Free Road Trip Plan - Golden Colorado: Autumn Among the Aspens
Use this free road trip plan in September and see nature gild Colorado as the state’s famed aspens turn golden and light up the landscape with their brilliance. It’s a magical time in this beautiful state – one where the energy of summer slows and the brilliantly colored leaves both amaze and subdue you.
September may be the month to take this road trip, but be prepared for the fact that the color is fleeting and the time during the month varies every year. The best plan is to check the progress on a weather site that shows the fall "peak" of color and take this trip on a whim/last minute.
As last minute road trips are hard to fit in, this free road trip plan is designed around a long weekend and situated in one area that’s both incredibly photogenic and likely to burst into color in a great show all at one time like a fireworks display – the western portion of the state. The famed Maroon Bells area near Aspen, several spectacular routes, and Colorado’s best-kept-secret are all included to make the most of your fall-foliage-loving weekend.
You’ll need to take off a Friday or a Monday (or both if you can) if you’re trying to squeeze this trip around a weekend in order to allow travel time depending on how far you’ll be traveling.
So, pack a last minute bag full of sweaters and jackets, clear out the memory on your digital camera to make room for all the great shots you’re going to get, and print out this free road trip plan to grab as you head out the door when the color "hits"!
Free Road Trip Plan – Saturday/Day One
Aspen and Maroon Bells
There’s a reason that people flock to Aspen each September when its famous skiing trails area still closed – Maroon Bells. This is the most photographed mountain range in Colorado and it becomes breathtaking each September when the trees that gave the town its name burst into color.
Unless you’re camping and can get a campsite on Maroon Creek Road (hard to do), your best bet is to stay in town and take one of the many shuttles running up into the mountains. Because of heavy traffic, only campers and shuttles are allowed on this route. Start your day on this tour, seeing the spectacular purple and white mountains covered in golden aspens and their reflection in Maroon Lake. If you’re able, you can also bike or hike through this area and spend the entire day. If you take a shuttle tour, the morning should be sufficient.
Spend the afternoon driving south from Aspen to the Twin Lakes Reservoir. This road has incredible views of the mountains, the road is very steep with lots of switchbacks, so it’s not for the faint of heart! Still, you’ll be on the highest paved mountain pass in the country – and be treated to mountain-high views of fall foliage like none other.
Aspen has a smorgasbord of fun available in the evening: there are tons of restaurants, bars, shops, and galleries for your strolling, shopping, dining and partying pleasure.
Free Road Trip Plan – Sunday/Day Two
Crested Butte and Kebler Pass
After the crowds and excitement of your Saturday in Aspen, the small historic town of Crested Butte with its quaint renovated Victorian downtown will be a breath of fresh air.
Before you leave Aspen, take a stroll in the lovely John Denver Sanctuary, a short distance from downtown. Rarely found in guidebooks, this special treasure of a park is full of beautiful trees and situated along a river. The highlight of the park are its large boulders which are inscribed with the lyrics of John Denver’s famous songs paying homage to the glorious mountains, streams, and valleys of Colorado.
Next, head out of Aspen on Castle Creek Road and through Gunnison National Forest, riding along glorious mountain ridges all the way and taking in the views. When you reach the end of this road, you’ll be taking a right on Rt. 135 to head into Crested Butte.
Crested Butte not only has a charming downtown with tons of restaurants to choose from, it’s the home of mountain biking. As you’re on a road trip and want to get the most out of your time on the road, take advantage of this town’s restaurants for lunch and take a ride on the chair lift on Mount Crested Butte to see the amazing mountain views (and appreciate the steep terrain mountain bikers face here).
After lunch, a stroll through downtown, and a chair ride, jump back in your car and head west on County Hwy 12 (a.k.a. Kebler Pass). This route is considered one of the world’s best places to see aspens in the fall. Not only gorgeous, this stand of aspens is one of the largest living organisms on the planet – all sharing one root system. Once a hard-to-drive dirt and rubble track, this route is now almost completely paved and easy to manage, allowing the average car access.
What will you see? Miles and miles of mountains and valleys draped with golden aspens, the skies above a brilliant blue (most of the year), and plenty of wildlife as well as many kinds of wildflowers. Many say that driving this route was one of the best leaf peeping experiences of their lives.
As you’ll want to take your time and drive slowly enough to enjoy the views, I recommend you plan on stopping for the night in one of the closest towns off of Kebler Pass like Somerset or Bowie down Rt. 133. If you’re usually full of energy in the afternoon, you can drive on to Grand Junction (another two hours or so) for the night. Grand Junction not only has more in the way of accommodations, restaurants and shops, it’s also set in a beautiful red-rock landscape with canyons and Grand Mesa, the world’s largest flat-top mountain. To top it off, there are some great vineyards/wineries to check out and excellent golf courses in the area, so if your road trip is longer than a weekend, you could easily spend a couple of days in Grand Junction.
Free Road Trip Plan – Final Notes
As Aspen is extremely popular in September, I recommend you book a room in a hotel that allows cancellations (24 to 48 hours ahead) ahead of time. Book it for the weekend or weekends you’d like to go and keep a keen eye on the fall foliage reports. Set a reminder for yourself to check and cancel well within the hotel’s policy.
If this is a fly and drive road trip, wait until you’re very sure of the weekend you’re traveling to book a flight and a car – flights are expensive to cancel/change and rental cars usually aren’t hard to reserve. As far as your Sunday night’s accommodation, the towns mentioned are more likely to have something to offer last minute/closer to your travel date.
With this free road trip plan and pointers, you can hit Colorado’s fall foliage prime-time on the head and enjoy it to its fullest! Interested in other fall foliage destinations? Check out this list of fall road trip ideas and rev your engines for a fantastic, and beautiful, fall.
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