Think the vistas from Colorado’s gondolas are great in winter? Come summer and fall, these rides put the color in Colorado. From fields of candy-colored wildflowers to mountainsides set aglow with autumn leaves, here’s a roundup of just a few of the sights you can only catch via ski lift or gondola.
When to Go: During the summer, most Colorado ski lifts and gondolas run on weekends Memorial Day through Labor Day. Dates and hours become more limited in autumn, but you may be able to catch changing colors during the gondolas’ closing weekends. Check with ski areas and resorts for exact dates and operating hours.
While Aspen truly lives up to its winter reputation, the world-renowned ski town’s summer grandeur should not be overlooked. The Silver Queen Gondola whisks visitors to the top of emerald-clad Aspen Mountain for incredible views of the historic hamlet and neighboring 14,000-foot summits.
At the Top: There’s plenty to do, including hiking trails, disc golf, lawn games like giant chess and checkers and corn hole, and live music on the weekends. Dine amid the divine backdrop at the Sundeck restaurant, where you can catch some rays and fill your belly at the gourmet cafeteria. More mountain-top dining >>
One ride and you’ll see why locals call this the best commute in the country. The first and only free public transportation of its kind in the U.S. takes you from the historic town of Telluride skyward to Station St. Sophia at 10,540 feet in Mountain Village, where the ski resort is tucked behind a ridge. It’s a jaw-dropping 13-minute ride from station to station, with wraparound displays of the town’s box canyon blanketed with flowers in the summer and hillsides shimmering with golden aspens in autumn. Keep your eyes peeled for elk, deer and marmots, too.
At the Top: Some of Colorado’s finest dining is enhanced by epic landscapes at Allred’s, located steps from Station St. Sophia. Continue on to Mountain Village Core, where you can drink and dine at local favorites like Tomboy Tavern, Black Iron Kitchen & Bar and Crazy Elk Pizza.
As the name suggests, Summit County (also home to Frisco, Breckenridge, Dillon, Silverthorne and Keystone) boasts some of the biggest and best panoramas in the state — whether you go in the busy, warm-weather season or in the fall, when the mountains explode in fiery hues of yellow, gold, orange and crimson. With a 1,904-foot elevation gain in 10 minutes, you’ll feel like you’re soaring past Technicolor mountain backdrops on the American Flyer.
At the Top: If you’re up for a more adrenaline-pumping ride back, hop on the Rocky Mountain Coaster — a 5,800-foot-long thrill ride down the mountain.
Vail is always a good idea, but locals have a soft spot for autumn. That might be because the kaleidoscopic views from the Eagle Bahn Gondola — spanning the entire Mount of the Holy Cross Wilderness — are so killer they threaten to give winter a run for its money. Summer’s no slouch, either; in fact, Vail has one of the most diverse wildflower populations in the state, from baby-blue columbines to pink fairy slippers.
You’ll board at Lionshead pedestrian village and climb 2,230 feet in eight minutes to Eagle’s Nest. If the eye candy wasn’t enough, you can spend the rest of the day playing at Adventure Ridge, which offers guided mountain biking, horseback rides, Jeep tours, hiking and disc golf.
At the Top: Bistro Fourteen (named for the 14,009-foot peak it overlooks: Mount of the Holy Cross) serves up casual lunches and dinners with a full bar and endless glimpses of the surrounding wilderness.
Get a cloud’s perspective of the Continental Divide and its ever-shifting palette of colors on Keystone’s River Run Gondola. Boarding at River Run Village, this cozy, covered ride climbs to the tip-top of Dercum Mountain, elevation 11,640 feet. Hop off at Summit House, where you could easily pass an afternoon gazing at the alpine lakes and sun-dappled ridges — one of nature’s best light shows. This view is regarded as one of the grandest in Colorado, and that’s saying a lot.
At the Top: For a quick bite, Overlook Grill at Summit House serves barbecue, burgers and local beers during the summer. Wildflower hikes abound on Dercum Mountain; follow the Schoolmarm Trail for a hike all the way back to the bottom.
In summer and fall, the scenery in southwest Colorado could be right out of an Albert Bierstadt painting. There’s no better place to see it than from the two-person Twilight Lift (#4) at Purgatory in Durango. This lift is one of the mountain’s shortest, but you’ll feel like your feet may just skim the colorful treetops.
At the Top: Once you’ve arrived, there are plenty of reasons to stay awhile. Hunt for Indian paintbrush, larkspur and other wildflowers on several hiking trails, or take the plunge on Purgatory’s alpine slide. Mountain bikers can even bring their rides on the lift, then fly down the favorite 7,500-foot Divinity Flow Trail, featuring bridges, bobsled turns and thrilling jump options.
More Lifts & Gondolas with Dreamy Views
Elk Camp Gondola, Snowmass
The Gondola at Steamboat Resort
The Silver Queen or Red Lady Express at Crested Butte Mountain Resort
The Flat Top Flyer at Powderhorn Resort near Grand Junction
The Zephyr Express at Winter Park
American Eagle Lift at Breckenridge Ski Resort
Photo credits: Aspen Mountain in the summer, Aspen Snowmass/Jeremy Swanson; Keystone Resort, Vail Resorts/Daniel Milchev.