There’s a common misconception that fall in Aspen is off-season, but people who love the area’s unmatchable scenery and epic natural beauty know it’s the best time of year to visit. Every September the Aspen leaves turn a brilliant shade of gold, and the mountains shimmer like a sequined gown. You can drive in almost any direction to see this spectacular display—and to gain some serious insight into how Aspen earned its name.
If you’ve already done the obvious drives (Independence Pass, the Maroon Bells, and Ashcroft), try the following routes. They provide an escape that’s as easy as it is breathtaking when the mountains don their most dazzling autumn attire.
The Escape Route
Highway 133 from Carbondale to McClure Pass
The best things about the Roaring Fork Valley are the smaller valleys that connect to it, like tributaries to the heart. One of those is the Crystal River Valley, where open pastures blanket the valley floor in the shadow of the mighty Mount Sopris, the tallest mountain in Colorado. As you head south from Carbondale (take 82 west from Aspen and turn left onto CO 133), the valley narrows as the road serpentines between steep rock walls and the rushing water of the Crystal River. Pass Redstone and head up McClure Pass. One of the steepest passes in Colorado, it affords the best views of Mount Sopris and the Elk Range. During fall, abundant Aspen groves blanket the mountains in gold.
The Back Road
Snowmass Creek to Snowmass Village
A true hidden gem, this little stretch of road is known mostly to backpackers who travel the Four Pass Loop (a famed 26.6-mile route) via the Maroon Snowmass Trailhead on Divide Road. The best way to explore it by car is to start the loop from Snowmass Creek Road, about 10 miles west of Aspen on Highway 82. At the T, turn left onto Capital Creek Road and follow the well-maintained gravel/dirt road for 11 miles. The route folds deep into the valley floor for an up-close look at the majestic peaks of the Elk Range, enveloped by Aspen groves swathed in gold. Follow the steep switchbacks up beneath the Campground Lift and pop out on Brush Creek Road, where you’ll find yourself in the middle of Snowmass Village.
The Last Hurrah
Prince Creek Road from Carbondale to Basalt
The leaves turn at higher elevations first, so if you miss the colors up in Aspen, head 2,000 feet down to Carbondale, where the scrub oak will be firing in brilliant shades of orange, red, and gold into early October. The best place to see this spectacular display is on Prince Creek Road just off Highway 133, where an extensive network of mountain bike trails on the playful terrain of the foothills affords stunning vistas of Mount Sopris. The road begins in the ranchlands, where green pastures give way to endless wilderness. At 6.2 miles, turn left onto West Sopris Creek Road to Emma Road, which leads back out to Highway 82.
—by Ali Margot