There’s really nothing like a fall drive in the mountains. Aspens shine brightly on the hillsides. Whole swaths may be a cheery yellow. The cottonwoods along the river sometimes change from the inside out. If the wind picks up, you’ll find yourself in the middle of a leaf cyclone. Some years, the display will last for a month, changing hues as the cold creeps in. Some years, it’s only for a brief moment—a week, maybe two.
Colorado happens to have some of the prettiest scenic byways—26 of them, in fact. So fill up the gas tank, pack your favorite snacks, make a playlist, and get ready to hit the road on the best fall drives in Colorado.
Before you go…
Though fall in Colorado is usually a mild time of year, in the mountains, anything can happen. A few safety tips to keep in mind:
Drive the right car.
Snow can come as early as mid-October, so be sure to rent or borrow an all-wheel-drive car with a good set of all-weather or snow tires. Keep a set of chains in the car just in case.
Bring a map.
Cell service can be super spotty, so make sure you also have a good ol’ fashioned road map with you.
Prepare for altitude.
Give yourself a few days to acclimate to the new elevation before driving even higher. Make sure you bring lots of water and plenty of layers to stay warm.
1. Dallas Divide, Ridgway → Telluride
Distance: 39.1 miles
Fuel up: Kate’s Place—down-home cooking
Your drive will start in the valley between the San Juan and Cimarron mountain ranges. As you make your way west, the Cimarron mountains will fade from view, replaced by rolling ranchland and the foothills of the San Juans. Pause at the turnout at the top of Dallas Divide for a picture of Sneffels, the local fourteener, before continuing on your way to Telluride through high-alpine forests. Keep your eyes peeled for bears on the hillsides and beavers in the creeks that run along the road.
2. Red Mountain Pass, Ridgway → Durango
Distance: 81.1 miles
Fuel up: Mouse’s Chocolates—confectionary shop
Start south in Ridgway and drive to the town of Ouray, moving from high-desert plateaus and riparian landscape along the Uncompahgre River to the foothills of the Rockies. Stop off at Box Canyon to watch thousands of gallons of water spill from a very high place. The drive is windy and the road sometimes narrow, but the views will take your breath away with steep cliffs and plenty of aspen trees. Watch for old silver mining structures and bighorn sheep. On the way back, stop by Ouray Hot Springs for a soak, one of Colorado’s many hot springs.
3. Rim Rock Drive, Colorado National Monument
Distance: 22 miles
Fuel up: Bin 707—local-focused New American cuisine
This drive is nothing like the other drives you’ll take in Colorado. Grand Junction, though itself quite verdant thanks to the Colorado River, is surrounded by high desert: big sand dunes, rolling flats of sagebrush, and beautiful red rock formations similar to those in Utah. The Rim Rock Drive leads you around the edge of Colorado National Monument. There are 19 different scenic overlooks where you can stop and admire the landscape and look for lizards. Watch for pronghorn antelope leaping through the sagebrush. On your way back to Grand Junction, pop by the Dinosaur Journey Museum for a unique, interactive experience with animatronic replicas of dinosaurs found in the region.
4. Grand Mesa, Cedaredge → Mesa
Distance: 63 miles
Fuel up: 4 B’s Brewery—family-owned microbrewery in Cedaredge
The Grand Mesa Scenic Byway takes you through a smattering of small towns as you make your way up to the highest flat-top mountain in the state. Standing at 6,000 feet, you’ll be able to see a distant panorama of the San Juan and Cimarron mountains way off to the south. The Grand Mesa is incredibly green and lush, often vibrant when the rest of the state is brown and dry. It’s also one of the only places in Colorado where you may catch a glimpse of moose. Drive through the town of Skyway for a stop at the Grand Mesa Lakes, or take a self-guided tour of the town of Mesa’s many old barns.
5. West Elk Loop, Carbondale → Crested Butte
Distance: 205 miles
Fuel up: A fruit stand in Hotchkiss or Paonia
This all-day fall drive leads you through several of Colorado’s cutest small towns with historic points of interest, plentiful orchards, and grand scenery. Check out the beehive-shaped coke ovens and the Cleveholm Manor in Redstone, the Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park, and the Gunnison Pioneer Museum with its re-created schoolhouse and railroad depot.
6. Top of the Rockies, Minturn → Twin Lakes → Copper Mountain
Distance: 82 miles
Fuel up: Cookies with Altitude—coffee and baked goods
This gorgeous Colorado fall drive takes you up and over the Continental Divide three different times as you travel through the towns of Minturn, Twin Lakes, and Leadville, eventually finding your way to Copper Mountain. You’ll find yourself in the shadow of seven fourteeners: Mount of the Holy Cross (14,005 feet), Mount Sherman (14,036 feet), Mount Democrat (14,148 feet), Mount Bross (14,172 feet), La Plata Peak (14,336 feet), Mount Massive (14,421 feet), and Mount Elbert (14,440 feet—the tallest peak in Colorado). Watch for high-altitude wildlife, including mountain goats (the white fluffy ones), cougars, and bobcat or (if you’re really lucky) lynx.
7. Peak to Peak, Estes Park → Black Hawk
Distance: 55 miles
Fuel up: The Grubsteak—burgers, wild game, and local microbrews
This epic fall drive offers a varied landscape and windy mountain roads Colorado locals have come to love. The rich fall colors will steal your heart if the views of Indian Peak and Longs Peak don’t do it first. Drive through the ghost town of Caribou five miles outside of Nederland, and try your hand at the blackjack or craps table at a casino in Central City or Black Hawk. This time of year, elk are beginning to migrate down to lower altitudes. You may be lucky enough to catch the rut, where the males will battle each other for the females’ attention. If you’re driving towards the end of the day, get out of the car and listen for an elk call: You’ve never heard anything like it.
8. Lake Dillon Loop, Breckenridge → Dillon → Frisco → Breckenridge
Distance: 30.1 miles
Fuel up: LoLo Juice—something light and healthy
This Summit County drive is nice and easy and can be done in a day. Take in views of Lake Dillon and the Tenmile Range. There are a few fun hikes off of this road, including Sapphire Point and Old Dillon Reservoir. Watch for beavers, porcupine, and various kinds of raptors, including red-tailed hawks and golden eagles.
Honorary Mention: I-70, DeBeque Canyon
Distance: Up to you—pick a few miles of road in the 323-mile drive from Grand Junction to Palisade
Fuel up: Red Fox Cellars—yes, they make wine in Colorado!
The drive from Ridgway to Denver is a beautiful one, following I-70 through Glenwood Canyon, up and over Vail Pass, and through Eisenhower Tunnel. There are vistas and roaring rivers and epic rock formations. But the most beautiful part of the drive is when I-70 moves through DeBeque Canyon towards Palisade and onward to Rifle. The canyon is made up of the Book Cliffs, with Mount Garfield standing proudly in the middle. These dirt mountains are very different than the craggy peaks you may associate with Colorado, but somehow capture the very essence of this glorious state: a bit gritty, but always scenic.
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