In Colorado the turning of the seasons is a prized display of Mother Nature’s artistic prowess. Combine this natural fall scene with drives that have earned the coveted “scenic byway” designation, and you’ve got a backstage pass to the best fall drives in Colorado.
These leafy routes not only get you so close to gorgeous fall foliage that you can smell the trees changing, but they also reveal significant pages in the state’s historic and cultural storybook.
The drive: Bookended by two ski resorts, this sky-high trip takes you from Copper Mountain to Leadville and west to Aspen. With the majority of the byway winding above 9,000 feet, you’ll cross the Continental Divide and follow the Arkansas River past old mining camps, high-country lakes and towering 14,433-foot Mt. Elbert.
Mileage: 82 miles
Pull over for: Downtown Leadville. The nation’s highest-elevation incorporated city is a National Historic Landmark full of mining museums, antique shops and Victorian-era architecture.
Stretch your legs at: The Independence Ghost Town Site. Between Twin Lakes and Aspen, Independence Pass twists around stunning groves of aspen to the former gold rush tent city.
The drive: This byway circles the West Elk Mountains on a journey through Paonia, Gunnison, Crested Butte and Carbondale. Touching three national forests, the drive crosses diverse landscapes of meadows, rivers, canyons and enormous aspen stands lit up in gold and orange.
Mileage: 205 miles
Pull over for: McClure Pass photos. Views to either side of the high mountain corridor spill out into a green, yellow and auburn canvas sprinkled with striking red scrub oaks.
Stretch your legs in: Curecanti National Recreation Area. The intersection of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park with Morrow Point, Blue Mesa and Crystal lakes is an unbeatable spot for picnicking and sightseeing.
The drive: Travel from Fort Collins to the secluded valley of North Park where deer, elk and moose graze and quaking aspen mingle with massive forests of pine drinking from the Cache la Poudre River.
Mileage: 101 miles
Pull over for: East Sand Dunes Natural Area. Rare cold-climate dunes rise and fall in the Medicine Bow Range.
Stretch your legs in: Red Feather Lakes. Set in mountainous Roosevelt National Forest, the remote village is known for its hiking and biking trails.
The drive: Established in 1918, Colorado’s oldest scenic byway affords sweeping views of aspen-cloaked valleys and the Continental Divide as it snakes from the mining-belt casino towns of Black Hawk and Central City to Estes Park.
Mileage: 55 miles
Pull over for: Cook’s Palace Pub in Black Hawk. The chili cheese fries are unforgettable at this newly refurbished, family-friendly restaurant that claims to be Colorado’s oldest saloon.
Stretch your legs in: Rocky Mountain National Park. The pot of gold at the end of the byway provides a gorgeous encore of vibrant fall foliage.
The drive: Jaw-dropping cliffs, dramatic scenery and autumn appearances of amber, bronze and gold define the “Road to the Sky” as it dips into the 5-million-acre San Juan and Uncompahgre National Forests and passes through the classic Colorado mountain towns of Telluride, Durango and Ouray.
Mileage: 236 miles
Pull over for: Mesa Verde National Park. Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings reside in the only national park dedicated solely to the works of man.
Stretch your legs in: Old West favorite Durango. Take a trip on the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad or relax in the nearby hot springs.
For maps and more scenic and historic byways, visit the Colorado Department of Transportation’s website.