Gold Rush: Leaf-Peeping Day Drives

6 fall leaf-peeping day trip drives from Denver

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Courtesy iStock

There’s gold in them hills—and as our state’s iconic shimmering aspen trees begin to display their brilliant fall colors, it’s time to head up the mountain for a breathtaking drive among the seasonal display. Here are six day trips that are well worth their weight in Colorado gold.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
The drive: About 90 minutes from Denver in Estes Park
The color story: You’ll spy aspen groves from Black Hawk to Estes along the Peak to Peak Byway (Colorado Highways 72 and 7); once you’re at the park, we like Bear Lake, which boasts a large picnic area (bring lunch) and an easy trail around the lake—perfect for young families.
Pit stop: As you head home through Lyons, stop at Lyons Classic Pinball, an old house converted into an arcade featuring nearly 40 pinball machines from the ’60s to today. (The $.50-per-game 1978 Bally’s KISS machine is a personal fave.)

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COLOR STORY Rocky Mountain National Park offers great fall leaf viewing. Courtesy NPS

GUANELLA PASS SCENIC AND HISTORIC BYWAY
The drive: An hour from Denver in Clear Creek County
The color story: There are high aspen groves on both sides of the 22-mile pass that runs from Grant north to Georgetown, tops out at 11,670 feet and sits in the Pike and Arapaho National Forests.
Pit stop: Stop in historic Georgetown at the charming Hamill House, a museum that interprets 19th-century life in the town, including architecture, home furnishings, Victorian plants and landscaping and culture.

SQUAW PASS ROAD
The drive: Less than an hour from Denver, starting in Evergreen
The color story: The aspen are plentiful on this route near Mount Evans that heads from Bergen Park in Evergreen west to Echo Lake and down to Idaho Springs.
Pit stop: Grab a seasonal pint at Tommyknocker Brewery in Idaho Springs (we suggest the Small Patch Pumpkin Harvest Ale).

GOLDEN GATE CANYON STATE PARK
The drive: About 45 minutes, 30 miles west of Denver
The color story: With Rocky Mountain panoramic views, you’ll see a slew of aspen stands. Get out and hike while you’re there—the park boasts 36 miles of trails.
Pit stop: Head to downtown Golden for a tour through town or on a trail when you check out a two-wheeler from the Golden Bike Library, a bike share rental program.

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TAKE A STAND Aspen trees show their true colors at Guanella Pass in Clear Creek County. Photo by Matthew Inden/Miles

BOREAS PASS
The drive: About 90 minutes to Como, south of Breckenridge
The color story: In Breckenridge, follow Highway 9 to Boreas Pass Road on the south end of town, and head about 15 miles to Como. Along the way, prepare yourself for waves of aspen, plus views of the Blue River Valley, Ten Mile Range and Breckenridge Ski Resort.
Pit stop: Time your trip to coincide with one of Breckenridge’s fall festivals: The Breckenridge Strings, Ciders & Sours Festival takes place September 23, and promises quintessential American Bluegrass, cider, food parings, a sours garden and, of course, beautiful mountain views.

NEDERLAND TO THE FOURTH OF JULY TRAILHEAD
The drive: A little over an hour from Denver, Nederland is 17 miles west of Boulder
The color story: The 9-mile dirt road to the trailhead is slow-going and very bumpy, but it offers postcard-perfect fall scenery thanks to dense forests of aspen trees.
Pit stop: Reward your kids for their patience with a visit to the Carousel of Happiness in Nederland, a restored 1910 Looff carousel with 56 whimsical hand-carved animals that plays the music of a 1913 Wurlitzer band organ.

FYI… LEAFING OUT: Of course, weather dictates just when fall colors will be at their peak, but as a rule, aspens at higher elevations (8,000 to 10,000 feet) start to turn in mid-September, while the trees in the lower foothills and Denver turn in October to mid-November.

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