1700-miles of driving, 20+ mountain pass crossings, high-altitude snow, rain and Sun (all in one road trip) , this Colorado road trip itinerary is a journey to remember. I have done Colorado road trip a few times and each trip was in different season. The latest Colorado road trip was in October 2021. We decided to go see fall colors during this trip. We went in the second week of October. Supposedly it was a little late for “Peak” fall colors but we were not at all disappointed.
Colorado Road Trip Itinerary In Fall To See Fall Colors
Here is a high level itinerary for this trip that we took in October, 2021.
- Aspen – 3 nights
- Crested Butte – 2 nights
- Mancos – 2 nights
- Crestone – 1 night
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Parks
- Mesa Verde National Park
- Great Sand Dunes National Park
- Ridgway State Park
We skipped Rocky Mountain National Park as a part of this trip because of two reasons.
- One : we ran out of time
- Two: The theme for this trip was fall colors. And I wanted to chase the best possible fall colors given the time of the year.
I have covered the experiences from previous two trips to Rockies and near by areas in these following posts:
If you are renting car from Denver airport, be aware of the following details:
- The rental car area is outside the airport. You either need to rely on the rental car shuttles or uber it yourself.
- If your flight arrives late at night, like ours did, beware of the fact that some of the rental cars close at midnight. We didn’t realize that and waited for an additional hour past midnight with a kid who was sleepy and cranky. And we had to urgently book a hotel room and stay nearby. And next day morning, I took uber to get back to the rental car area to get the car.
- In denver there are some toll roads, and the rental cars will try to rent out a pass to you. I outright declined it all the times. On this trip as well as the previous trips to Rocky mountain national parks, we didn’t have to use the toll roads.
Colorado Road Trip Itinerary Day 1 – Denver to Aspen Drive Highlights
On day one of the road trip, we drove from Denver airport to Aspen via Leadville and independence pass.
This day was fully dedicated to driving and stopping for pictures. We didn’t plan any hikes or other activities. To make the most of this trip, we planned the route to drive through Leadville to Salida. This would cover some of the 14000ft along the route. You will not get close to any of these mountains, but the road is pleasant to drive through. There are very tiny town along the way. Lot of ranches and some gorgeous fall colors.
Once we felt satisfied with the views of the mountains, we started driving towards Aspen via Independence pass.
It’s a fairly adventurous road to drive through Independence Pass and witness the snow covered top and take a little break at high altitude. The road is really windy and there is a gas station at the beginning of the pass.
Altitude and windy road was intense to the point my 4 year old threw up the last food he consumed almost near the top. So, go prepared for such scenarios when you have kids or motion sensitive people in the car.
Below is the route map for Day 1.
We stayed at Snowmass village in an airbnb house. It’s a pleasant town with all the basics facilities. Gas, grocery, restaurants and basic medical help if needed.
We stayed 3 nights in Aspen.
Colorado Road Trip Itinerary Day 2 – Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park:
Keeping Aspen as a base, we decided to do a day trip to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and come back to Aspen that night. South Rim road access was closed for some road work and we only had the choice of driving to North Rim. After driving through some really small villages and a long dirt road, we reached the ranger station at North Rim.
North Rim has a couple of short hikes and a rim-drive-through that offers some gorgeous views.
It was absolutely worth visiting this national park, even if it was for only few hours. The drive to and from Aspen to the park itself was part of the fun.
We made a mental note to visit this national park again in future as it seems to have some awesome hikes.
Colorado Road Trip Itinerary Day 3 – Maroon Bells and Ashcroft Ghost Town
When I planned the trip to Colorado, I didn’t realize that we needed reservation to enter Maroon Bells ahead of time. That is if you want to drive their on your own. The parking is limited and the spots get sold out very quickly. So, plan ahead if you can.
Or you can take a shuttle to get there and the shuttle runs every 30 mins and returns every 15mins from/to Aspen. These shuttles are very convenient and that’s what we ended up doing.
Here is the website to reserve parking spot, if you want to drive your own car.
We did the hike around the lake, approximately 3 miles. The hike was easy and gorgeous. Even my 4 year old son hiked most of it. Just remember to take food and water with you. In fall, near the lake it was really windy and cold. As we got a little away from the lake into the hiking trail, it wasn’t too windy. Don’t be fooled by the picture below where my son refused to wear jacket. It was freezing.
This place might be considered over hyped by some. It’s worth visiting once when you are in Aspen, but I would go crazy for it. We have seen similar lakes with mountain backdrop in California and other places.
After the Maroon Bells visit, the shuttle dropped us back at Aspen. We had few more hours before winding down for the day. So, we drove to Ashcroft ghost town. The drive itself was nice. But the destination wasn’t that exciting. May be after Maroon Bells, it didn’t appeal much.
Aspen might sound very touristy at first and for those who are into skiing/snowboarding it’s considered one of the world class location. And there is a reason for this. Because, Aspen is really beautiful and you will find something to do everyday and for everyone. Here are some of the questions I often get from people and I have attempted to convince you to visit Aspen and stay at least a few days.
What’s so special about Aspen Colorado?
The snow peaks and top class ski resorts. But, don’t let that intimidate you if you are not into skiing. We are not into skiing much, even if we do, we stick to the baby slopes. You can still do skating, snow shoeing and cross country skiing in the winter. There are several outdoor activities to do such as hiking, horse back riding in the summer / fall / spring seasons.
Why should you visit Aspen? / Is Aspen Colorado worth visiting?
- Aspen Food and Wine Festival in June
- Aspen Music Festival in the summer
- Skiing and other snow activities such as snow-shoeing, cross country skiing etc.,
- Outdoor activities such as biking, hiking, fishing and rock climbing in the warmer months
- Annual X Games (Extreme sports) organized by ESPN. A true festive event in the mountain and one of a kind to be witnessed
- Maroon Bells hikes and camping experiences
When should I visit Aspen Colorado? & Is Aspen nice in the summer?
Yes, Aspen is nice in all seasons and as mentioned in the list above, there are activities to do any month as long as you bring your adventurous spirit along.
How many days do you need in Aspen?
A minimum of 3 days is needed in my personal experience, to cover the highlights. You could very well spend weeks in the mountains if you have the appetite for it.
Colorado Road Trip Itinerary Day 4 – Drive to Crested Butte via McClure Pass
It was time to move on to the next airbnb. It turned out to be a rainy/snowy day as we started driving towards Crested Butte. After we crossed the pass and turned towards Crested Butte, it was all dirt road for the last 40 miles. And at times, we saw no cars for a long stretch. It was a little scary to drive through this road in the snow. But, soon we relaxed as we saw a more people driving through and if we got stuck we can get some help.
Another scary part was, absolutely no cellphone signal after we left aspen city. Make sure to fill your car tank to the top because you are not going to find any gas station for hours at a stretch.
After overcoming these little scary thoughts, we started paying more attention to the views that were just spectacular and absolutely worth driving through. There were people on the road who drove up through these dirt road just to see the colors and mountains in this weather. So, you will not be the only crazy one out there.
Once we reached Crested Butte, after checking-in, we had enough day time to check out Gothic road that was suggested by the locals. So, we started droving up to Emerald Lake in Gothic road but the snow storm got pretty intense and the road got slippery.
So, we decided to turn around and come back to the room. Thankfully there was a heated swimming pool to keep my son entertained for the rest of the evening.
Colorado Road Trip Itinerary Day 5 – Crested Butte
Day 5 was all about just driving through the town of Crested Butte and the neighborhood in look out for beautiful views and fall colors.
The day was pretty relaxed. We stayed at Mt.Crested Butte. And it was snowing there at 9000ish ft. But, as soon as we got down to south Crested Butte and further down, it warmed up and in fact bright blue sky all along these drives.
These roads we drove through are purely for the joy of driving through country roads with snow peaks views and fall colored trees. No specific activities or points of interests. We stopped or pulled over on the roads as we pleased to take pictures.
Is Crested Butte worth visiting?
Yes, absolutely. In fact, someone like me would prefer Crested Butte over Aspen.
- In the winter, you get everything you would expect from cousin Aspen. Same tall mountain peaks for skiing and snow activities.
- In the fall season, spectacular fall colors like the one we witnessed
- In the summer, tons of hiking, mountain biking, fishing, lively downtown life, art, music and food
Personally, the coziness of Crested Butte and the fact it’s further away from Aspen makes it special to me. It’s not as crowded like Aspen. Felt less busy compared to Aspen and offered the same outdoor and indoor activities.
Day 6 – Drive to Mancos from Crested Butte
Thanks to road closures, it turned out to be the longest day of driving. Took a good 8 hours to drive through crazy mountain passes and some spectacular views along the way. We also celebrated my son’s 4th birthday on the road this day.
Along the way, we stopped at Ridgway State Park which is a beautiful park if you get a chance to visit. They have an interesting display of life size stuffed animals. My son got his birthday gift toys and books from the park and was fully satisfied with his presents.
These county road stops were indeed pretty cool. I found these roads from a fall color guide to Colorado book. And it was well worth the stop. But, I wouldn’t go out of the way to go to these county roads. Since they were on our way, we managed to stop by. If you do have time, don’t miss out the Double RL Ranch drive, It’s gorgeous.
Day 7 – Mesa Verde National Park
We were staying at the town of Mancos. One of the smallest towns right outside of Mesa Verde National Park with just 10-mins drive to the park. It has a small grocery store with basics, gas station and few restaurants. Just enough to get by. Nothing fancy in this town. After 6PM, the entire town felt dead.
After entering Mesa Verde National Park, the drive to see any ruins is at least an hour from the entrance. We thought one day was more than enough for this park. The main cave dwelling sections such as the palace can be seen with a guided tour that you need to book ahead of time. I didn’t book anything and we just did the drive and stop sights.
It was fascinating to see the ruins. Worth visiting at least once.
Day 8 – Drive to Great Sand Dunes National Park
We drove for about 4 hours from Mancos to Great Sand Dunes National Park and spent the afternoon at the park.
A lot of people have rented the sand sliding tubes and sand boards from outfitters outside the park to slide down the sand dunes. It’s definitely a great fun activity to do.
My 4 year old decided he wanted to climb up the tallest sand dunes straight up on the steep side and dragged us along with him. Eventually he got tired for sure.
There is enough fun to have for an entire day at the park.
After the park visit, we drove about an hour to find out stay for that night at Crestone.
Day 9 – Spiritual immersion and flight out
Little did we know that Crestone is home to 26 spiritual centers in Colorado. I had booked this place, because it was the one of the closest to the park. Once we go there and saw the town vibe, it became evident we are in for a final treat.
We hand picked a few spiritual centers to visit. We went to Mahalakshmi temple, one Buddhist monastery and drove by few other retreat centers. Retreat centers of not worth stopping at unless you are actually signed up to be part of their program. But, temple was well worth the visit.
The Hindu temple hosts were very pleasant and welcomed us with hot chai and prasad. We loved the visit and spent a few minutes talking to them. If we are ever in town, we would visit this temple again.
From Crestone to Airport was another 5-hours drive. Didn’t get much time spend in all the spiritual centers. A place to come back to.
All in all, a great trip with unforgettable memories. Loved the trip and would recommend this Colorado road trip itinerary to anyone. Have you been Colorado in Fall ? What were your memorable experiences? Leave a comment below and I would love to read them.