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 an ideal place is to witness all these changing colors? If yes, then this post is for you…because 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 an extra-special show. And with the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop, it doesn’t get much better for a classic American road trip.
The Perfect Fall Colorado Road Trip!
But what kills even the best road trip? TRAFFIC!! So, to beat the crowds & 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 traffic is concentrated. Instead, we’ll head south towards Colorado Springs, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Durango, & finally, to our last stop in Aspen.
Map of Colorado Road Trip
Denver International Airport
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Wolf Creek Pass
Mesa Verde National Park
Best Time for Fall Colorado Road Trip
- Best Time to See Fall Colors in Colorado = September 20th-October 20th
- Early Blooms (Sept. 20th-30th) = Rocky Mountain National Park area & 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, Fort Collins, Boulder, & pretty much all lower-elevation Colorado cities.
Colorado Road Trip: Part 1
Stop #1 = Colorado Springs Must-Sees: = Garden of the Gods, Pikes Peak, Seven Falls, & the Wolf Sanctuary. Best Places for Fall Colors = Seven Falls & Garden of the Gods. How Many Nights? 1-2 minimum!
Stop #2 = Great Sand Dunes National Park: This is one of the most underrated National Parks in America. And the drive will give you glimpses of amazing foliage, along with views of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. 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.
Where to Stay in Colorado Springs
Check into the Cheyenne Mountain Resort ($175+/night) 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 really want to kick off your road trip right: check out their Spa Alluvia. After getting up for 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.
Colorado Springs “Musts”
Garden of the Gods is amazing in all seasons: but during fall, it’s spectacular. In fact, Trip Advisor just named it one of their “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, & anyone who can walk or wheel. It’s a great park that literally everyone can enjoy.
Next up: Seven Falls & Pikes Peak. Pikes Peak is the iconic image of Colorado Springs, & the highest mountain in the Front Range. A round-trip will take you a few hours. Meanwhile, Seven Falls is a gigantic waterfall tucked back in a canyon full of spectacular fall foliage! You’ll need to park at the Broadmoor Hotel, then take one of their shuttles back into the canyon. Is it worth it? YES!! This was personally my favorite place in Colorado Springs for seeing fall color.
Stop #2 ~ Great Sand Dunes National Park
This is one of my new favorite national parks! It’s got wide open space, not many people, & massive sand dunes that will give you a major workout! It’s a three-hour drive from Colorado Springs to Great Sand Dunes National Park, on major highways. My favorite hotel here is actually a dude ranch: Zapata Ranch. But if you’d rather stay in town, check out hotels in Alamosa.
Colorado Springs to Great Sand Dunes National Park = 2 hours, 45 minutes (170 miles), via I-25 & US Highway 160
I won’t go into great detail about the park here, because I’ve written an entire article about it, which you can find here. But here’s a photo to give you an idea of what it’s like…
Colorado Road Trip: 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 & Durango. There are several pull-outs where you can park & take phenomenal fall shots. As for hotels, the closest major town is Pagosa Springs.
Stop #4 = Durango & Mesa Verde National Park: Mesa Verde itself is quite remote with nothin‘ going on at night & limited food options ~ I don’t recommend staying overnight here unless you’re camping or looking to star-gaze. I’m also not a fan of Cortez: hotels are pretty boring, Holiday Inn-style.
BOTTOM LINE: Stay in Durango!!
Durango & Mesa Verde
Stay at least 2-3 days in Durango, to fully absorb the atmosphere of this Western frontier town. There are also some great side trips from Durango: to Dolores, Telluride, Silverton, & of course, Mesa Verde National Park. If you’re staying at Mesa Verde, I’d only give it 1-2 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: Final Leg!
Stop #5 = Drive the “Million Dollar Highway,” aka US Route 550, thru Ouray & Ridgeway: This is a “money shot” of a drive. Head north 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. It’s a long drive between Durango & Aspen (5-6 hours) ~ so stop wherever tickles your fancy, if you want to break up the drive.
Stop #6 = End in Luxurious Aspen: How better to end this fall Colorado road trip than with a little luxury? Aspen is the place to find it. And, it’s home to one of the most scenic spots in Colorado: the Maroon Bells. End your fall Colorado road trip with the postcard-perfect Bells & some hiking to work out the kinks from your drive!
Final Stop: Aspen
You’re probably sick of being in the car by now….but don’t worry ~ you’re in Aspen! You can hike, get a massage, grab a coffee, or just have a damn good dinner at one of Aspen’s many taverns. If money is no object, check out legendary Aspen hideaways like The Little Nell, Hotel Jerome, or the St. Regis Aspen. 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. 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 the Mountain Chalet Aspen (which has a fabulous location directly across from St. Regis), or St. Moritz Lodge & Condominiums, which is the most budget-friendly hotel in Aspen. It’s also cheaper to stay in Snowmass, Basalt, or Carbondale ~ it gets cheaper the further 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)
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 Independence Pass. It was definitely hard saying goodbye to the Rocky Mountains! Do you agree with my choices for this perfect fall Colorado road trip? Let me know below!
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