Searching for Fall in Colorado’s High Country

 

The snowstorm on September 8 delivered an unexpected coating of fresh white to Colorado’s high country, and I immediately wondered if there would be any leaves left when I made my way into the mountains. It wouldn’t be the first time that I’d seen fall color thwarted by the state’s fickle weather, but it might be the earliest; the autumnal equinox hadn’t even arrived, which meant it was technically still summer. But the uncertainty surrounding autumn gold wouldn’t dissuade me from searching, and sometimes it is that very uncertainty that motivates me to get out the door. There are no promises of success, just the prospect of adventure.

The route: Denver to Lake Granby, Shrine Pass to Red Cliff to Leadville, Weston Pass to Fairplay, and Kenosha Pass to Denver.

 

According to the Farmer’s Almanac, leaves change color due to many factors including temperature, soil moisture, and most importantly, changes in daylight hours. As the days grow shorter, chemical reactions within deciduous trees (those that lose their leaves) trigger the color changes that we see as brilliant oranges, reds, and yellows. I knew that seeking out Colorado’s best colors would probably require a few days of searching, but my vintage RV wasn’t the right vehicle to take into the mountains with the possibility of cold weather and snow. 

So I reached out to my friends at Native Campervans, and after explaining my quest for fall foliage, they agreed to let me borrow one of their converted Ram Promaster campervans. Score.

 

My route began in Denver but quickly climbed into the mountains as I followed I-70 through road cuts, under overpasses, and along Clear Creek on my way toward Berthoud Pass. My research led to Granby, Colorado, just outside Rocky Mountain National Park. Conveniently, I have a college friend who lives in the area, and word had it that his chest freezer was full of elk and venison. He also happens to be a USFS employee and although he’d been working on one of the local wildfires, he fed me some wild game and offered additional suggestions as to the best place to search for populous tremuloides, aka the quaking aspen, so named for the quaking motion of their leaves in the wind.

Arapaho Bay on Lake Granby is an excellent destination, regardless of the season.

 

Onward, to Arapaho Bay, a small cove on the edge of Lake Granby. Dotted with a collection of Forest Service campgrounds, private cabins, and lake access points, it is an extremely popular destination, although the benefit of visiting mid-week was solitude. It was one of those moments in the campervan that I reflected on the freedom of traveling within a self-contained home. And while there were (and still are) concerns surrounding travel during COVID-19, my personal reality is that life must go on (along with a face mask). Aside from trying to find the best fall foliage to photograph, I had no specific agenda and no rigid timeframes. So I parked the Promaster, opened the sliding door, and took an hour break from driving to dig into a book.

Bernard DeVoto’s The Western Paradox pairs perfectly with Colorado.

 

Left: Royal relishes his freedom. Right: Near Arapaho Bay.

 

A two-minute exposure turned the choppy bay to glass.

 

 

In addition to exploring the lakeside terrain, I used the remainder of the day to put together a general plan for the following day. I would drive back to the I-70 corridor, continuing west toward Vail, Shrine Pass, and beyond.

I woke up to freezing morning temperatures on day two. Buried under the Rumple blanket in the camper, I had to muster every ounce of will power I had to brave the cold and begin my day. A steaming cup of black coffee inspired motivation, and after letting the van warm up a bit, I got back to driving. As I passed through the Eisenhower Tunnel and into Summit County, I quickly discovered that finding colorful foliage wouldn’t be too much of a challenge if I stayed high in the mountains. Everywhere I looked, a patchwork of yellow aspens filled the gullies and open slopes, running upward to meet loose talus and boulder fields. While Denver may still be clinging to summer, fall had already arrived in the mountains.

Another long exposure shot just off I-70 on our way to Shrine Pass.

 

Leaving the highway, I began the drive up and over Shrine Pass on a well-maintained grade (2-wheel-drive friendly). I paused for the occasional photo, but generally maintained a slow, sight-seeing pace, relishing my freedom to roam. Co-pilot Royal watched over our vehicle while I explored some dispersed campsites that we discovered along the way, taking note for future visits. Eventually, the road led us to the town of Redcliff, a sleepy former mining outpost along the Eagle River, tucked into a narrow canyon. A quick glance at the map showed me that I was close to Leadville, the highest incorporated town in the United States at 10,152 feet above sea level, so I pressed on, taking in the expansive views of the surrounding peaks.

Scouting dispersed campsites while Royal watches over the campervan.

 

The town of Red Cliff, Colorado.

 

Left: Weston Pass, connecting Leadville to Fairplay. Center: Leadville, the highest incorporated town in the United States. Right: Shrine Pass Road, connecting Vail Pass to the town of Red Cliff.

 

Leadville provided a welcome break from driving, and after a quick visit to the Melanzana store, we continued South. Our route quickly departed the pavement, and we were once again on dirt roads, craning our necks at the fall colors—this time on our way toward the summit of Weston Pass. This high-mountain route connects Leadville to Fairplay, and it cut off a significant number of miles from our trip. While climbing upwards, Royal and I encountered many dispersed camping sites, most of which had great views of the surrounding valley. Some even had metal fire rings, but due to the current burn bans in Colorado, there would be no campfires.

Free campsites don’t get much more beautiful than this. Weston Pass.

 

Consulting the all-knowing smartphone.

 

Close to the summit of Weston Pass near some mining ruins, we found a great place to pull over and refuel. It had been a long day of driving, and after successfully finding foliage and spectacular mountain scenery, we were ready for a well-earned break. Royal proceeded on his usual campsite patrol while I got the campervan as level as possible before putting together some dinner and enjoying the sunset. Clouds drifted across the pass, dropping moisture that speckled the windshield with tiny, frozen water droplets. It’s that time of year in Colorado’s high country where snow is entirely possible. Without cell service, and unable to get an updated weather report for the area, we played it safe, packing up and continuing our drive down toward Fairplay in the dark. Much better to find another place to sleep for the evening, I thought, than to wake up to the steep dirt road covered in snow, without snow tires or all-wheel drive.

Because I was now in familiar territory, I beelined it for Kenosha Pass, a spot that I knew had ample free campsites that were just off the pavement. Even if we got snow on Kenosha, I’d have no problem finishing my drive back to Denver the following day. We rolled into camp, leveled the camper, and quickly fell asleep. Waking up early the next morning, Royal and I caught a beautiful sunrise on the pass, cranked the heat in the campervan, and began the long descent on Highway 285 toward Denver.

Kenosha Pass offers easy-access camping and beautiful hiking through endless aspen groves along the Colorado Trail.

 

Sunrise on Kenosha Pass.

 

Our search for fall color had been a huge success, and we’d discovered some new campsites and mountain roads in the process. Despite the challenges posed by COVID-19, traveling in the campervan felt like a very reasonable way to enjoy a road trip, while still being able to take the necessary precautions to keep ourselves and those we interacted with safe. Our self-contained home was in effect our little travel bubble, letting us maintain a safe distance, yet having all of the comforts we appreciate at home. And our timing was just right. Even as I write this, driving back through the mountains reveals a different picture of fall. The bare arms of populus tremuloides reach up to meet a deep blue sky while the earthy smell of decaying leaves wafts upward from the ground. And the brisk air carries the scent of snowstorms to come.

 


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Matthew Swartz is originally from Connecticut and currently lives in Denver, Colorado where he passionately pursues rock climbing, trail running, and skiing. Matt’s love of travel has inspired him to through-hike the JMT and part of the PCT, bike across the United States, and explore the West coast of South America from Ecuador to Patagonia. Matt and his partner Amanda have also travelled across much of the Western US in their 1964 Clark Cortez RV, which they lived in, on the road for the better part of three years. Matt has worked for the USFS as an Interpretive Ranger and Wildland Firefighter and Matt's photography and writing has been published in Rova Magazine, the Leatherman blog, 'Hit The Road' by Gestalten Publishing, and Forbes.