With its spectacular mountain views, majestic valleys, and rolling plains, it’s no surprise Colorado is one of the best states to view some truly spectacular fall foliage. Autumn drives have become an annual staple in this state, with many opportunities for camping along the way.
Read on for some of the best drives to view Colorado fall foliage–as well as places where you can camp and soak in the beauty even longer.
Things to Consider When Seeing Colorado Fall Foliage
When to Plan Your Trip
You will want to plan your trip to see the Colorado fall foliage based on the elevation at which you plan to view it. Autumn colors in the Colorado mountains begin earlier at the higher elevations and then work their way down as the colder temperatures descend on the lowlands.
For this reason, if you are planning to stay at a lower elevation–such as the foothills of the mountains–you will want to plan your trip later in the fall season. For higher elevations, you will want to plan your trip earlier, as autumn tends to be much shorter before the winter climate takes over.
The proper timing will fluctuate year by year as cold weather strikes at different times. Generally, late September and early October are a pretty safe time to plan your trip to view the Colorado fall foliage, but you will still want to double-check the weather patterns before setting off to the Centennial state for your adventure.
Camping opportunities vary along the different drives throughout Colorado to see the fall foliage. Typically, however, you can count on some dispersed camping opportunities and potentially a campground or two along most driving passes and byways.
If you are planning to take advantage of the free dispersed camping along one of the routes, be sure you take time to brush up on your knowledge of dispersed camping.
If there is no camping available along your route, you will often find that towns at either end of a pass will have some lodging options. Often, there are detours from byways and longer roads to cabins and lodges for travelers to settle in for the night as well.
It’s important to be aware that Colorado has a multitudinous array of terrain, and some of the drives to view the state’s fall foliage are more accessible than others.
Before striking off on your drive to view Colorado’s fall foliage, make sure you know if your car is four-wheel drive and what its clearance height is. This can determine if a route is accessible for your car, so that you can enjoy the Colorado fall foliage as safely as possible.
When traveling to view the Colorado fall foliage, be sure your car is in good repair and ready for the drive.
You should also consider having some snow chains for your tires if you plan to drive through a location that’s prone to early-season snows, just in case the weather should catch you unawares.
It’s also a great idea to be prepared to take some pictures, either with your phone or a camera so that you can capture the beauty of Colorado’s fall foliage and the memories from your trip.
Best Places to See Northern Colorado Fall Foliage
The scenic drive along Buffalo Pass starts off on a dirt road in Steamboat Springs, fitting for cars with two-wheel drive. But it will get more rugged as you go along, eventually transitioning to a four-wheel drive best for high clearance closer to Walden.
The total drive is about 15 miles, resplendent with gorgeous Colorado fall foliage throughout. And if you want to really soak in the scenery on the way through Buffalo Pass, consider some camping along the way! There are some dispersed campsites along Buffalo Pass itself, as well as campgrounds at the top and bottom of the pass.
If you are planning to camp, be aware that these sites are only open until the middle of October, and all are first-come, first-serve.
Trail Ridge Road
Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the best spots to view some truly breathtaking Colorado fall foliage. The hillsides and valleys of this national park come alive in a riot of wildfire autumn colors each year, and one of the best ways to enjoy them is by driving the Trail Ridge Road.
This road spans nearly 50 miles through the Colorado countryside, stretching from Estes Park to Grand Lake. You can also extend your drive by taking the Peak to Peak byway from Black Hawk to Estes Park.
While you do have to pay a fee to enter the park and take this scenic drive, the car pass is good for a full week. That will give you plenty of time to soak in the beauty of the Colorado fall foliage! As a bonus, if you start your drive on National Public Lands Days in the early fall each year, the entry fee will typically be waived.
You can find camping along Trail Ridge Road at both ends of Rocky Mountain National Park or spend time in more glamorous accommodations in either Grand Lake or Estes Park.
Flat Tops Byway
The Flat Tops Byway is relatively remote, winding between the towns of Meeker and Yampa, over 80 miles in total. Along the route, you will pass through not one but two national forests–which both make for some pretty spectacular Colorado fall foliage. There are also several expansive lakes along the way, which offer some gorgeous reflections of the fall colors as well.
When it comes to camping and soaking in the beauty of the foliage along the way, you have your pick of dispersed campsites just about anywhere up and down the byway. There is also the option to stay at the popular Trappers Lake Lodge.
Best Places to See Central Colorado Fall Foliage
Situated in a remote area at the heart of the Rocky Mountains and stretching from Crested Butte to Paonia State Park, Kebler Pass is framed in hills and valleys resplendent with autumn colors. It’s a slice of the over 200 miles of the West Elk Loop, a scenic and historic byway that runs through the heart of Colorado.
Winding over 30 miles through the hill country, Kebler Pass’s most stunning autumn colors are on the Paonia State Park end of the drive. But Crested Butte offers its own lovely views, being considered the last great ski town in Colorado.
You will find free, dispersed camping all along Kebler Pass, as well as two campgrounds: Lost Lake, which is non-reservable and on a first-come, first-served basis, and Lake Irwin, which can be reserved and is open through September.
If you are planning to see Colorado fall foliage before the holiday season kicks off, Independence Pass is a great place to go! This seasonal shortcut to the town of Aspen strikes a great elevation at just about 12,000 feet, providing some truly breathtaking views of the Colorado vistas.
Open until early November, Independence Pass stretches from Twin Lakes to Aspen, just under 40 miles. At either end of the pass, you will find campgrounds, with some dispersed camping in the San Isabel National Forest near Twin Lakes as well.
This uniquely gorgeous drive is perfect if you are looking to enjoy the Colorado fall foliage between two bustling towns before winter weather fully sets in.
Grand Mesa Byway
Stretching from the town of Mesa to Cedaredge, the Grand Mesa Byway rests on the western slope of the world’s largest flat-topped mountain! You can catch some of the best views of Colorado’s fall foliage from Land’s End Overlook, which looks out over the vast swath of autumn hues that blanket the valley floor.
The total drive along the Grand Mesa Byway is just over 60 miles, with fantastic views of forests as well as lakes all along the way.
Best Places to See Southern Colorado Fall Foliage
Last Dollar Road
If your car is outfitted for more rugged and remote drives, then you will love the scenic route along Last Dollar Road! This challenging road, reaching from Ridgway to Telluride, should be avoided if rain is forecasted, as even on a dry day, it can take up to three hours to conquer. But the beauty of the stunning foliage along the way is well worth the trip!
If you’d like to camp along Last Dollar Road, there are several free primitive campsites dotted along this route. You can also detour to Ridgway State Park for some more established campground camping.
Highway of Legends
Though it’s one of the lesser-known scenic drives compared to its northern contemporaries, the Highway of Legends winding through Colorado’s southern foothills is one of the most beloved drives to see fall foliage in the southern portion of the state. This is an especially great route to enjoy the scenery of the Spanish Peaks and the Sangre de Cristos.
Alpine Loop 4×4
The old miner route of the Alpine Loop 4×4 is one of the most rustic and best-loved places to view the Colorado fall foliage. True to its namesake, this route is only intended for 4×4 vehicles–but don’t worry! If you don’t own this type of vehicle yourself, you can rent a Jeep at the towns of Silverton, Ouray, or Lake City–all of which have access to the Alpine Loop.
Though you can conquer the entire loop in four to six hours, you also have the option to stay in and around the towns. These fantastic historic towns all have something special to offer, making them great places to settle in and enjoy the Colorado fall foliage at your own pace when you’re done driving for the day.
Wrapping up the Ultimate Guide to Colorado Fall Foliage
Excited to experience the wondrous majesty of fall foliage? Be sure to check out our post on Virginia Fall Foliage so you can find places to enjoy the autumn colors on foot as well!
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Renee Dugan is a lifelong writer, professional editor, and lover of all things nature, gardening and the big outdoors.
A Midwest girl who’s been in the garden since she could first hold a hand trowel, Renee’s love of growing things has bloomed into a passion for healthy living, holistic lifestyle, and knowing where our food comes from.
Now a mother and maturing gardener herself, Renee is passionate about channeling everything she knows and continues to learn about gardening into lessons for her son and others. Her excitement for sharing this knowledge is only superseded by her excitement about being able to finally grow her own citrus plants in pots.
Renee can be reached at email@example.com