A Colorado Road Trip (Part 1) – Finding Aspen Gold in a Rocky Mountain National Park Fall

Last Updated on 10/27/20 by Rose Palmer

Every autumn, my husband and I plan a “leaf peeping” road trip to catch the peak fall color changes. We’ve done trips to New England, driven the Blue Ridge parkway and discovered the Finger Lakes in New York. This year, we went out west for a Colorado road trip to look for aspens at their golden peak. We started our road trip with a Rocky Mountain National Park fall tour.

We’ve wanted to do a fall trip to Colorado for a long time, and this year it finally fit into our schedule. We planned a nine day road trip, connecting various Colorado scenic byways, as we drove to three areas. We started north and worked our way south: Rocky Mountain National Park, the area around Aspen, CO, and the area around Ridgway, CO.

Based on various internet searches and fall color maps from past years, we picked Sept. 21 to 30 as the dates of our trip. Peak fall color is always dependent on weather conditions – as Forest Gump would say, it’s like a box of chocolates – you’re never sure what you’re going to get. To compensate, we purposely planned a flexible schedule and hoped that over the course of nine days, we would be able to find some aspens at their peak color. We were very fortunate – we found vistas of golden aspens in each area that we visited.

Copses of aspens at their golden peak and ones that are still green can be seen growing next to each other.

Aspens grow in a slightly different way than most other trees. They actually grow in large clone colonies. The roots extend underground and send up new suckers that become new trees. As a result, it was not uncommon for us to see a mountainside with a large swath of bright yellow aspens at their peak, an adjacent grouping that was still bright green, and another group that was bare. It was this diversity that really added interest to the landscape. If the scenery was this good on day one, what would the rest of our trip bring.

A Rocky Mountain National Park Fall Road Trip

Day 1 – Peak to Peak Highway

We caught an early morning flight from the east coast to Denver and were on the ground with wheels moving on our road trip by noon. The goal was a leisurely afternoon driving the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway. We took I-70 west to the the Rt.6 exit, and took that to Rt. 119N, which eventually becomes the Peak to Peak highway (Rt. 119 becomes Rt.72 and then Rt.7 on the way to Estes Park). What should have been a two hour drive to Estes Park, took all afternoon as we stopped for a leisurely lunch and then the scenic drive with many photo stops along the way.

On the way we drove through the towns of Central City and Black Hawk, both of which started out as gold mining towns. The gold mining may be gone, but there is still gold of a different sort in these historic towns – gambling gold. We passed wall to wall casinos and gambling houses in the old restored historic buildings. The towns looked cute as we drove through them, but we did not stop this time-we were focused on finding aspen gold.

The Peak to Peak Scenic Byway delivered all we expected. It was an easy drive on a well maintained two lane road with wonderful scenery around every bend, passing through small picturesque western looking towns. Just past the Hidden Lake area, the views to the west toward Rocky Mountain National Park opened up to an expansive vista of aspen and pine covered mountainside that was breathtaking.

Aspens grow in areas where pine trees also thrive.

We reached Estes Park in the late afternoon. We did not take the time to stop but it looked like a cute gateway to the National Park with lots of eateries and shops.  We had just enough time to head into Rocky Mountain National Park and take Trail Ridge Road to the Many Parks overlook to watch the sun set over the mountain range.

Sunset from the Many Parks overlook in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Day 2 – Rocky Mountain National Park and Trail Ridge Road.

The plan for this day was to explore Rocky Mountain National Park and then take the scenic Trail Ridge Road through to the west and south of the park and end the day in Fraser, CO.

Since we were still on east coast time, we were up before the sun, so it was not a great hardship to drive to Sprague Lake to see the sunrise. The trail around the lake is an easy half mile and has many great spots for photos of the mountains reflecting in the calm lake. This area was the home to a resort and lodge till 1940 owned by Abner and Alberta Sprague.

Sunrise over Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

From Sprague Lake it was a quick drive to the end of Bear Lake Rd. for the access to Bear Lake. The hike around Bear Lake is short and level (0.6 miles) and appears to be a popular destination. It was already starting to get busy even though we were there in the early morning – the parking lot was almost full and it was a weekday.

Early morning on Bear Lake

The Bear Lake trail head also offers access to a number of other trails. We continued on to Nymph Lake (0.5 miles one way with 225 ft elevation gain), and then another 0.1 miles to Dream Lake, another pretty little lake with great mountain views. We could have continued hiking on to other lakes, but since we only had this one day in the park, we sadly turned around so that we could visit other parts of the park.

We went on to explore the West Horseshoe Park and Sheep Lakes areas of the park. The Horseshoe Park area had some great views of aspens at their peak. It is also supposed to be a good place to see elk at dawn and dusk.  The Sheep Lakes area is good for seeing big horn sheep that come to the natural salt licks in the area. Unfortunately we did not see either in the middle of the day when we were there.

By early afternoon we started the drive up Trail Ridge Road  – another of Colorado’s scenic Byways. The road roughly follows a 10,000 year old trail used by native hunters. Reaching a height of 12, 183 feet, Trail Ridge Road takes you to alpine scenery you would normally see in the Canadian or Alaskan arctic regions.

As the road climbs, the aspens give way to spruce and fir trees, and eventually the trees disappear and there is just alpine tundra. The Alpine Visitors Center is just beyond the highest point, and has a nice exhibit on alpine ecology, as well as a café if you need a hot drink. Temperatures here can be 20 to 30 degrees colder than in the valley.

Alpine tundra on the highest point of Trail Ridge Road

Trail Ridge Road then drops quickly back down below treeline, crossing the Continental Divide at Milner Pass.

The scenic road ends in the Kawuneeche valley though which runs a much smaller version of the Colorado River. The headwaters to the “mighty Colorado” are just five miles to the north. The Colorado River trail head is just a few miles down the road from Milner Pass.

At Harbison Meadows overlook, looking back at the Rocky Mountains through which we just drove

The road passes through extensive meadows and exits the park at the Kawuneeche Visitors Center, and then goes on to Grand Lake where we grabbed dinner. Grand Lake is a park gateway town that has kept its Old West look and caters to national park and lake tourism.

Grand Lake – Colorado’s largest natural body of water

Our drive and day ended in the town of Fraser, about 40 minutes south of Grand Lake.

Accommodations in Rocky Mountain National Park

Day 1 of our trip we stayed at Alpine Trail Ridge Inn, outside of Estes Park.  This was a motel style inn with basic accommodations that were very clean and comfortable that looked to have been updated recently. The best thing going for this inn was its location – it is just outside the Beaver Meadows entrance to Rocky Mountain NP, so we could avoid all the Estes Park tourist traffic and get into the park quickly in the morning.

Day 2 we stayed at the Holiday Inn Express in Fraser. I had originally booked in Grand Lake but I made a mistake on the reservation, so by the time I rebooked, there was nothing available in Grand Lake. The Holiday Inn Express was also recently renovated. The room was clean and spacious and the included breakfast had the typical selection.

Meals in Rocky Mountain National Park

At the start of a road trip, we always stop at a grocery store to pick up drinks, snacks, fruit, lunch items and some quick breakfast items. We tend to get carried away driving, hiking and taking pictures until dark, so if it’s too late to grab dinner, it’s good to have some easy food handy.

We did have a good dinner in Grand Lake at the Sagebrush BBQ and Grill. This is one of those restaurants where you eat shelled peanuts and throw the shells on the floor (the mom in me really had trouble with that). We also liked that they gave us very large glasses of iced tea so that we did not have to constantly ask for refills.

What I Would Have Done Different

It would have been nice to have a few extra days to explore more of Rocky Mountain National Park and also the Grand Lake Area

For Quilters

Surprisingly, the little town of Grand Lake has a quilt shop right smack dab in the middle of town.  Cabins, Quilts and Stitches has fabric, notions and a variety of gifts, including items by Vera Bradley. The store has two floors of fabric bolts including batiks, cottons, flannels, minky and novelty prints.  There was also a nice variety of books, pre-cuts and kits.

For up to date information on Rocky Mountain National Park visit https://www.nps.gov/romo/index.htm


Part two in the series will be about our three days in the Aspen area of Colorado.

Thanks for visiting.