Best Autumn Road Trip in Colorado

Aspen Forest on best autumn road trip in Colorado
Driving through the Aspen forest on CO 12.

Summer is drawing to a close and my favorite time of year is almost upon us. As the New Englanders say, “It is time for some leaf-peeping.” With high mountain peaks and beautiful snow-fed lakes, Colorado is a beautiful state to visit any time of year. It is especially beautiful when the aspens begin to change color. Most of the forests in the Colorado mountains consist of evergreen trees so if you want to take the best autumn road trip in Colorado you will need to know where to find the aspens. Lucky for you we have explored the entire state and found the best aspen forests. This journey passes through the heart of the largest aspen forest in the state and visits some of the most iconic sites along the way. It is a trip that will leave you in awe of nature’s beauty.

The Best Autumn Road Trip in Colorado

When to Drive the Best Autumn Road Trip in Colorado

The height of the Aspens color change vary from year to year, but typically the third week in September is a great time to get your leaf peeping on.

Yellow Aspen Tree
A Colorado quaking Aspen tree in full autumn color.

Where to start the Best Autumn Road Trip in Colorado

You can go at this route from either direction, but I will describe the route traveling clockwise, starting in Crested Butte, as that is how I typically take the journey.

Crested Butte

Crested Butte, Colorado
The mountain view as you approach Crested Butte, Colorado.

Make your way to Crested Butte, Colorado and explore the beautiful mountain town. Crested Butte is one of the best remote mountain towns in Colorado. The fall colors that paint the countryside make it a perfect time to visit this secluded spot, but if you really want to experience Crested Butte at its very best come back for the ski season.

Driving through Colorado’s largest Aspen forest

Early snow fall on the best autumn road trip in Colorado
An early snow covers CO 12 near Kebler Pass.

Once you are done exploring Crested Butte head northwest over Kebler Pass on CO Road 12 (closed in winter). This dirt, gravel, and sometimes mud road runs for nearly 30 miles until it intersects with CO 133.

Subaru Impreza driving the best autumn road trip in Colorado
Our Subaru Impreza is a little discolored after driving on muddy CO 12 for two days.

I have taken my all-wheel-drive Subaru Impreza on this road in varying conditions and it does fine. A 4×4 or high clearance vehicle would probably give you more peace of mind but isn’t necessary. The journey from Kebler Pass down to the Anthracite Creek bridge is home to the largest Aspen forest in the state and is what makes this the best autumn road trip in Colorado. If you are lucky, you will have an early-season snow that will really make the colors of fall pop against the white backdrop.

Anthracite Creek bridge overlook on the best autumn road trip in Colorado
The view from CO 12 as you approach the Anthracite Creek bridge.

Lost Lake Slough

Lost Lake Slough
The Lost Lake Slough early in the morning. This is an amazingly serene place to camp.

Stop by Lost Lake Slough for some beautiful reflective views of the surrounding mountains. This is also a good place to camp or just get out and stretch your legs. If it is a little cold you can continue down to the Erickson Springs Campground located on the Anthracite Creek.

Three Lake Loop Trail
On the Three Lake Trail.

If you are up for a little hiking, there is a 3-mile loop trail known as the Three Lakes Loop. It is moderate by Colorado standards, only climbing about 600′, but the scenery is stunning and you get to visit… you guessed it, three lakes… and a waterfall. It has more beauty packed into this short loop than perhaps any other trail in the state.

Dollar Lake
This is Dollar Lake. One of the three lakes on the Three Lakes Trail.

McClure Pass

Once you hit CO highway 133 turn right and head towards McClure Pass. There is a small pull off on the other side of the pass that gives sweeping views of the valley below. Continue down the pass until you arrive at the turn-off for Road 3 toward Marble, Colorado.

McClure Pass on the best autumn road trip in Colorado
The view from the pull off on the north side of McClure Pass.

Marble, Colorado

Beaver Lake on the best autumn road trip in Colorado
This is Beaver Lake on the east side of Marble, Colorado. You need a 4×4 vehicle to get from here to Crystal Mill.

Marble is a sleepy town with a great BBQ restaurant. I think the visitors to this restaurant during the autumn season quadruple the population of the town every day. The town was put on the map by the world’s largest known vein of marble. Many of the monuments that stand in the nation’s capital were quarried in this remote town.

Crystal Mill

Crystal Mill in Autumn
Crystal Mill is one of the most unique and iconic scenes in Colorado.

If you have a good 4×4 vehicle you can start the drive towards Crystal, Colorado, but if not park at the end of town and start hiking. It is a 10-mile total round trip to the famous Crystal Mill and back. This is claimed to be the second most photographed spot in all of Colorado. If you don’t have a 4×4 and you don’t want to hike it you can arrange a jeep tour with Crystal River Jeep Tours out of Marble. If you do partake in a tour we suggest splurging on the Lead King Basin Tour. It explores one of the most beautiful and remote basins in Colorado.

The Maroon Bells

Autumn Bells
The Maroon Bells in Aspen. This was late in the afternoon. To get the best light come in the morning.

Once you have taken in the view of the unique mill you will return back the way you came to highway 133 and take a right towards Carbondale, Colorado. This road is a beautiful drive following the flow of the Crystal River as it flows towards Carbondale. Just past Carbondale Highway 133 will intersect with Highway 82. Take a right and continue the drive towards Aspen, Colorado. Just before reaching Aspen, you will want to take a right onto Maroon Creek Road. If you arrive here before 8 AM you can drive all the way to Maroon Lake, but if not you will need to park in the Aspen Highlands lot and take the bus ($8/person) up to the lake. It is a nice bus with good information about the area and the Aspen trees.

Maroon Lake

A hiker in the aspen trees
Jennifer on the trail to Crater Lake.

Once at the bus stop it is a very short walk to Maroon Lake. This is the most photographed spot in all of Colorado. If you are feeling a bit more adventurous look into the hike up to Crater Lake, or if you have a lot of extra time, set out to conquer the multi-day backpacking adventure known as the Four Pass Loop, considered by many to be the best backpacking trip in all of Colorado.

Independence Pass

Independence Pass
Independence Pass

Once you are done at the lake head on to Aspen and go through the iconic mountain town. Stay on Hwy 82 and head up to Independence Pass. This is the highest paved road on the continental divide in the entire United States and the fourth highest paved road in Colorado. As you pass over the divide you will pass through the last small Aspen forest as you make your way to the Twin Lakes area.

Twin Lakes

The Twin Lakes area is the official end of the best autumn road trip in Colorado. From the lakeshore, you can see many of Colorado’s highest peaks including Mount Elbert, the highest peak in the state. If you head towards Denver via Leadville, Colorado, and Copper Mountain you will pass the headwaters for the Arkansas River and get a better view of Mount Elbert and Mount Massive which is the second-highest peak in the state.

The Best Autumn Road Trip in Colorado

Best Autumn Road Trip in Colorado
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You would be hard-pressed to make the drive on the best autumn road trip in Colorado in a single day’s outing, but it could be done easily in two days. However, I recommend taking your time and spending at least 3 days really enjoying and exploring this route. Jennifer and I have made this journey three times and it always shows us something a little different. It is one of the best drives in the United States.

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