The Best Places to Be in Southwestern Colorado This Fall
My favorite time of year. The cool crisp air, the vibrant colors, and the anticipation of winter fill the heart with joy each year. No matter where you go in the US, fall is sure to please. I’ve spent fall in numerous states and climates over the years, photographing the change of season along the way. There is one region of the country that is like no other and continues to capture my attention and causes my jaw to drop: southwestern Colorado.
Each year as I fill up my calendar with my must-visit locations, the San Juan Mountains that border nearby Ouray, Silverton, Telluride, and Durango are slated in as my annual fall colors trip to capture the season through the lens of my wide-angle lens. In my opinion, the San Juan Mountains region should be on the top of your travel list to embrace the fall colors.
Besides the obvious grand-vista views of jagged, snow-covered mountains that jet into the blue-sky, the curved two-lane country roads lined with golden aspens is so picturesque it often looks unreal. Here are my top three spots to view the colors in southwestern Colorado:
#3: Rest Areas in-between Ridgeway and Telluride
Fortunately, along the way to any city of town in southwestern Colorado most of the time you are “forced” to travel along Highway 145 and 62 that snakes along the San Juan Mountain range between Cortez and Ridgeway at each end of the trip. There are actually two ways to get to Cortez and Ridgeway: Highway 145 and the Million Dollar Highway or US550 (described in better detail as #2).
If heading north on Highway 145, the route takes you on a mountain pass that drives through or nearby several mining towns as well as Telluride (better described in better detail as #1), once you make the right onto Highway 62 to head to Ridgeway, be on the look-out for rest areas and scenic overlooks in about 30 minutes- you won’t be disappointed. Panoramic views of the San Juan Mountains with herding fields and ranches in the foreground await. If heading south on Highway 62 from Ridgeway towards Highway 145, you should start seeing the scenic overlooks in about 15 minutes.
The San Juan Mountains from a distance- near Ridgeway, Colorado.
#2: Million Dollar Highway (US550) north of Silverton
The other route towards Ridgeway on one end and eventually Cortez on the other, takes you on the infamous Million Dollar Highway. For the longest time, information and directions about the famed highway was kept unwraps and somewhat ambiguous on the internet. Now, the cat’s out of the bag and it is an epic way to view the fall colors. Less of a scenic drive with casual strolls than the other two locations mentioned in this blog, the Million Dollar Highway is a “white knuckle” drive up and over the San Juan Mountains topping off at 10,000 feet just south of Silverton. Along the hour ride you will be greeted with views of numerous peaks, including several 14ers, valleys cut by raging rivers, and some of the most epic aspen forests in Colorado.
While there are plenty of places to pull over (if you dare), often times there are in inconvenient areas that harbor legitimate concern of having your car tumble off a cliff. I advice caution while traveling this route and under no circumstance, chance the ride with snow or icy conditions in the forecast. Assuming you have a great weather window, this could be the ride of your life and your new favorite outing to view the fall colors.
Fall on the Million Dollar Highway just north of Durango but south of Silverton.
#1: Lizard Head Pass, near Telluride
At the top of the list, Lizard Head Pass just south of Telluride near the small mining town of Ophir. Technically Lizard Head Pass is the mountain pass that goes up a portion of the San Juan Mountain range so be prepared to test out those high-mountain driving skills. As you snake around, ascend, and descend up and over the pass, you will be greeted with some of the most beautiful peaks in the country. The vistas are straight out of a Colorado brochure- groves of aspens, a large reflective lake, and mountains that reach the heavens. The pinnacle of the views is the trailhead for a nearby trail called “Galloping Goose,” as well as, Trout Lake. Both stops overlook the Matterhorn, a 13,000+ peak that may inspire you to pick up mountaineering as a hobby. On the other side of the road, you can catch a glimpse of three 14ers, Wilson Peak, Mt. Wilson, and El Diente as well as the prominent geologic feature “The Lizard Head,” a block of rock that resembles a giant salamander.
The “Wilson Group” right outside of Telluride.
If you only have time to stop for the occasional picture, stop in two places, near the crossing arm and “10,000 feet” elevation sign for the pass right near the turnoff for Trout Lake and the overlook view at the top of the hill, just north of the turnoff for Ophir.
If you happen to have a little more time, pick a trail at the Lizard Head Pass trailhead and get hoofing. You should be able to get on top of the ridgeline for a 360-view of the mountains and fall colors within an hour of leaving the trailhead.
This area is truly a magical place to enjoy the change of seasons- one that is so good, I visit every year.
As a travel photographer, I have visited some amazing parts of the country to view the change of seasons. No area in the country tops southwestern Colorado for viewing the fall colors. So pack your bags, your camera or smartphone lenses, and take a trip to visit “Colorful Colorado” this fall.
Nick is the owner and regular content writer for Southwest Microadventures. When he’s not writing, you can find him rock climbing, peak bagging, mountain biking, backpacking, or drinking strong coffee.