If the San Juan Skyway with its golden aspens isn’t the scenic apex of the Rocky Mountains, it’ll do until something more majestic comes along.
Picture this: Peaks soaring above 14,000 feet, the deepest blue skies you’ll see anywhere, aspens reflecting in crystal-clear lakes and wrapping their golden glory around entire ranges, and roads that define “scenic” to road-trippers like you and me. Scenes like that abound in Colorado in late September and early October. But nowhere is the golden aspen show more brilliant than in the San Juan Mountains.
Want to go there? Road Trips with Tom is taking a different approach with this post. I’ll offer up a complete, day-by-day itinerary for a Colorado fall color trip with plenty of room for you to customize it.
Why fall? It’s my favorite time to travel. If you take this trip, you’ll love it, too.
In planning this itinerary, I checked my past photos of the area and hit on September 28 as the closest thing to a lock on fall foliage in the San Juans. So I recommend you plan around and near that date.
Our home base will be Durango. Not only is it the home of the legendary Silverton train, it also has the only commercial jet service in the area. You can drive Old Betsy to Durango if you prefer. It’s two long but mostly enjoyable days from the West Coast or Midwest. Or you can fly to Durango from Dallas, Denver or Phoenix. Overall, the itinerary as I’ve designed it is seven days if you fly and eight days if you drive.
Day 1 – Arrive in Durango
Arrange your flights, car rental and hotel rooms well in advance. Fall isn’t the peak season in Colorado, but it isn’t slow by any means. Arrive at your hotel early enough for a relaxing dinner.
Day 2 – The Silverton Train
This is the nation’s premier steam-powered excursion train. It’s immensely popular; you’ll need advance reservations. It runs daily round-trips between Durango and the colorful old mining town of Silverton. You can ride both ways on the train, or the train one way and a bus the other. Take some time to study the railroad’s web site — www.durangotrain.com – so you know exactly what you want. Some tips:
- The scenery is better out of Durango.
- Ride on the right side for better views.
- Bring a jacket or poncho.
- Ride near the rear to avoid flying cinders.
- Make your reservation by phone rather than online.
Here’s a 10-minute video (no narration) that gives you a nice look at the Silverton Train:
Day 3 – Million Dollar Highway
Today you’ll go where I’ve found the finest foliage displays in the past. You’ll drive your vehicle back to Silverton, then continue over Red Mountain Pass to Ouray, where you’ll spend the next two nights. Then, you’ll do a 47-mile round-trip to Dallas Divide, where the fall foliage should be exquisite.
Red Mountain, despite mining scars and debris, usually has golden aspens covering entire slopes. Ouray is another funky old mining town. You’ll spend the next two nights there. From Ouray, drive 11 miles north, then turn left onto SR 62. This is one of Colorado’s great fall color drives, with ranches in the foreground and the vertical wall of the Sneffels Range beyond.
Watch for four unpaved roads heading south. The best for exploring are the East Dallas and Last Dollar Roads. There’s also a great viewpoint at the Dallas Divide summit, but it can get crowded with photographers.
Day 4 – A Jeep trip above the aspens
Make an advance reservation for a half-day or all-day Jeep tour out of Ouray. There are several operators – all are highly rated, and all have web sites with complete details. Use Google to find them. My experience was with San Juan Scenic Jeep Tours and I liked them a lot.
Use the rest of the day for a second half-day Jeep tour, some hiking or some shopping.
Day 5 – Aspens to cliff dwellings
Begin by retracing your steps on US 550 and SR 62 to the Dallas Divide, then turn left on SR 145 to the ultra-hip upscale ski town of Telluride. Stop here for lunch, shopping or perhaps a hike to Bridalveil Falls.
Then head south again on 145 for 80 miles to Cortez, where you’ll spend the next two nights.
Day 6 – Mesa Verde National Park
Most of your day will be spent among the ancient and mysterious cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park. The entrance road is 12 miles east of Cortez via US 160. Before coming to the park, be sure to watch the six-minute orientation video on the park’s well-designed landing page – www.nps.gov/meve .
Mesa Verde’s visitor center is just inside the park entrance. You’ll need to stop here to buy your tickets ($5) for a cliff dwelling tour and pay the entrance fee ($20 for cars and $15 for motorcycles). All the schedules are linked to the landing page.
Among the major cliff dwellings, only Balcony House will be open for ranger-led tours inn late September. When scheduling your tour, allow at least an hour for the drive and for parking. After your tour, visit the Chapin Mesa Museum and stop at the viewpoint overlooking the Cliff Palace.
If there’s still time left in the day, return to Cortez and check out the trading companies dealing in authentic Indian arts.
Day 7 – Heading for home
Drive an hour east on US 160 for Durango-La Plata Airport to return your rental car and prepare for your flight home. If you’re driving to California or other points west, take off from Cortez.
Bonus: Tips on foliage photography
Tips from the professionals: www.nikonusa.com/en/learn-and-explore/a/tips-and-techniques/10-tips-for-shooting-autumn-foliage