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Fall Color Camper Van Road Trips: Part 1, Drives Near Denver

Determined to see our famous fall colors at their peak? Renting a camper van once you get to the state lets you stay nimble. 

Breakfast on the road in an Aspen Custom Vans camper van
Breakfast on the road in an Aspen Custom Vans camper van
Stargazing in a pop-top model from Rocky Mountain Campervans
Stargazing in a pop-top model from Rocky Mountain Campervans

At the drop of a leaf, it’s “wheels up” to the destination with the brightest hues of the moment. Discover the enchantment of #vanlife and get your foliage fix as you explore three Colorado scenic and historic byways near Denver.

Reserve Your Ride

There are plenty of local companies that can get you geared up to embrace nomadic freedom without having to rough it thanks to solar-powered features, queen-sized beds and more. Peruse your options at A-Lodge Adventure Vans in Boulder, Aspen Custom Vans in Aspen, Dave & Matt Vans in Gypsum, and Rocky Mountain Campervans or Native Campervans, both in Denver.

Plan Your Route

Peak viewing times are hard to predict, but the first half of September is usually a safe bet. Resources like the interactive maps and webcams on COTrip.org or the Colorado Parks & Wildlife park finder page can help you track down those striking colors.

1. Cache La Poudre-North Park Byway

This winding route in northern Colorado traces the mighty Cache la Poudre River (pronounced CASH-la-poo-der), popular for whitewater rafting and kayaking. The river provides ample moisture for deciduous trees, ensuring an abundance of fiery-hued foliage, as aspens intermingle with thick pine forests. Keep an eye out for bighorn sheep through the canyon; and as you enter the bowl-shaped basin that is North Park, look for moose in Walden, considered the moose-viewing capital of the state.

Along the way, soothe your aching driver’s foot at Soak Spa & Foot Sanctuary in Fort Collins, then take those rejuvenated trotters on a stroll through Old Town, where you’ll find a wealth of local breweries, distilleries, restaurants and shops, perfect for a little vacay indulgence. Or, hook a guided fly-fishing excursion with Wellington’s Liarflies to wade and cast among the Cache la Poudre’s diverse waters, all surrounded by stunning views.

Near Walden, a wilderness escape awaits on 71,000 acres in State Forest State Park. While you’re out biking, wakeless boating, camping, fishing or hiking, keep an eye out for wildlife, including moose. While visiting the park, make sure to visit the only undisturbed, cold-climate sand dune in Colorado at East Sand Dunes Natural Area, accessible by hiking trail.

Where to Camp: Big Bend Campground, Fort Collins or Big Creek Lakes Campground, Walden (closes Sept. 15, 2020)

Break from the Road: The Armstrong Hotel, Fort Collins or North Park Inn & Suites, Walden

2. Top of the Rockies Byway

If you feel on top of the world during this drive, it’s because, well, you are. It visits America’s highest incorporated city, Leadville (at an elevation of 10,152 feet); the two tallest peaks in the state, Mount Elbert and Mount Massive; and one of the most hair-raising mountain passes in Colorado, Independence Pass. Don’t let that scare you: The promise of brilliant fall foliage delivers, as you trace the beginnings of the Arkansas River and travel through captivating historic towns.

Stretch your legs and step back in time on a tour of Leadville’s resplendent and recently restored Tabor Opera House, built by a mining magnate in 1879. Then wander the Victorian-era main street, lined with cafes, bakeries and coffeehouses. You might also opt to take a self-guided tour of Camp Hale National Historic Site, where you’ll uncover its unlikely history as a World War II U.S. Army training site.

If you're driving through Minturn on a weekend, catch the renowned Saturday market before grabbing a bite to eat in the funky downtown. In Aspen, wander the chic shops, making sure to savor Mediterranean-inspired delights at The Wild Fig or elevated craft cocktails and sandwiches at the historic White House Tavern while you’re there.

Where to Camp: Hornsilver Campground, Red Cliff (closes mid-Sept.) or Silver Queen Campground, Aspen (closes Oct. 4, 2020)

Break from the Road: The Colorado Trail House, Leadville or The Bunkhouse, Minturn

3. Peak to Peak Byway

Colorado’s oldest scenic byway meanders along the lower ridges of the Front Range and Rocky Mountain National Park, with bursts of multi-hued aspen cheering you on from either side of the highway. Easily accessible from Denver, this is one of the premier leaf-peeping spots in Colorado, with mountain scenery no less dramatic than farther-flung locales. A backdrop of jagged, snow-dusted crests — including the Indian Peaks and Longs Peak — add to the allure, and there are lots of small-town stops along the way for lunch and coffee breaks.

In Central City, strike it rich panning for ore at Hidee Gold Mine and on the slots at The Famous Bonanza Casino. Or, zip around our enchanting wilderness on a guided trip with ATV Tours Colorado. For slower-paced adventures, ride the historic, hand-carved and charmingly whimsical Carousel of Happiness in Nederland, then tuck into fresh sandwiches and soups at The Deli at 8236’.

Along the route, you can also stop to hike to glacial valleys and mirror-smooth mountain lakes amid a forested wonderland in the popular Indian Peaks Wilderness Area. For a fun day off from the road, explore the scenic terrain near Rocky Mountain National Park via guided horseback tours from Sombrero Stables. Watch for wildlife (elk sightings are almost guaranteed in fall) and drink up the sights as the sounds of your steed’s hoofbeats lull you into tranquility.

Where to Camp: Olive Ridge Campground, Allenspark (closes Sept. 19, 2020) or Camp Dick, Lyons

Break from the Road: Goldminer Hotel, Nederland or Della Terra Mountain Chateau, Estes Park

Van Life Tips

  • Freecampsites.net is helpful for finding campsites along the way, as is Recreation.gov.
  • Snow is possible even in early fall at higher elevations, so prepare accordingly.
  • Responsible vanlifing means following Care for Colorado principles.
  • Charge your devices and yourself at the many charming mountain-town coffee shops you’ll inevitably come across. Portable power banks are handy, too.
  • Don’t plan too much. Adventures are bound to happen when you’re on a road trip!

Want more?

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