By RICH GRANT
THE COLORFUL FALL COLORS OF COLORADO
There are more than 2 million acres of aspen trees in Colorado — one billion trees that if placed together would cover Rhode Island and Delaware. Rocky Mountain aspen leaves don’t just turn color in the fall, they positively glow a bright luminescent yellow gold, almost as if they had their own light source. The leaves are small, delicate and tissue-thin with an aerodynamic shape that keeps them in perpetual motion. Even a slight breeze sends every leaf on the tree shimmering. Set against a deep Colorado blue sky with dark green, almost black, mountains of conifers as a backdrop, it is one of the world’s most beautiful sites.
And because aspen trees (and their equally colorful cousins, the cottonwoods) turn color based in part on elevation, fall colors in Colorado last from mid-September through Thanksgiving. Generally, the higher the elevation, the sooner the leaves turn gold with the highest starting mid-September. That means that over a period of time, you can often see a variety of shades of color on one mountainside, with deeper golds on top at 10,000 feet, blending to pale yellow in the 8,000 foot range.
So here’s some of the best places to view fall colors in Colorado.
Well, of course you have to start here. The international ski resort town is certainly pretty, but nearby are the Maroon Bells, the most picturesque peaks in the state. This group of pyramid-shaped mountains is a photography calendar favorite in the fall when the aspens below the peaks start glowing bright gold.
Some 320,000 people visited last year. You can drive and park very close to the lake in front of the peaks, but you have to do it at 5 a.m. There’s few parking spots, and once they are full, the road is closed, and you have to take a shuttle bus. Right now, until Oct. 8, 2020, the only way to get to Maroon Lake from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. is by bus, and there’s even discussion of requiring advance reservations.
Normally in the fall, just before sunrise, photographers rim the lake and there can even be some nasty words when someone accidentally walks into someone else’s shot. Of course, Aspen is also the center of hundreds of miles of trails and while the lake at the Maroon Bells is spectacular, it’s just as beautiful the farther you walk from the crowds.
VAIL AND BEAVER CREEK
Aspen’s great rival for international fame are the twin resorts of Vail and Beaver Creek, both of which are surrounded by mountainsides of aspen trees. For my money, the best time to come is actually just before the aspens turn in early September.
Both of these luxurious resorts are pedestrian villages built along streams and they both take great pride in their hundreds of flower baskets and flower gardens, which are at their peak in early September.
The pedestrian villages are lined with chic shops and outdoor cafes, and even in a covid-19 world, they allow plenty of social distancing for hiking, biking and streamside walks.
Summit County is an outdoor playground of five towns circling or near one of Colorado’s largest and most scenic lakes – Dillon Reservoir.
The original gold mining town of Dillon is buried under the lake, but a new town has grown up on the hills surrounding the reservoir, and is now known for its marina and sailboats and the flat, easy paved biking trails that connect it to Silverthorne and Frisco.
Silverthorne is the shopping capital of the Rockies, with a massive factory outlet center along the Blue River with bridges and bike paths connecting the famous name brand stores.
Frisco, on the other hand, was founded in 1870 and once had two railroads, a slew of saloons, shops and hotels. But then the depression hit Frisco hard. By 1930, there were only 18 people left in town. Frisco didn’t even get indoor plumbing until 1950! But then in the 1960’s, Colorado’s ski industry was born with Vail, Breckenridge, Keystone and Copper Mountain all just a short drive away. The former Ghost Town of Frisco boomed again with white gold.
Today, there are 2,800 full-time residents and 34 bars and restaurants. The Frisco Historic Park has relocated a dozen buildings, including an old jail, schoolhouse, ranch house, trapper’s cabin, chapel and others, and built them into a beautiful park on Main Street surrounded by Aspen trees. Don’t miss the model railroad of Frisco in the 1800s; you can run the tiny engine and cars around the miniature village for a quarter.
Of course, the major resorts of Keystone and Breckenridge are nearby, and the entire county is awash with aspens and fall colors. There’s a free bus service that connects the towns, or better yet, rent bikes. It is a relatively easy pedal from outdoor café to outdoor café along the Snake River in Keystone village, down and around the reservoir to Frisco, and up over a slight hill to Breckenridge.
Telluride is not particularly easy to get to, which is probably why Oprah and Tom Cruise have houses there. Butch Cassidy robbed his first bank in Telluride. Most people who have been everywhere in Colorado will concede that this is the prettiest of all locations. Especially in the fall. The narrow, steep valley leading to Telluride is ablaze with fall colors. The road ends here (unless you have a jeep and a lot of nerve) and there is an “end-of-the-world” feeling about this town, as if you have arrived and there’s no better place left to go.
Most unusual for Colorado, the gondolas from the historic town to the modern resort are free. You can ride them endlessly over a sea of gold. It’s a well known fact that recreational marijuana is legal in Colorado, and if you want a place to experiment with getting stoned, pedestrian-friendly Telluride makes a perfect spot. After a couple of puffs, hop on the free gondola and ride through a sea of aspens. It beats any ride in Disneyland.
Could there be a more romantic way to enjoy fall colors in Colorado than riding at 12 mph through groves of golden aspens pulled by a steam locomotive, the whistle echoing off the hills as you curl along 600-foot high cliffs, cross raging rivers on trestles, chug through tunnels, view wildlife and wildflowers, and travel for 64 miles off-the-grid where no cars can go? Absolutely not!
This is the ultimate way to see aspens, and is very safe in this covid-19 world with outdoor cars and plenty of fresh Rocky Mountain air. This is the highest, longest and most authentic steam railroad in the nation, just selected for the third time as the most scenic railroad in America in 2020 by the readers of USA Today.
ESTES PARK AND ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
There’s a simple reason that Rocky Mountain National Park is the most popular place in Colorado, attracting more annual visitors the entire state’s population. It’s simply gorgeous. And at no time more than the fall, when the aspens in town and along lakes and waterfalls make it come alive with color. No one needs to be reminded of this, but it would be so unforgiveable to not mention the park.
GRAND JUNCTION AND COLORADO NATIONAL MONUMENT
Grand Junction in western Colorado is a dry, desert-like environment that you normally don’t associate with leaf-peeping. But you would be wrong. The Colorado River flows through town and for a hundred miles in both directions, and it is lined with cottonwoods that do their annual color dance in late October.
Cottonwoods don’t get the same respect or fame as aspens, but ironically they are just as colorful, and members of the same tree family, the poplar. Instead of being surrounded by dark conifer trees, cottonwoods are often found along riverbanks in front of huge cliffs of red sandstone. There are not many trees in Colorado National Monument, but as you drive this incredible treasure (the road is literally carved out of a cliff) you look down on a green valley that is dotted with beautiful fall color following the Colorado River. You can always spot the river from miles away by the cottonwoods that line it.
This is also wine country with dozens of vineyards, which make wine tasting in outdoor wine gardens another great fall activity for the region.
It’s a Denver tradition that the first snow falls on Halloween, and more often than not, that’s true. Until then, Denver (down on the plains, 5,000 feet lower than Breckenridge) is a fireworks show of fall colors, most of which linger into November.
Unlike the rest of Colorado, Denver at only 5,280 feet has become a botanist’s dream. Abundant sunshine and plenty of water from the mountains has meant that Denver experiments with every type of tree. Maples, oaks, ash, Linden, locust – you name it, and someone has tried to grow it in Denver. Indian summer leads to exceptionally warm days and cool evenings.
Washington Park in Denver alone has more than 70 different types of trees. Still craving some bright cottonwoods and creeks? The appropriately named town of Golden is just 12 miles away and is located where the mountains meet the plains. Golden offers one of the most delightful walks in Colorado along the banks of Clear Creek under a canopy of cottonwoods. You’ll always find some fall colors in Golden and Denver right up to Thanksgiving.
…Aug. 28, 2020