The Perfect Fall Colorado Road Trip!
Is fall your favorite season? Do you love watching the leaves change color every year ~ from sunshine yellow to burnt orange & fiery red? Have you ever wondered where one of the best places is to witness all these dynamic changing colors? If the answer is “Yes” to any & all, then this is the perfect post for you…because in it we’re creating the “Perfect Fall Colorado Road Trip!”
Colorado is spectacular pretty much any time of year. But during fall, Mother Nature puts on one extra-special show. And with the world-famous Rocky Mountains as a backdrop, it just doesn’t get much better for a classic American road trip.
Beat the Traffic!
But what kills even the best road trip? TRAFFIC!! So, in order to leave the crowds behind & find open road, I’ll take you on a phenomenal, slightly off-the-beaten path southern Colorado road trip. We’ll skip Denver, Boulder, & Vail, where most of the state’s traffic is concentrated. Instead, we’ll head south towards Colorado Springs, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Durango & Mesa Verde National Park, then up the “Million Dollar Highway,” & finally, to our last stop in Aspen.
Denver International Airport
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Wolf Creek Pass
Mesa Verde National Park
Countdown to Fall 2018!
When to Go!
- Best Time to See Fall Colors in Colorado = September 20th-October 20th is typically prime-time viewing season for fall colors throughout Colorado. It tends to bloom earlier in higher elevations, later in lower ones.
- Early Blooms (Sept. 20th-30th) = Rocky Mountain National Park area (by Estes Park) & Gunnison National Forest (north of Telluride).
- Middle of the Road Blooms (Sept. 29th-Oct. 5th) = Maroon Bells (near Aspen) & Rio Grande National Forest.
- Late Bloomers (Oct. 5th-20th) = Wolf Creek Pass (my #1 choice), Fort Collins, Boulder, & pretty much all lower-elevation Colorado cities.
Colorado Road Trip Itinerary ~ Part 1
Stop #1 = Colorado Springs: The first stop on our fall Colorado road trip is Colorado Springs. We only spent ONE night here, & as Julia Roberts says in Pretty Woman: BIG MISTAKE!! HUGE. Why? Because there is sooo much to do in Colorado Springs, & so many phenomenal places to see the fall colors ~ spend at least two nights here! Colorado Springs Must-Sees = Garden of the Gods, Pikes Peak, Seven Falls, & the Wolf Sanctuary. My Favorite Colorado Springs Hotel = Cheyenne Mountain Resort. Best Places to See Fall Colors = Seven Falls (only accessible via The Broadmoor) & Garden of the Gods. How Many Nights? Two to three minimum!
Stop #2 = Great Sand Dunes National Park: This may be one of the most underrated National Parks in America. Yet it’s scenic, inspiring, & the stars at night will blow your mind. The shots we captured at Great Sand Dunes are some of the most popular shots I’ve ever posted on my Instagram account. Quite simply: it’s unlike anywhere else. As for fall colors, the drive from Colorado Springs to the Dunes will give you glimpses of amazing foliage, along with views of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. My Favorite Great Sand Dunes Hotel = Zapata Ranch. Must-Do = Hike or sand-board the dunes! How Many Nights? 1-2 nights minimum, longer if you’re looking to horseback ride the dunes or soak in cowboy culture at the Ranch.
Stop #1 ~ Colorado Springs
First stop on our fall Colorado road trip is Colorado Springs! Let’s assume you’re starting your trip in Denver like ours, which started at Denver International Airport. The good news: it’s just over an hour drive (85 miles) from DIA to Colorado Springs. So the first leg of your trip is SHORT!! This is especially good news if you flew in the same day. Try to time your flights around peak traffic times to avoid congestion getting out of Denver.
DIA to Colorado Springs = 1 hour, 15-minutes (85 miles)
Time to Spend in Colorado Springs = At least 2-3 nights, if you can
Where to Stay
Check into the Cheyenne Mountain Resort in Colorado Springs. Not only do they have phenomenal mountain views from pretty much everywhere on property, but they have an upscale bar, restaurant, pool & hot tub, fitness center, golf, & an outdoor fire pit where you can roast s’mores & watch the stars. And if you want to kick off your road trip right: check out their Spa Alluvia. After getting up at a sunrise hike at Garden of the Gods, we enjoyed massages & reflexology treatments at the spa ~ then sipped cucumber water on their private outdoor patio. Heaven.
Rates at Cheyenne Mountain can run you in the $300-range ~ BUT, they have a phenomenal deal going on now through March 2018. Ask them for their “20/20” Guest Package & you’ll get rates starting at $179/night, & your second night for $20!! That makes rates at the nearby Broadmoor look like highway robbery! Check rates on Cheyenne’s special “20/20” package here.
Colorado Springs “Musts”
If it’s fall colors you want to see, then head to Garden of the Gods. The stunning red rock formations are meant to be seen in fall ~ they match the season perfectly. In fact, Trip Advisor just named Garden of the Gods one of its “Top 10 Fall Destinations.” So put it on your list. Paths are wide, well-marked, & many are paved ~ so it’s a great spot for kids, dogs, & people in wheel chairs. Literally anyone can enjoy this park.
Next up, we’ve got Seven Falls & Pikes Peak. Pikes Peak is the iconic image of Colorado Springs, & the highest mountain in Colorado’s Front Range. Driving up & back round-trip will take you a few hours, with time at the top. Meanwhile, Seven Falls is a gigantic waterfall tucked back in a canyon now owned by the Broadmoor ~ which means you need to park at the Broadmoor, then take one of their shuttles back into the Seven Falls canyon. Is it worth it? YES!! When we went, this was personally my favorite place in Colorado Springs for seeing fall color. And that’s what this fall Colorado road trip is all about!
Stop #2 ~ Great Sand Dunes National Park
This is one of my newest, favorite national parks! It’s got wide open space, very few people, & gorgeous tall sand dunes that will give you a killer workout! And it’s less than a three-hour drive to get from Colorado Springs to Great Sand Dunes National Park, on major highways ~ making it a relatively easy drive. My favorite hotel here is less a hotel, more of a dude ranch: Zapata Ranch. But if you’d rather stay in a town & not at the Dunes, check out hotels in Alamosa, which is the closest major town.
Colorado Springs to Great Sand Dunes National Park = 2 hours, 45 minutes (170 miles), via I-25 & US Highway 160
But here’s a photo to give you an idea of what it’s like…
Colorado Road Trip Itinerary ~ Part 2
Stop #3 = Wolf Creek Pass: This is my absolute, #1 choice if you want to see jaw-dropping, all-out fall color in Colorado! Wolf Creek Pass is located on US Highway 160, about two hours from both Great Sand Dunes National Park as well as Durango. There are numerous pull-outs where you can park your car & take some phenomenal fall shots. As for staying near Wolf Creek Pass, the closest major town is going to be Pagosa Springs.
Stop #4 = Durango & Mesa Verde National Park: You’ll hit your second national park just outside Durango. We should have stayed in Durango ~ but instead, we stayed at Far View Lodge, inside Mesa Verde National Park. To be completely honest, I’m not a fan. It’s a 30-minute drive from the highway just to reach Far View Lodge; our room was cramped & overpriced ($175), & we could hear EVERY WORD our neighbors said (& their dog)! Mesa Verde itself is SUPER remote with nothing going on at night & zero food options besides the Lodge ~ I don’t recommend it for an overnight stay unless you’re camping or looking to star-gaze. I’m also not a fan of Cortez: there’s just nothing exciting going on there, & hotels are boring Holiday Inn-style. BOTTOM LINE: Stay in Durango!!
Stop #4 ~ Durango & Mesa Verde
If you stay in Durango, plan for two to three days, so you can fully absorb the atmosphere of this cute Western town & take some great side trips ~ like to Dolores, Telluride, Silverton, & of course, Mesa Verde National Park. If you’re staying at Mesa Verde, I’d only give it one to two days ~ unless you’re camping & really looking for a remote experience.
As for great, historic places to stay in Durango, check out the Strater Hotel or the General Palmer Hotel ~ both are right in town, & you’ll feel like you’re stepping back into the 1900’s. Another good option is the Doubletree. There are also plenty of mid-range hotels in Durango to choose from, most within walking distance of town.
Wolf Creek Pass to Durango = 1 hour, 45 minutes (84 miles), via US Highway 160
Durango to Mesa Verde National Park = 36 miles just to the park entrance; plan at least another 30 minutes to reach the park itself.
Colorado Road Trip Itinerary ~ Part 3
Stop #5 = Drive the “Million Dollar Highway,” aka US Route 550, thru Ouray & Ridgeway: This, as they say, is the “money shot” of a drive. Head north out of Durango for one of the most spectacular drives of your life. If the timing is right, especially in places like Ridgeway, prepare to be blown away by the fall color. It’s a long drive between Durango & Aspen (5-6 hours), & you’ll want to enjoy the ride ~ so stop in any towns along the way that tickle your fancy, & stay the night if you want to spend more time in this area. Gunnison National Park is also nearby.
Stop #6 = End in Luxurious Aspen: How better to end this fall Colorado road trip than with a little luxury? And Aspen is the place to find it. As a bonus, it’s also home to one of the most famous, scenic spots in Colorado: the Maroon Bells. It’s the perfect way to end your fall Colorado road trip: with a postcard-perfect image of the Bells & some great hiking to work out the kinks in your legs!
Stop #6 ~ Aspen
The final stop on our fall Colorado road trip ~ we made it! You’re probably sick of being in the car by now….but don’t worry ~ you’re in Aspen! You can take a hike, get a massage, enjoy coffee with the locals, or just have a damn good dinner & a martini at one of Aspen’s many taverns. You deserve it….it’s hard to sit all day! ; )
If money is no object for you or you’re just darn ready to splurge, check out legendary Aspen properties like The Little Nell, Hotel Jerome, or the St. Regis Aspen. The Little Nell & St. Regis are super close to the slopes, while Hotel Jerome is set a little further back in town ~ but they’re all top of the line, oozing luxury. Of course, that doesn’t come cheap…so prepare to spend at least $375/night.
If you don’t want to break the bank, try Mountain Chalet Aspen (which has a fabulous location directly across from St. Regis), or the St. Moritz Lodge & Condominiums, which is the most budget-friendly hotel in all of Aspen. Other options to find reduced rates include staying in Snowmass, Basalt, or Carbondale, which will get cheaper the further away you are from Aspen.
Durango to Aspen = Between 5-6 hours, depending which route you take
Aspen to the Maroon Bells = 25 minutes (11 miles)
Goodbye…Fall Colorado Road Trip!
From Aspen, it’s a pretty easy drive back to Denver ~ we drove straight to the airport & made it in less than four hours, via spectacular Independence Pass. It’s definitely hard saying goodbye to the Rocky Mountains!
Have you road tripped in Colorado before? Do you agree with my choices for this perfect fall Colorado road trip? Share your insights & favorite Colorado destinations in the comments below!
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