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Scenic Fall Drives Within an Hour of Denver

Posted at 09/14/2020 09:15 AM by Pat O'Connor

The snow of last week is now a distant memory and now we can concentrate on the important things of September -- leaf peeping!

For the next few weeks, the aspens will be sporting their best colors as we approach peak viewing time. The shimmering yellows and oranges showcased against the backdrop of Colorado blue spruce, Engleman spruce, lodgepole and ponderosa pine, and Douglas fir forests make an outing in the foothills and mountains a must-do.

It remains to be seen what the effects of our recent snowfall will have on the showcase this year. Even if the leaves have taken a hit, driving through the Rockies on a sunny afternoon is still one of the best ways to celebrate fall.

For people living in the Denver metro area, keep in mind you don’t have to venture hours into the mountains to get the best vantage point. In fact, there are a number of routes that are less than an hour away that offer a prime color palette.

Check out a few of Usaj Realty’s favorite scenic drives that not only offer stellar glimpses of the changing aspens but also outstanding views of our prized mountain vistas.

Guanella Pass (Hwy. 381 between Georgetown and Grant)

best fall drives near denver

This is my personal favorite. I’ve been heading up to this spot for as long as I can remember dating back to the 1980s. Head up I-70 and take the Georgetown exit. You’ll encounter huge stands of aspens and amazing views of the Mount Evans Wilderness area to the east. Approaching the summit of Guanella Pass, you can turn right on Naylor Lake Road and pull right up to the lake. Or, hit the Silver Dollar trailhead and enjoy a beautiful hike to Silver Dollar and Murray Lakes. At the Guanella Pass summit, enjoy a splendid view of Mt. Bierstadt, standing at 14,060 feet, or visit Duck Lake, less than a mile down the road. You can do a complete loop and head down the Pass to Grant where you’ll pick up Hwy. 285.

Kenosha Pass (between Grant and Jefferson on Hwy. 285)

kenosha pass colorado fall colors-1

This is an easy drive that gets double word score for spectacular colors and instant access to the Colorado Trail. At the 10,000 foot summit of Kenosha Pass, you have the opportunity to head either east or west on the Colorado Trail and take in some truly sensational colors. Depending on which direction you head, you can see South Park, high elevation plateaus and various mountain ranges. Keep in mind, this section of the Colorado Trail is very popular for viewing the fall colors. Try to hit it on a week-day if possible to avoid the crowds.

Peak-to-Peak Highway (Hwy. 119 outside of Idaho Springs and runs north to Nederland)

Peak-to-Peak Highway Colorado

While this stretch of highway is known as more of a “gamblers” route, it offers a surprisingly good section of aspen stands and amazing views of the Indian Peaks. While many choose to stop in the casinos in Central City or Blackhawk, serious leaf peepers find this route offers a path less traveled yet yields wonderful results. You can access Hwy. 119 either by the Central City Parkway or via Hwy. 6 (Clear Creek Canyon). In addition to a bonanza of colors, you’ll get to experience some classic Colorado hairpin turns as you weave through Gilpin County. If you’re looking for an alternative route to Rollinsville, try the Missouri Gulch Rd., located just beyond the Gilpin County School.

Golden Gate Canyon Rd. (Hwy. 70, outside of Golden)

fall colors colorado

Just outside of Golden, a paradise awaits you. At the end of this magical route through the foothills, you’ll be presented with one of Colorado’s most popular parks, Golden Gate Canyon State Park. Featuring 12,000 acres of dense forest including tens of thousands of aspen trees, this scenic park offers 32 miles of trails. Ralston, Nott and Deer Creeks all flow through this area, and there are tranquil ponds and riparian areas for your fishing and viewing pleasure. Lush biodiversity is everywhere amidst elevations ranging from 7,400 to 10,400. Of the many hiking trails, Panorama Point Trail and Horseshoe Trail both spotlight a wealth of hues and vistas. 

Coal Creek Canyon (Hwy. 72 outside of Rocky Flats to Nederland)

fall colors near denver

Tucked between the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge and Nederland is Coal Creek Canyon. This wonderful drive takes you through the foothills into the lovely hamlet of Wondervu, situated at 8,888. Make sure to stop at the Wondervu Cafe where they serve up delicious homemade Mexican food. Don’t leave without taking some of their famous salsa and hot fudge topping. Breathtaking views and a rainbow of colors reward you on this iconic route toward Nederland and the Indian Peaks. 

Idaho Springs to Echo Lake (Hwy. 103)

What’s not to love about this stretch of road that shows off its pomp when fall comes? While Mt. Evans often gets all the attention, the highway leading up to and around Echo Lake come September is glorious. Resplendent with hundreds of aspen groves, you won’t want to hurry the drive. Best of all, it’s a short, straightforward drive on I-70 from the Denver metro area. You can hang out around the lake or take a hike up to Chicago Lakes. On the way back, consider a visit to Idaho Springs and the famous Indian Hot Springs.

Pikes Peak (Colorado Springs)

Last by not least, we recommend a drive up Pikes Peak. Depending on where you live in the Denver Metro area, it may be outside an hour but the ascent up this 14er is truly memorable. Plan on at least a half-day to best experience this drive. Pikes Peak Highway is 19 miles long (one way) and begins in Cascade, Colo., just northwest of Manitou Springs. The road winds through magnificent aspen groves before the ascent that takes you to the 14,115 foot summit. This year, due to the construction underway at the Summit House, mandatory shuttles to the top are required at either mile 13 or mile 16. Shuttles leave every 5 minutes and masks are required to ride. 

Posted by Pat O'Connor

Pat O’Connor has dual citizenship in both Wisconsin and Colorado, having been born and raised in Wisconsin Dells, but later adopted by the Centennial State. A graduate of the University of Colorado (B.S. Journalism, 1980), O’Connor began her career as a sportswriter at the Boulder Daily Camera under the tutelage of the venerable Dan Creedon. Her experience also includes stints in public relations at Aspen Highlands Ski Area, the Colorado Trial Lawyers and the Colorado Division of Wildlife. When she isn’t piecing together sentences, the self-proclaimed “Cheesehead” enjoys hanging out with her three kids and assortment of family pets, running, playing golf, hiking 14ers, horseback riding and skiing. As a mother to two (at one time three) competitive swimmers, her favorite fragrance is eau de chlorine. During football season, she can be found cheering for the Buffs on Saturdays and screaming when the Packers score on Sundays. She loves talking sports and giving recommendations on cheese curds.

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Topics: Things to Do in Denver