The Ultimate Fall Colors road trip through Colorado
Updated: Sep 2, 2021
A 3-week Sprinter van Adventure
Pretty much everyone I know loves the tree color change that goes with the Fall season. And every year, caravans of 'leaf-peepers' can be found driving the more popular Northeast state roads of Connecticut and Maine in the USA. But with my husbands childhood connection to Colorado combined with a strong desire to round out his professional photography portfolio, we decided to maximize his knowledge of the area on our latest hybrid travel adventure. And we weren't disappointed. This was also the first camper-van road trip with our newly adopted rescue pup (although a 75 pound pit bull can hardly be described as a 'pup'). So we had additional factors, such as dog-friendly accommodations, parks and supply resources to consider, as well as additional food and 'gear' to manage in the van. But it turned out to be a really enjoyable, 'family' bonding experience. And Quincy has now fallen in love with van-camping.
So if you are looking for a road-trip to view colorful Fall foliage landscapes next year, take a look below and start your planning now. By the way, many people we encountered were from the East coast! They simply had flown into Denver and then rented a car or camper van for a few weeks.
2017 Mercedes Sprinter Van – 4x4; 19’ long; diesel engine, gets 14-17mpg; 14-15 gallon water tank; 2 solar panels, AC and DC power; shower head (between rear doors out back with snap-on curtain); hot water heater; DC space heater; electric penthouse canopy; sleeps 4 (but 2 adults have most room); outdoor roll-out canopy; automatic sideboards; off road lights; air compressor; fridge; sink; microwave; lots of storage. Code name: the Stover Rover.
75 pound American Staffordshire Terrier mix, a breed lovingly known as 'Amstaffs'. Our Quincy boy loves humans, and is learning to let go of his dog-reactivity and trust that we 'have his back'. In other words, he's learning how to relax and just be a dog.
I won't have a 'Quincy' section in all of our itineraries. But this was a 'first' for all of us, and you'll see him in subsequent road trip posts. So I thought I'd provide a little background in this itinerary.
In the early part of the COVID-19 quarantine, we decided since travel was limited, that it was as good of a time as any, to adopt and train a new dog. We've always had big hearts for Pitbulls and feel they are often misunderstood as a breed. So in March of 2020, we adopted Quincy (aka "Q" or "Q-bear") from a local animal shelter. We believe he was ~ 11 months old. At adoption, he was malnourished, healing from a bacterial infection and had spend most of his early life tied up in someone's backyard. So although he LOVED interacting with humans, he had very little social exposure to other dogs. In other words, if you were a human, he would try to sit his 75 pound butt on your lap and lick your face. But if he saw another dog, he would react as if he wanted to rip its face off. I describe Quincy as the equivalent of a teenage boy, adopted from a war torn country where he learned how to survive through fear and self-defense. Our job is to let him know he doesn't have to be that way anymore. He's safe now.
We worked hard with Quincy for seven months, leash-training him twice a day, teaching him to 'pack up' with us, to see us as a relevant to his world and dependable. And under the guidance and expertise of Bonnie at SLO dog adventures and renowned dog behavioralist Cheri Wulff Lucas, we are now seeing a lot more consistency in Quincy's behavior. When we first planned this trip, we were initially hesitant to take him along. Newly adopted dogs, especially Pitbull breeds, thrive on structure and consistency. And this trip would have something new every day. But to our surprise, the experience only strengthened his bond to us, and he finally started to realize that we were the structure and consistency he had in his life, no matter his location.
Time of year
Mid September/ Early October - Although no one can't pinpoint exact dates for peak aspen color change, my husband knew that if we planned our trip over the last few weeks of September to the first week of October, we were bound to hit it. Aspen color change in Colorado over the high mountain passes can start and end within a week. And we even noticed some passes in full color 'bloom', while other passes were completely 'done' or just beginning to change. Our exact dates for this 2020 trip were September 22 - October 12th. And because there was an atypical cold snap on the third week of September, we felt we hit the peak of it, in the very last week of September. But that was this year. So I suggest keeping an eye on weather patterns and making plans that have some flexibility.
NOTE - this time of year in Colorado can be quite chilly at elevation! Although daytime temperatures were ideal for hiking, a few nights the temperatures got down below freezing. So pack in order to stay warm if you are camping.
NOTE - This map only shows the drive route once in Colorado. We started in San Luis Obispo, California and took two days to drive to Montrose via Saint George, Utah. On the return, we drove south to Silverton and then Durango. And then took two days to return home. Once in Colorado, our drive time between stops was only ~1-3.5 hours at most. Which was really nice, as it allowed no-rush mornings, lots of time to hike and then drive to our next camp by late afternoon.
NOTE - the section in red is Independence Pass which is now closed for winter. But it is open in the Fall.
Average daily cost
We monitored three areas for this on a weekly basis: Food (groceries, restaurants, alcohol), gas, and miscellaneous spending (including dog supplies) while on the road. We grocery shopped for breakfast and snacks items and cooked at least four or five dinner meals a week on our Coleman stove. We did not skimp, ate at a few restaurants on occasion, and averaged $91/day or $ 634US/week. We spent more on food ($42/day average) than we did on gas ($21/day average).
Campground fees, hotels - total: $406. Colorado is a heaven for free /wild camping. We were able to free camp most nights on Forest Service side roads and pullouts throughout the trip. But we occasionally chose campgrounds close to where we wanted to hike, without requiring a long drive to get to the trailhead. We also choose hotels a few nights, when it was either really hot or if we were craving a really good shower. This is an area of expense that can be easily modified according to budget.
NOTE - Colorado has more free camping options than any state we've traveled! If your rig is self-contained, you can easily finding pullouts to set up with very little effort. If you need help finding them, we've found I-Overlanders phone app to be useful.
A few extra perks
We love hybrid travel and mixing in a few luxury perks as self-care, especially if we've been doing a lot of physical activity. On this trip, we added two luxury experiences: a stay at The Little Nell - an Aspen slope side classic, and a stay in one of the private cabins at Dunton Hot Springs Resort - a Relais and Chateaux property outside of Telluride. Both were incredible. We scored great midweek prices (relative to standard room prices) at both places. And both were dog-friendly and went out of their way to accommodate us, as well as Quincy. I highly recommend both places.
Stop 1 - Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
This small national park in Montrose, Colorado was a great stopping point after our second long day of driving from California. The steep canyon and painted rock faces were beautiful and made for interesting photography.
Drive time (from Saint George, Utah) - ~ 7-8 hours
Nights - 1
Camping options - there are three campgrounds within the park, but they are small, so plan to book in advance if you want to stay within it.
Stop 2 - Ohio Pass - between Gunnison and Crested Butte
Drive time - 2.5 hours
Nights - 1
Camp - Lake Erwin - terrific campground with a lot of single-track trails for mountain-biking, hiking or running. Each site has a fire pit, table and there were pit toilets available.
Suggested activities - there is a terrific hiking trail that surrounds the lake. Or some fabulous mountain bike trails behind the campground.
Stop 3 - Kebler Pass road
This what you came for. Because of its connected root system, the aspen grove on Kebler Pass is considered one of, if not the largest living organism in the world. The aspens here were beautiful and in full color when we went. Expect traffic and people stopping frequently for photos on this high mountain road, as it is well known for its beauty.
Drive time - 50 minutes
Nights - 1
Camping options - Lost Lake campground - this campground is gorgeous and books up early! It's in a perfect location at the end of scenic Kebler Pass. But even if you don't get a campsite, there is PLENTY of free pullout/ wild camping along the way.
Suggested activity - Beckwith Pass hike - 6 miles roundtrip
Stop 4 Scofield Pass / Gothic
NOTE - Another gorgeous pass (317) but there is a small section that is not for the faint of heart! Starting from Crested Butte, most of the road was bumpy but drivable and wide enough for two cars to pass. But after you pass the town of Gothic, as you near the top of the pass, it can be very narrow with a steep drop off. There is no guardrail. And for several hundred yards, there is really only room for one car at a time. Which means, you may need to back up and then let someone else pass. We did it with our 21' rig but I would not recommend this for RV's or trailers. Renting a 4x4 Jeep from Crested Butte for the day is a safer option. We completed the loop by driving back to Crested Butte via Paradise Valley (811) - see video below
Drive time - 1 hour 45 minutes (put plan for 2-2.5)
Nights - 1
Camping options - free pullouts wherever you can find them. We camped just after the top of the pass on Rd 734 (which turns into 811)
TIP - You can also drive the loop in reverse, but it's gets steeper as you go further. If you have a large RV and are hesitant to drive up through Paradise Valley to Scofield Pass, we saw a lot of RVs and larger vehicles parked lower down on 811 in the basin. If you are towing a smaller vehicle that has good traction, then you can park your RV and drive the smaller car up the to the pass.
Suggested activities - this area is really popular for mountain-biking. We saw many people park a car in Gothic, then shuttle, ride share or bike to the top of the pass, and then ride the infamous 401 downhill back into town (see map in photo). We decided to trail run the upper part of the 401 instead.
Stop 5 - Cottonwood Pass towards Buena Vista
This pass actually had less color than Kebler Pass but was still a beautiful, scenic drive into Buena Vista.
Drive time - 2 hours
Nights - 1
Camp options - we found some really great creekside pullouts after we went over the pass and drove further down. The pullouts were amidst trees and lower in elevation, which also meant it was warmer at night.
Stop 6 - Twin Lakes and Independence Pass
Drive time - 2 hours
Nights - 1
Camping - free/ wild camping at pullouts along pass.
Stop 7 - Aspen, Colorado
Drive time - 45 minutes
Nights - 2
Accommodations - there are many hotels at a variety of price points to choose from in the Aspen area. We treated ourselves to a few nights at the Little Nell (fabulous). However, there are several great campgrounds in the Aspen area as well. Or if your vehicle can handle driving up Aspen mountain, you can camp up there for free once you pass into National Forest area.
Suggested activity - as you drive off Independence Pass towards Aspen, a stop at the Grottos is worthwhile. Once in Aspen, we took an evening drive in one of the Little Nell's complimentary guest cars to a really nice dog park area called Wilton Jaffe River Park. On the return, we drove past Snow Mass, returning on scenic Owl Creek Road. The next day, we drove up to the top of Aspen mountain road. This is a long, bumpy road up the ski mountain, with an obvious parking area near the top of the Gondola. From here you can continue on foot (hiking or trail running) to some epic views.
TIP - even if you don't stay at the Little Nell, you MUST have lunch on the patio at Ajax Tavern so you can experience the garlic truffle fries (!) and the Waygu Cheeseburger. We split both. And we were talking about it for weeks afterwards. Yum.
Stop 8 - Ridgway / Ouray
Drive time - ~ 4 hours
Nights - 2
Camping options - we stayed at the Ouray KOA for 1 night, so we could have easy access to targeted hiking trails the next day. We also took advantage of the campgrounds laundry facility. This was a full-service site, complete with restaurant. The second night we free camped at Blue Lakes trailhead, our favorite camp spot of the trip (see 'Rig' photo). But there are plenty of other camping options in Ouray the area.
Recommended activities - Grizzly Creek Mine trail (sweeping views of the valley with incredible slate rock - may not be suitable for tender dog paws), Blue Lakes trail - make the extra effort to hike above the lake to the upper valley and second lake. Worth it!
TIP - no trip to the Ouray/Ridgway/Telluride area is complete without a stop at Gnar Tacos!
Stop 9 - Last Dollar Road towards Telluride, Colorado
You must drive Last Dollar road from Ridgeway to Telluride! It's a wonderful, bumpy adventure that had us traversing through beautiful ranch land and some of the most incredible aspen groves on the trip. We hiked to Blue Lakes on departure morning and afterwards, we headed for Last Dollar road. The late afternoon light was gorgeous and we free camped at the top of the summit. Then next morning we heading down into Telluride.
Drive time - plan for 2-3 hours if you take Last Dollar Road, because you'll be taking a lot of photos.
nights - 1
Camping options - we free camped at the summit/ high point of this road, at a pullout. We also saw people camping at Alder Creek trailhead. Otherwise, since most of the road runs through private ranch land, there were not too many suitable pullouts to camp. So hopefully, if you drive this area on a weekday, you will get lucky like we did.
Stop 10 - Telluride
The following morning we continued our journey on Last Dollar down from our camp spot at the road's high point.
Drive time - 45 minutes
Nights - 1
Camping options - Town Park campground - this camp area is gorgeous, walking distance fro town and sits close to a creek with a waterfall. It feels much more secluded than it is. We also passed Sunshine campground which was also beautiful, but had just closed for the season. Here are a few others to consider.
Suggested activities - take the free Gondola up from town and hike the See Forever trail. Even if you only walk part of it, the views are spectacular. If you are up for a longer hike with a strenuous climb at the start, you can connect this trail to Bear Creek or Wasatch connector for an 8-11 mile loop that ends up back in town near the Gondola base. If you'd prefer a less strenuous hike, simply walk down the wide gravel road from the Gondola. TIP - The gondola allows dogs aboard with leash, so this last suggestion makes for a great hike with your pup!
Stop 11 - Dunton Hot Springs
Being a hybrid traveler, Dunton Hot Springs has been on my radar for several years. I saw a beautiful photograph of one of the cozy cabins in a magazine and promised myself that next time we were in the Telluride area, we'd check it out. Our stay timed out perfectly. We had finished several back-to-back hard hiking days, were desperately in need of a shower and quite honestly, I was craving some sleeping space. Dunton was fabulous. Although stays include gourmet 3-course meals, cocktails and use of the bathhouse, it goes in the books as what we like to refer to "investment experiences". Dunton is not cheap. But we had a wonderful experience and recommend it to anyone looking for a special overnight experience in a uniquely beautiful location.
Drive time - ~ 2 hours
Nights - 2
Suggested activities - there are several short hikes on the Dunton property (ask concierge for map). And the resort offers other activities ($) such as horseback riding, mountain biking and rafting. We hiked to Lake Hope in the morning of our arrival day, as it is closer to the Telluride area. The lake itself was lovely. But it was the surrounding multi-colored mountains that stole the show. Or you can do like we did and take a day off to rest, sleep in, soak in the hot springs.
Stop 11 - Silverton
Drive time - 3 hours to Ice Lakes trailhead, then 2 hours to Highland Mary Lakes trailhead
Nights - 2
Camping options - our first night, we stayed at the South Mineral campground. But also saw people using the Ice Lakes trailhead parking area. Our second night, we free camped in Cunningham Gulch, so we could hike Highland Mary Lakes trail.
Suggested activities - Ice Lakes is one of THE most beautiful lakes I've ever hiked to. But this trail was also the most strenuous. Not only does it start above 9000', but this steep trail covers 2500' of gain in only 4 miles. So be prepared (recommend trekking poles) and take your time. The Highland Mary Lakes loop is also very popular, although the road to get to the trailhead is quite rocky.
Stop 12 - Durango
This was our last stop and we were using the time we had left to have a few meals with local friends. But Durango is a terrific town to explore and is loaded with mountain bike and hiking trails. Enjoy and see you next time!
Jen, Nic & Quincy
Feel free to check out some of our other van- camping road trip itineraries!