Colorado’s Best Autumn Road Trip

Summer is drawing to a close and my favorite time of year is almost upon us. As the New Englanders say, “It is time for some leaf peeping.” Below you will see the route for Colorado’s best autumn road trip. On this trip you will pass through the largest Aspen forest in Colorado and by some of the most photographed iconic sites in the state. It is a trip that will leave you in awe of nature’s beauty.

Colorado's Best Autumn Road Trip
A map to Colorado’s best autumn road trip.

Best time to go on Colorado’s Best Autumn Road Trip?

A Colorado quaking Aspen tree in full autumn color.

The height of the Aspens color change vary from year to year, but typically the third week in September is a great time to get your leaf peeping on.

Where to start on Colorado’s Best Autumn Road Trip?

You can go at this route from either direction, but I will describe the route traveling clockwise, starting in Crested Butte, as that is how I have taken the journey in the past.

Crested Butte

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The mountain view as you approach Crested Butte, Colorado.

Make your way to Crested Butte, Colorado and explore the beautiful mountain town. Crested Butte is one of the best remote mountain towns. The fall colors that paint the countryside make it a perfect time to visit this secluded spot, but if you really want to experience Crested Butte at its best come back in a few months for the ski season.

Driving through Colorado’s largest Aspen forest

An early snow covers CO 12 near Kebler Pass.

Once you are done exploring the town head northwest over Kebler Pass on CO road 12 (closed in winter). This is a dirt, gravel, and sometimes mud road for nearly 30 miles until you get to CO 133.

Subaru Impreza
My Subaru Impreza is a little discolored after driving on muddy CO 12 for two days.

I have taken my all wheel drive Subaru Impreza on this road in varying conditions and it does fine. A 4×4 or high clearance vehicle would probably give you more peace of mind, but isn’t necessary. The journey from Kebler Pass down to the Anthracite Creek bridge is home to the largest Aspen forest in the state and is what makes this the quintessential autumn drive in Colorado. If you are lucky, you will get an early season snow that will really make the colors of fall pop agains the white backdrop.

Anthracite Creek bridge overlook
The view from CO 12 as you approach the Anthracite Creek bridge.
Lost Lake Slough
Lost Lake Slough
The Lost Lake Slough early in the morning. This is an amazingly serene place to camp.

Stop by Lost Lake Slough for some beautiful reflective views of the surrounding mountains. This is also a good place to camp or just get out and stretch your legs. If it is a little cold you can continue down to the Erickson Springs Campground located on the Anthracite Creek.

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On the Three Lake Trail.

If you are up for a little hiking, there is a 5-mile loop trail known as the Three Lakes Trail. It is moderate by Colorado standards, only climbing about 700′, but the scenery is stunning and you get to visit… you guessed it, three lakes… and a waterfall.

Dollar Lake
This is Dollar Lake. One of the three lakes on the Three Lakes Trail.
McClure Pass

Once you hit CO highway 133 turn right and head towards McClure Pass. There is a small pull off on the other side of the pass that gives sweeping views of the valley below. Continue down the pass until you arrive at the turn-off for Road 3 toward Marble, Colorado.

McClure Pass
The view from the pull off on the north side of McClure Pass.
Marble, Colorado
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Sorry I don’t have a picture of Crystal Mill… yet. This is the Beaver Lake on the east side of Marble… you need a 4×4 from here.

Marble is a sleepy town with a great BBQ restaurant. I think the visitors to this restaurant during this busy season quadruple the population of this town every day. If you have a good 4×4 vehicle you can start the drive towards Crystal, Colorado, but if not park at the end of town and start hiking. You are headed toward Crystal Mill, one of the most photographed spots in all of Colorado.

To the Maroon Bells
Autumn Bells
The Maroon Bells in Aspen. This was late in the afternoon. To get the best light come in the morning.

Once you have taken in the view of the unusual mill you will return back the way you came to highway 133 and take a right towards Carbondale. Once there make a right onto Hwy 82 toward Aspen, Colorado. Just before reaching Aspen you will want to take a right onto Maroon Creek Road. If you arrive here before 8AM you can drive all the way to Maroon Lake, but if not you will need to park in the Aspen Highlands lot and take the bus ($8/person) up to the lake. It is a nice bus with good information about the area and the Aspen trees.

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Jennifer on the trail to Crater Lake.

Once at the bus stop it is a very short walk to the lake. This is the most photographed spot in all of Colorado. If you are feeling a bit more adventurous look into the hike up to Crater Lake, or if you have a lot of extra time, set out to conquer the multi-day backpacking adventure known as the Four Pass Loop, considered by many to be the best backpacking trip in all of Colorado.

To Independence Pass
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The famous town of Aspen, CO. This is the view from Ute trail.

Once you are done at the lake head on to Aspen and go through the iconic mountain town. Stay on Hwy 82 and head up to Independence Pass. This is the highest paved road on the continental divide in the entire U.S. and the fourth highest paved road in Colorado. This is the end of the major Aspen forest areas, but depending on your final destination there are still many beautiful places to see. Twin Lakes lies directly ahead and you can also easily see Colorados two highest mountains—Elbert and Massive. If you head towards Denver via Leadville to Cooper Mountain you will pass the headwaters for the Arkansas River.

Independence Pass
Independence Pass

Conclusion

Aspen Forest
Driving through the Aspen forest on CO 12.

You would be hard pressed to make this a single day outing, but it could be done in two days. However, I recommend taking your time and spending at least 3 days really enjoying and exploring this route. I’ve done it twice now and will be headed back out again this year.

 

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