Colorado Road Trip In October – Fall Colors, Snow & Sun

1700-miles of driving, 20+ mountain pass crossings, high-altitude snow, rain and Sun (all in one day) , Colorado road trip is a journey to remember. We decided to go to Colorado in anticipation of seeing fall colors. Second week of October was a little late for “Peak” fall colors but we were not at all disappointed on that front.

We still saw plenty of fall colors and more than just colors. Here is a high level itinerary.

  • Aspen – 3 nights
  • Crested Butte – 2 nights
  • Mancos – 2 nights
  • Crestone – 1 night

Parks Visited (All new for us):

  • Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Parks
  • Mesa Verde National Park
  • Great Sand Dunes National Park
  • Ridgway State Park

Day 1 –  Denver to Aspen Drive Highlights:

Colorado Fall Colors

We drove from Denver airport to Aspen via Leadville and independence pass.

To make the most of this trip, the route was to drive through Leadville to Salida to see the 14er mountains along the route and some fall colors.

After we were satisfied with the views of the mountains, we started driving to 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.

Below is the route map for Day 1.

Aspen Highlights:

We stayed at Snowmass village at an airbnb house. It’s a pleasant town with all the basics available. Gas, grocery, restaurants and basic medical help if needed.

Given the three nights in Aspen, we did some elaborate drives from here.

Day 2 – Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park:

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 drive through the rim to get 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.

Black Canyon - North Rim

Day 3 – Maroon Bells and Ashcroft Ghost Town

When I planned the trip to Colorado, I didn’t realize that we needed to reserve to enter Maroon Bells ahead of time. That is if you want to drive their on your own. Or you can take a shuttle to get there and the shuttle runs every 30 mins and returns every 15mins from/to Aspen.

Since I came to know about this reservation only after we reached Denver airport and I talked to a fellow passenger who mentioned it, we didn’t get the reservation for the car. But the shuttle was hassle free as well.

Here is the website to reserve spots: https://aspenchamber.org/plan-trip/trip-highlights/maroon-bells/reservations

We did the hike around the lake, approximately 3miles and it was just gorgeous. Worth visiting when you are in Aspen.

Maroon Bells

We drove to Ashcroft ghost town and found the drive was nice. But the destination itself wasn’t that exciting. May be after Maroon Bells, it didn’t appeal much.

Day 4 – Drive to Crested Butte via McClure Pass

Kebler Pass- Crested Butte

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. It was fairly scary to drive through this road in the snow. But, soon we relaxed as we saw a lot more people driving through and if we got stuck we can get some help.

Absolutely no cellphone signal in any of these places and make sure to fill your car tank to the top because you are not going to find any gas station.

But, the views 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. So, we drove 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 hotel room. Thank fully there was a heated swimming pool to keep my son entertained for the rest of the evening.

Day 5 – Crested Butte

This was all about just driving through the town of Crested Butte and the neighbourhood 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.

Crested Butte

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 in display to excite little ones. 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.

Double RL Ranch

Day 7 – Mesa Verde National Park

We were staying at the town of Mancos. One of the small 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 was more than enough for this park. The main cave dwelling sections such as the palace can be 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.

Mesa Verde National Park

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 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.

Great Sand Dunes National 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.

crestone Stupa

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 trip to anyone.