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Guide to Colorado’s Best Fall Drives, Hikes and Leaf Peeping

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Autumn offers a colorful time for adventures through the backroads of rural Colorado. Mother Nature’s masterpiece of fall foliage becomes the backdrop for memorable hikes and drives; farmers who are gathering delicious crops and produce from the land open their doors for harvest events and dinners. Outdoor recreation drops to a more relaxing pace with easier access to best-loved rivers and trails. Guest ranches and rural lodging offer enticing seasonal packages and lower rates, making fall an optimal time to explore the lesser-known corners of Colorado. Here are a few of our fall favorites:
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  1. FALL FESTIVALS. Colorado knows how to celebrate the change of season and there’s no end of festivals or seasonal culture. Beer, brats, local musicians and some of the most kaleidoscopic foliage on the Front Range make adding Estes Park’s  Autumn Gold Festival (Sept. 22–23, 2018) to an autumn itinerary a no-brainer. Scarf down comfort fare like funnel cake and corn on the cob and listen to the sounds of bugling bull elk, who gather in the area annually during the start of the rutting (breeding) season to show off for their entourages. The intoxicating sights, smells and flavors of autumn shine at Crested Butte’s Chili & Beer Festival (Sept. 8, 2018) when locals celebrate the arrival of fall with steaming pots of chili and Colorado beer (Is there any better way?). The price of admission includes unlimited tastings of hearty stews made by local chili experts like Coal Creek Grill’s buffalo and chocolate stout chili and drafts from breweries. The Durango Autumn Arts Festival (Sept. 15-16, 2018) invites visitors to admire the works of local and national artists as well as nature’s canvas, when gold and red trees illuminate the San Juan Mountains. At the fest, hands-on creative activities keep tots occupied, while a sampling of craft beers and locally made goodies ensure visitors are well fed. Trinidad’s delightfully quirky ArtoCade (Sept. 7–8, 2018) will roll through historic downtown in a parade of “artfully enhanced” cars, motorcycles, bikes, trikes, scooters, tractors and golf carts. There’s a lot packed into the festival’s two days, including an ArtoKids booth for hands-on kiddie fun, a circus-like dance party called Cardango and meet-and-greets with the event’s “cartists.”Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival (Oct. 19–21, 2018) celebrates the time when spicy spirits become the perfect answer to chillier temps. Sip the best offerings from small-batch, artisan distillers and learn more about the distilling process in Breckenridge, a town with its own pioneering distillery. La Veta Oktoberfest (Oct. 6, 2018) is a more than 30-year-old tradition in the town featuring a German Biergarten and dancing in the streets.
  2. VISIT THE FARM. Many Colorado farms offer opportunities in the fall to “U-pick” cherries, strawberries, carrots, tomatoes, melons, beets, squash, cucumbers and more. Miller Farms in Platteville is the perfect stop to pick up harvest potatoes, carrots, and other vegetables, or take a hayride through 180 acres of field, have a picnic and taste some delicious snacks. The Tom Bay Farm Stand provides an outlet for family farms to sell their locally raised, processed, or handcrafted fresh produce, frozen meats and shelf-stable farm products directly to the consumer. South of I-70 (exit 299), the Farm Stand is only 20 miles east of DIA. Visitors can take in the splendor of southwest Colorado’s high-desert topography while seeing how farmers live and taste the area’s flavors on a Mesa Verde Farm and Ranch Tour hosted by the Cortez Cultural Center. Excursions include transportation to multiple sites, a guided tour, lunch and a tasting of craft beverages from local breweries and wineries. Peach lovers can learn the differences between conventional and organic farming with a stroll through Aloha Organic Fruit in Palisade, learning how water is brought to the trees from the Colorado River for the region’s most iconic fruit. The Bromley Hishinuma historic farm site near Brighton will host a fall festival in 2018 with u-pick pumpkins, corn maze, and farming activities. The farm also hosts field trips, tours, farm classes, and farm to table dinners. Fortified Collaborations coordinates farm-to-table events in and around Fort Collins throughout the fall, including harvest moon dinners, bounty and brews beer dinners, and a harvest brunch.
  3. FALL TRAILS FOR HIKING & BIKING. Pella Crossing Loop Trail is a 1.4 mile lightly trafficked loop trail located just west of Longmont, near Hygiene. The area offers fishing and walking trails and beautiful views of Longs Peak and is a wetlands habitat, nestled within the surrounding Great Plains. The trail is good for all skill levels and offers several activity options. Dogs are welcome on this trail but must be kept on a leash. When fall colors are at their peak and snow kisses the Twin Peaks, Pella Crossing is the ideal location to view nature’s glory. The Open Space supports aquatic plant and animal life and serves to lure in large numbers of migrating birds. With grasses, wildflowers, and trees surrounding the wetlands, these areas are biologically diverse, both in and out of the water.  The Bachelor Loop, north of Creede, starts in the iconic cliffs at the end of Creede’s classic western Main St and circles through some amazing mining ruins. It was where a lot of the last Lone Ranger film was shot. The whole loop is very beautiful throughout the self-guided driving tour (maps at the Visitors Center/Chamber building) and the site of the old town of Bachelor is a big meadow lined with lots of fall foliage, plus there are lots of aspens along the way. Cumbres La Manga Pass and the Conejos Canyon, Hwy 17 going into New Mexico (one end of the Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic Byway) and Forest Rd 250 up to the mining town of Platoro has incredible views with lots and lots of aspens. Very few have discovered it from the Colorado side except for people in the San Luis Valley. Opal Lake trail, near Pagosa Springs, is a moderately easy 1.2 miles and takes about 45 minutes to complete. The trailhead traverses across an open meadow, with gorgeous high country autumn sights. Hikers can see several beaver dams, a mountain face, and the mineral deposits which give Opal Lake its milky color. The most impressive during the autumn season, however, is the wooded hillside, complete with a color-changing aspen grove, which surrounds visitors with beauty through one of the world’s largest connected living organisms. Anderson Trail is about 9 miles in length from the trailhead to its junction with the Fourmile Trail. It crosses easily through steep terrain and goes across the eastern shoulder of Pagosa Peak. There’s a 2,349-foot elevation gain, which gives hikers a mountainous view of transforming colors from above. There are rock formations, aspen trees, and expansive fall views; the trail is open to hiking and horseback riding, and primitive camping spots are available throughout.
  4. FALL FOLIAGE DRIVES: Rio Blanco County has spectacular, lesser-known scenic drives, including the Buford-New Castle Road, a gravel road connecting the two towns in 42 Miles. With camping spots along the way and amazing aspen trees in the fall, with interesting history and an old western tradition that provide visitors with a unique look into the lifestyle of the old west, this is a great drive to check out at peak season. Highway of Legends Scenic and Historic Byway: This route wraps around two of Colorado’s burliest mountains, West and East Spanish Peak. Along the way, the highway passes beneath ancient volcanic walls that rise over tracts of pine, scrub oak and aspen. Nearly the entire route from La Veta to Trinidad on Colorado 12 begs to be photographed. Guanella Pass Scenic and Historic Byway: Take this rambling route south out of the historic town of Georgetown to find pockets of blazing aspen. Once reaching the town of Grant, turn right on US 285 and take the highway for 15 minutes to the top of Kenosha Pass, where the aspen thrive on the rim of the gentle slopes that encircle South Park. Colorado 17 from Antonito to the New Mexico borderheading up the serene Conejos River Valley, stands of pinyon give way to the white trunks of aspen. Some of the oldest and tallest aspens in the state can be seen, photographed and enjoyed near La Manga Pass. For an even more unique experience, ride the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad for views not seen on any highway. Dallas Divide and Lizard Head Pass: The journey begins in the town of Ridgway, heading west on Colorado 62 over Dallas Divide. Lining the route are unimpeded views of the Sneffels Range, an apron of aspen trees at its feet. At Placerville, head southeast toward Telluride on Colorado 145. All the way to Lizard Head Pass drivers will be in awe at the dense groves of white-barked aspens with panoramas of Wilson Peak.
  5. RURAL ADVENTURE: FALL HUNTING, FISHING & BIRDING. Fall brings an entirely new experience for hunting, offering world-class elk, deer, antelope and moose hunting in many regions of the state. For those new to the sport, Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW) has several programs to encourage new outdoors enthusiasts learn the ropes, focusing on the heritage and tradition of hunting, through clinics, mentored hunts, and seminars. Women Afield provides opportunities for women to learn about hunting big game, waterfowl and upland birds from experienced volunteers and DOW staff. Summer and fall workshops focus on both shooting and fishing. The clinics and seminars feature basic instruction in the fundamentals, from shotgun shooting to fly-fishing. Ballyneal, in Northeastern Colorado, is set amid thousands of acres of native grasses as well as fields of corn, millet, and sorghum that provide a perfect nesting environment for dozens of varieties of wild birds including the trophy Chinese ring-necked pheasant. Ballyneal offers exclusive access to this hunting land plus knowledgeable, professional guides and gun dogs that will make a hunt a world-class experience unlike any other, October through April. Fall is considered one of the greatest times to be out on the river fly-fishing, and any angler’s fall bucket list should include the Rocky Mountain National Park, offering some of the serene high-alpine lakes in the state and packed with cutthroat trout. Another scenic spot is the Upper Colorado River, between Kremmling and Dotsero, where brown and rainbow trout are accessible at multiple put-in and wade-in spots. Those seeking larger fish like wild browns should try Cebolla Creek and Henson Creek, near Lake City, where changing fall foliage gives waters a golden glow and streams are low and clear. Angler’s Covey offers camps, classes and guided trips on the South Platte River throughout the fall season. Fall is an important bird migration season and there are a couple of key locations for viewing. In September, the Swainson’s hawk migrates south again along the Colorado Rocky Mountain Front. As many as 1,300 can be seen in 3 hours. In fall, Sandhill cranes can be found near Hayden and Craig, Colorado. Hundreds of birds that bred in Colorado and areas further north stay in the Yampa Valley from mid-September to mid-November.  From there they migrate south to the San Luis Valley or directly to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. Among the earliest returning fall migrants in North America, the Rufous hummingbird is abundant at the Nature Conservancy’s Carpenter and Zapata Ranches between mid-June and September. These small, pugnacious birds travel to and through Colorado toward their wintering grounds, finding comfort in flower gardens, hummingbird feeders and wildflower meadows throughout the state’s mountain ranges. 
  6. GET SPOOKY. Farms across the state invite visitors to stroll rows of pumpkins searching for the perfect jack-o-lantern candidate. Many of them also offer corn mazes, hayrides, petting zoos, bobbing for apples and other hallmark activities of the season. See the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s list of pumpkin patches and corn mazes across the state. There’s plenty of tours and events to get in the mood for Halloween including the Telluride Horror Show: (Oct. 12–14, 2018). Already famous for film, Telluride is embracing the spooky fun of October with this eighth-annual horror, fantasy and sci-fi film fest in the town’s historic Sheridan Opera House. Dress in costume, participate in spooky activities, and do some trick or treating to get in the spirit of Halloween at the YMCA of the Rockies’ Halloween Spooktacular, (Oct. 28, 2018). Head over to the skating rink for a Monster Mash in costume, Trick or Treat around the property, enjoy the Haunted House or a family film. Take a tour with Blue Moon Haunted History Tours through the scarier sides of Victor and Manitou Springs. Take an evening stroll through the heart of Trinidad, where murders, shakedowns and Old West characters have left their mark. While wandering the cemetery after dark is considered trespassing, the Gilpin County Historical Society leads Creepy Crawls around the city’s ghostliest sites each October.
  7. FALL FLINGS ON THE RANCH. Fall season at many Colorado guest and dude ranches brings surprising opportunities for shorter stays, special rates, and specialty experiences. Many Colorado guest and dude ranches offer Adult Only weeks and weekend specials during the month of September. Guests can saddle up for an unforgettable ride through the changing Aspens or try their hand at rounding up the cattle. Whether a fall break provides a ‘deep breath’ after a busy summer, a chance for solo travel, or even a getaway with friends, it’s an ideal time to fall in love with Autumn in the Colorado Rockies. Fall specialty weekends include culinary weeks, yoga retreats, cowgirl round-ups, painting and photography workshops, hunting and birding trips, and fall yoga retreats. 
  8. FIND FALL HIDDEN GEMS WITH THE COLORADO FIELD GUIDE. For inspiration and road trip ideas, visitors can use the Colorado Field Guide online trip-building tool to source local insider tips for veering off the well-trodden path. Some hidden gems to check out during fall-season include Fish or Hike Colorado’s Second Largest Natural Lake: Trapper Lake sits surrounded by The Flattops Mountains and is widely considered the birthplace of the U.S. Wilderness Area system. It’s also a local’s favorite for Cutthroat and Brook trout fly-fishing, and a great place to hike away from the crowds closer to Glenwood Springs. As featured in Falling for Glenwood Springs Field Guide. Luxurious Cabins, Glamping at The Royal Gorge: The Royal Gorge is a hub for adrenaline seekers, but there are plenty of ways to relax in style and enjoy a slower pace. The Royal Gorge Cabins are a destination and a scenic and comfortable base for Fall sight-seeing and mellow outdoor recreation. As featured in Relaxation in Canon City Field Guide. The Mint: One of Colorado’s oldest saloons is a great place to enjoy a libation while planning a weekend of outdoor recreation in Summit County’s gateway town of Silverthorne. Though established in 1862, the original building of the Mint has been taken apart and moved three times. As featured in Sunny Days, Cool Nights: Autumn in Silverthorne Field Guide.   Boreas Pass: This is a lesser-known scenic drive is a fun detour for Front-rangers heading from HWY 285 to get to Breckenridge via Fairplay, taking visitors through the former railroad town of Como (now a Historic District) for plenty of Fall leaf-peeping before indulging in a weekend of dining, shopping, and recreation in Breckenridge. As featured in Perfect Fall Itinerary in Breckenridge Field Guide.
Mile High Mamas
Author: Mile High Mamas

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