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5 great drives to see aspens changing colors in Colorado

September 30, 2022 by Rich kurtzman, Brand Communications @ Fathym

Ah, fall.

The temperatures are cooler and oh, so comfortable. It’s a great time to get outdoors and soak up the sun before winter sets in.

September and early October offer the best times to go “leaf peepin’” an affectionate term meaning looking for the dramatic changes of the aspen and other deciduous trees.

There are many places to see the leaves change – from green, to orange, red and gold – and these are some of our favorites.

Rocky Mountain National Park

It’s no secret that Rocky Mountain National Park is a favorite of locals as well as international travelers.

In fact, it’s so popular, there are some special rules to getting in. But, they’re worth it!

In order to limit the amount of visitors in the part at one time, RMNP started their “timed entry” reservations in 2019. That means, if you go to the park between 9 am – 3 pm, you will have to have an entry reservation and can only enter during that time. There’s even a special Bear Lake corridor permit which is in effect from 6 am - 5 pm.

The good news is, if you can get there by 9 am, you don’t need a permit! Or choose to come in the afternoon if you wish, or get online and reserve a timeframe.

My family and I went last weekend, Sept. 24, 2022, and all the pictures in this piece are from that trip. We made it to the entry gates by 8:55 am and had a wonderful day. There are many parts of the park to see aspens changing their colors, and Trail Ridge Road is a great place to start. If you can, take a hike by using a trail head. Or simply pull over in a designated parking space to snap photos of the beautiful fall foliage and/or the elk in their rut.

Independence Pass | Aspen to Twin Lakes

(Note: All pictures are from RMNP in Sept. 2022)

Aspen is well known for their world-class skiing, the idyllic Maroon Bells and, well, they have the tree in the name of the town!

Independence Pass is again a favorite of locals and travelers alike, and this pass doesn’t have entry rules like RMNP does. Keep in mind that the top of the pass is over 12,000 feet and Colorado Department of Transportation urges drivers to use extra caution and drive slowly, sharing the road with cyclists.

Starting from Aspen, the drive takes just over one hour to complete the 37 miles to Twin Lakes.

Buffalo Pass | Steamboat Springs to Walden

My family and I live in Fort Collins, CO and the drive to Steamboat Springs is a wonderful one through the Poudre River Canyon, and through the valleys on the west side of Cameron Pass.

Once in Steamboat Springs – which is in the northwest corner of the Centennial State – find your way to Buffalo Pass which connects Steamboat to the small town of Walden, CO.

Planted in the Routt National Forest, Buffalo Pass is an extremely beautiful place with a towering aspen forest mixed in with all kinds of evergreen trees. In fact, there’s dispersed camping available in the National Forest, too. But make sure to: Know the fire restrictions, drown your fire if you have one, and pack it in, pack it out in terms of trash. Keep Colorado beautiful and wild.

If you’re there just for leaf peepin’ stay in the car and drive slowly on the dirt/rock road. It’s decently calm in the beginning, but gets rockier and bumpier as you go. A 2-wheel drive car can make it a long ways up the road (if it’s dry), but an all-wheel drive or 4x4 vehicle is preferred. And there’s no need to drive the entire route to Walden to find some great views, so don’t feel the need to keep pushing.

Mestaa’Ehehe Pass (formerly Squaw Pass) | Evergreen to Idaho Springs

Metaa’Ehehe Pass was renamed this year for a woman Cherokee translator from the 1800s. For those coming from Denver, it’s one of the closest passes to the city if you’re looking for those gorgeous, golden leaves.

Keep in mind the pass tops out at over 9,700 feet of elevation and there are sharp 8% grades on the road. Although it is completely paved, it can be a bit of a treacherous road. Also, watch out for bicyclists, who love to ride the pass.

Starting in Evergreen, CO it takes a little less than an hour to drive the pass over to Idaho Springs, which is 30 miles.

Guanella Pass | Georgetown to Grant

Georgetown, less than an hour west of Denver, is a wonderful little town to visit any time of year. But fall and winter are two of the best.

We visited in October of 2020 and took a ride on the Georgetown Loop Railroad (pictured above). Some folks like riding the railroad – which is about an hour – and then driving Guanella Pass to see some amazing aspens.

From Georgetown, it’s a 23 mile drive to Grant which takes about 50 minutes. Again, this pass is extremely high in elevation, topping out at 11,600 feet, the highest on our list.

Changing Weather

While Denver is the Mile High City, with an elevation of 5,280 feet above sea level, you’re still going to gain 4-6,000 feet of elevation on these drives.

What that means is a drop in temperature – make sure to pack sweatshirts, jackets and long pants, even if it’s warm in the city – as well as changing weather.

Driving into the mountains west of Denver also means changing road conditions. The pavement can go from dry to wet, and then wet to icy fairly quickly. Or, you may be surprised as rain turns to snow as you climb higher.

If only there was a way to predict the weather on the ground. Now, there is.

Habistack and Proadject have you covered

Habistack is a robust, feature-rich API that offers a powerful suite of weather forecasting and open-source data visualization tools.

Habistack combines the world's best weather forecasts with statistics-based, machine-learning techniques to tackle the largest datasets, including road weather. Habistack offers developers comprehensive weather forecasting capabilities over freely chosen locations and routes across the globe. The API delivers a unique suite of highly specialized forecast variables derived through statistically based machine learning models.

By signing up for a free Fathym account, now anyone can plan their fantastic fall drive trips with ease and know what to expect in terms of the weather.

Here’s an example of Proadject and Habistack working together to show what the weather will be like on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park on Sat. Oct 1, 2022: