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. If fall is your favorite season, & you love watching the leaves change color every year….from sunshine yellow to burnt orange & fiery red: Colorado is an amazing place to witness all this glory. In this post, I’m taking you inside the “Perfect Fall Colorado Road Trip,” which is a trip I took with a friend a few years ago specifically so we could witness as much fall color as possible…
Map of Colorado Road Trip
I’ll take you on a phenomenal, slightly off-the-beaten path southern Colorado road trip. We’ll skip Denver ~ & instead head south towards Colorado Springs, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Durango, & finally, to Aspen.
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.
Fall Road Trip Overview
Stop #1 = Colorado Springs: Some of the best places to see fall colors in Colorado Springs are at Seven Falls, in Garden of the Gods, & atop Pikes Peak. How Many Nights to Spend? 1-2
Stop #2 = Great Sand Dunes National Park: This is one of the most underrated National Parks in the U.S. And the drive there gives you glimpses of amazing foliage, along with views of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. How Many Nights? 1-2
Stop #3 = Wolf Creek Pass: This is my absolute, #1 choice for 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 photos. As for hotels, the closest major town is Pagosa Springs.
Stop #4 = Durango/Mesa Verde National Park: Durango is a great place to base yourself for fall color viewing in nearby Mesa Verde National Park, Telluride, & right in town. How Many Nights? 2-3
Stop #5 = Drive the “Million Dollar Highway,” aka US Route 550, thru Ouray & Ridgway: This is a “money shot” of a drive. Head north of Durango for one spectacular drive: if the timing is right, especially in Ridgway, prepare to be blown away.
Stop #6 = End in Luxurious Aspen: How better to end this fall Colorado road trip than with a little? Aspen is also home to one of the most scenic spots in Colorado, which is gorgeous in fall: the Maroon Bells. Work out the kinks from your drive hiking in the Bells….or a massage in Aspen…
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 one of my favorite place in Colorado 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, few 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 Great Sand Dunes, because I’ve already 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…
Stop #3: Durango & Mesa Verde
Stay at least 2-3 days in Durango, to fully absorb the atmosphere of this Western frontier town. There are 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 ~ both are right in town; you’ll feel like you’re stepping back into the early 1900’s. 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.
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 coffee, or just have a damn good dinner at one of Aspen’s many upscale 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 further back in town ~ but they’re all top of the line.
If you don’t want to break the bank, try Mountain Chalet Aspen (with a fabulous location directly across from St. Regis), or St. Moritz Lodge & Condominiums, 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)