Autumn is one of the most beautiful times to visit Colorado, as the landscapes become even more picturesque with the changing colors of the aspen trees. Among the many beautiful locations in the state, the Rocky Mountains and the San Juan Mountains are some of the best places to see the fall colors. Both mountain ranges have their unique features, so let’s take a look at these two options to help you plan for the best “leaf peeping” experience.
The Rocky Mountains
The Rocky Mountains are a popular destination for tourists throughout the year, and the autumn season is no exception. Breckenridge, Vail, and Fairplay are some of the towns that offer stunning fall colors in the region. The peak fall foliage season typically occurs in late September and early October, but the exact timing can vary each year based on factors such as altitude, rainfall, and temperature.
Visiting the Rocky Mountains in the fall has many pros, including easy access from Denver (about 2 hrs drive) providing convenient weekend getaways from Denver. The mountain towns also offer shopping, fine dining, and high-end accommodations. Recreational activities, such as hiking and mountain biking, are also readily available.
However, there are downsides to the Central Rockies as well. Prices in the region can be higher than other areas of the state, making it less budget-friendly. Increased infrastructure due to the area’s popularity can also cause a less natural experience for visitors. The region attracts a large number of tourists during the fall season, leading to crowded conditions that can make finding accommodations and parking a challenge. With more people comes congestion of some of the hiking trails and roads, limiting the ability to fully enjoy the tranquil beauty of the landscape.
The San Juan Mountains
On the other hand, the San Juan Mountains offer a more tranquil and secluded experience. Located in southwestern Colorado, the region includes towns such as Ouray, Telluride, Montrose, and Crested Butte. The fall colors peak in late September and early October, but the exact timing can vary based on the weather conditions.
The single biggest advantage of visiting the San Juan Mountains during Autumn is fewer crowds compared to the Rocky Mountains. This region is less popular among tourists (that’s why locals love it), making it a more peaceful and less crowded destination to enjoy the fall colors. Additionally, the San Juan Mountains offer a greater density of aspen trees, which means a more immersive and breathtaking fall foliage experience.
A possible con to the The San Juan Mountains is it’s location. This mostly rests on your need to be in Denver as it is twice as far from Denver (5 hr drive). While the San Juan Mountains may seem more difficult to access by road travel, they are actually quite easy to fly into. The Montrose airport is located just 2 miles from downtown Montrose. It is a small regional airport with direct flights from several major cities. With little to no security lines and limited traffic, it’s easy to get in and out of the airport quickly and with minimal hassle. You can go from your plane to your hotel in just minutes and you’re already at the starting point for some of the best fall color destinations. (note: Grand Junction Airport is also an option; however, it is 1-2 hours away from your destinations, so does require renting a vehicle).
When not “leaf peeping”, the San Juan Mountains offer a plethora of outdoor activities, including hiking, mountain biking, and the best Jeep Trails in the country. The region is also home to several hot springs, making it the perfect place to relax after a day of exploring.
Finding the Colors
While it’s easy to plan your trip around a specific mountain range, such as the San Juans or the Rockies, you still need to determine where specifically are the best colors on any given day. And with the changing weather patterns, it’s almost impossible to predict exactly when and where the colors will peak. This can lead to wasted time and effort as visitors drive around hoping to stumble upon the perfect location.
Moreover, with so many visitors flocking to Colorado during the fall season, there can be intense competition at prime locations, further adding to the challenge of finding the best spots for viewing the fall colors. This is especially true for popular destinations like Aspen, Breckenridge, and Vail, which attract thousands of visitors every year.
However, with a little bit of planning and research, visitors can still have a successful and enjoyable fall foliage experience in Colorado. It’s recommended to consult local resources like the state tourism office, local visitor centers, and Colorado park rangers for up-to-date information on the best viewing spots and times. Some websites (Fall color map) and apps can also help visitors track the progression of the fall colors and provide suggestions on where to go for the best views.
Consider Using a Guide
One of the best ways to ensure that you find the best locations is to hire a professional photography guide. They can provide up-to-date information on the changing colors and offer access to less-known or difficult-to-reach locations (usually via off-road Jeep trails). Since a guide is out there “in the field” on a daily basis they will know what areas are at their prime and what areas are not worth the time. Additionally, they are able to provide guidance on capturing better photographs, making your fall foliage experience even more memorable.
So Where to Go?
If you need to come in/out of Denver specifically then your best bet is going to be the Central Rocky Mountains (or even the Front Range Foothills – not discussed here). However, while the Rocky Mountains may be more well-known, the San Juan Mountains offer a quieter, more secluded experience with equally stunning fall colors. And with the ease of access provided by the Montrose airport (or Grand Junction Airport), it’s definitely worth considering for your next autumn adventure. By hiring a sightseeing guide, you can ensure that you find the best locations and capture the best photographs. So pack your bags, grab your camera, and get ready to experience the beauty of fall in Colorado.