiful. After I saw that I knew one day I would need to see it for myself. So last week, myself and a friend (and her adorable puppy) headed West at 6am to see the beauty of Fancy Lake for ourselves.

Trail Stats

  1. Starting Elevation: 10,017 feet
  2. Ending Elevation: 11,551 feet
  3. Net Elevation Gain (because of ups and downs): 1,534 feet
  4. Round Trip Length: 6.4 miles
  5. Trailhead: Fancy Lake Trailhead, GPS Coordinates: N39 23.445 W106 28.237
  6. Drive time from Denver: 2.5 hours with no traffic
  7. Fee: None
  8. Dogs allowed?: Yes
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Photo Credit: Jessica Christie

The trail begins with gradual switchbacks up a forested slope, and doesn’t waste any time gaining elevation, and by the time you get to the bridge (pictured above), you will have hiked only 0.85 miles and gained about 440 feet in elevation. Here the water was SO clean and clear I filled up my water bottle right there. However I did have the perk of having a LifeStraw water bottle which I recommend (link: here). Having this water bottle has honestly made it much easier to do longer hikes (where there’s water), because I can just fill it up and there’s a water filter that doubles as my straw; I no longer have to worry about the water weight in my pack.

After we crossed the bridge the trail continues to rise steadily for the next 2.2 miles, mostly in a thick wooded forest. As the climb continues we saw occasional breaks on the left side after about a mile or so – they are definitely worth exploring – you’ll see a huge rocky canyon with a creek below. We couldn’t see a safe way down to the bottom however, so we observed from afar.

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Once we reached the 3.0 mile mark we knew we had to be close, but it didn’t seem like any path we took could get us to a lake in the 0.2 miles we had left. I would take a break before you start the last stretch of the trail as it will gain about 400 feet up some steep rocky switchbacks.

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View from climbing the rocky switchbacks

As soon as we got to the top we had to sit…but I would recommend that you don’t rest!  Just keep walking, because Fancy Lake is maybe 100 feet away after you get to the top of the rocky switchbacks, and it is worth the exhausted walk there!

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Jessica Christie featuring Fancy Lake

We went on a Friday, and were lucky enough to be the only ones at the lake for the whole time we were there, so I can’t speak to how busy it gets on the weekends – but it’s worth it. After exploring around and hearing marmots squeals and echoes for a while, having a snack, and contemplating how we could build a house and just stay here forever; we decided to head back.

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Photo Credit: Jessica Christie

It seems silly, that I saved a hike because I saw a picture on social media. But with so many people posting all these beautiful places, I feel like it’s only natural to want to go to them. I feel so lucky that I am living a state that allows me to adventure to beautiful places like this (regardless of how they were found) and I can’t wait to cross the next hike off my list.