Colorado is our home state, and it is one of the BEST places to see fall colors. Even though we both grew up in Colorado, and we’ve each seen 20+ Colorado falls already in our lives, this year we got extreme FOMO by having been away from Colorado the past three years during its prime fall season.
In our three years of full timing, we’ve screwed up our fall plans 3/3 years. By this, I mean we didn’t fully get to experience the magic of the leaves changing, or the crisp fall air, like we both remember growing up in Colorado, and we missed it. Taking a trip down memory lane… In our very first month of full timing in September 2018, we actually ended up spending the majority of that month traveling by plane for work. We were in Austin, Texas, Tulum, Mexico, Miami, New Jersey, and Sedona. It was a whirl wind of a first month living in our camper because immediately after moving into it we got work opportunities we couldn’t say no to and were gone for three weeks. This was amazing knowing we could run our business on the road like this, BUT we missed out on fall. The next fall we drove all the way to British Columbia, hoping to explore Vancouver, Whistler, Revelstoke… and it rained for three weeks straight. Not just rain; downpour! We were so sick of it we left and drove back to Southern California when some jobs came up for us. Again, no fall colors. The following year, we spent fall in southern Utah exploring Zion, Bryce, and Lake Powell. All fun places in September, but NO amazing fall colors. This year we were not going to let that happen again.
We returned to Colorado mid September to see family for a week, and then began a three week tour of Colorado fall! Here’s my advice. Don’t just go to Kenosha Pass or Guanella Pass to see the aspens on a weekend. If you do that, you WILL be in hours and hours of leaf peeping traffic, on the road and on the trail, just to see the same patch of aspens as everyone else in Denver. Go a little farther into the mountains, plan a weekend of leaf peeping off the beaten path, or even go all the way to Southern Colorado like we did.
We started our leaf peeping on the Grand Mesa. Our friends in Mesa County graciously let us home base on their property whenever we need a break or shop space for projects. We stayed at their house for a week in mid September to work on our boat and dirt bikes, and see their new land, and from there we could see the colors starting to pop on the Grand Mesa as the weather got colder. On the weekend that the county predicted to be their prime fall weekend, we drove up the mesa on a Sunday afternoon with our friends to check it out as the crowds were leaving. I don’t think some people from Denver know how great the colors are on the mesa, or even what the mesa is. The Grand Mesa is the largest flat top mountain IN THE WORLD. This flat top mountain is more than 500 square miles with hundreds of alpine lakes, all around 11,000 feet high, and 6,000 feet higher than the valley below it. Whenever we are at our friends house in the valley, we are always surprised it can be snowing/raining on the mesa just several miles away, but sunny and calm down at their house. The mesa is known for great cross country skiing and snowmobiling in the winter, has one ski resort, Powderhorn, and hundreds of lakes for fishing in the summer. We were absolutely blown away by the colors we saw on the scenic byway. As you gain all your elevation to the top of the mesa you can look out at the flat top mountain and see the yellow aspens mixed with the alpine lakes, and it was so stunning.
At the top of the mesa we walked around the Mesa Lakes, and just like all the other tourists, we had to have a photo shoot in the aspens. Aren’t we cute?
COLORADO HIGHWAY 92
Next stop on our Fallorado Tour was a scenic drive along state highway 92, purely by accident! This twisty turny road connects Crawford, CO to Highway 50 at the Blue Mesa Reservoir, and we ended up on it due to a closure of Highway 50 west of this intersection. We originally planned to drive from Grand Junction to Creede by Highway 50, and saw the signs indicating periodic closures on Highway 50 for construction. When we looked it up, the website said that there were three hours a day they were periodically letting traffic through, and to get there early to make sure you get through. We were all prepared to wait for an hour to be let through at the noon time slot. When we got there, the construction workers were telling everyone they were welcome to wait, but there had been three mudslides already that day, so the noon time slot wasn’t guaranteed to happen. It had been downpouring all morning, so we figured our chances weren’t good, and decided to back track to take the detour he was telling us about. We essentially had to turn around and drive 160 miles to go around the construction to get to the same point we could’ve driven in 8 miles. But I think it was the most beautiful detour we’d ever driven.
This scenic byway goes along the Gunnison National Forest and the backside of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. From the drive you can start to see the 2,000 feet deep canyon made by the dark metamorphic rock of the Gunnison Uplift, and the Gunnison River below. Contrasted with bright yellow and orange aspens, this was absolutely stunning. We weren’t the only ones to make the detour mistake, so there were tons of fellow travelers stopped and gawking at this landscape. We were in awe the entire detour but also were trying to make up for lost time, so we didn’t have time to stop if we still wanted to get to Creede in the daylight.
The rest of the drive to Creede took us on Colorado Highway 149 through Lake City, which got us into some higher elevation above 11,000 feet, and we even got a little bit of snow going over Slumgullian Pass. The surrounding peaks had gotten snow overnight, and from the pass we were on we could see the snow capped 14ers behind all the yellow aspens. Some patches of aspens at this elevation had already peaked due to the recent snowfall, but it was still absolutely breathtaking.
North of Creede we passed a sign for the North Clear Creek Falls, which is a highly photographed waterfall in southern Colorado, but we’ve never been to it because we’ve never driven anywhere near it. We had it in the back of our minds to check it out because we knew it was near Creede but didn’t end up doing the research ahead of time to know where it was. We blew past the turn off, and I had just a smidge of service to look it up, and learned it’s only a quarter mile off the highway and would totally be worth it to go check out. So we whipped a U-Turn and went back! You’d never know there was a waterfall right next to the highway because it seems like you are driving through a flat valley. The valley actually drops off at the waterfall though, and the waterfall flows away from the highway. The creek seemed dry, so we weren’t sure how much of a view we’d get anyway.
It’s a popular spot, so theres a decent sized parking lot with a few RV spots. Only a couple other cars were there when we stopped, since it was so cold out and getting late. There’s an overlook with a fenced ledge that you can walk to within a couple hundred feet, and look down over the creek below. The best view is if you take the short path behind the parking lot and get the wider view of the whole falls and surrounding cliffs. It’s free to go see, so this is definitely worth a stop if you are in the area.
Our first stop in Creede was a camp spot 20 miles before you hit town, towards Stony Pass. We arrived just before dark, and had to take a dirt road in several miles in the rain, which meant the truck got completely caked in mud. There was a free dispersed camping area with a just a couple established camp spots, and luckily one was available. We tried to get as little mud as possible on our feet as we went straight into the camper and hoped the rain would die down by morning. The goal of coming to Creede was to ride several dirt bike trails that Blake had picked out, and he had high expectations despite the weather forecast not looking good. It was supposed to rain all weekend in Creede, so at the high elevation we planned to ride in, in the end of September, that would mean snow for us. The next day was Blake’s birthday, so we were going to make it happen no matter what. Especially because this was the first birthday for Blake in three years that we didn’t have to work or commute for work on his birthday. His mom was supposed to come down to meet us too, but at last minute the trip didn’t work out for her to join. It was probably better that way anyway because with the weather so spotty it would’ve been a shame to make that drive from Denver if it was too snowy to take their UTV out anyway.
It rained all night, but calmed down a bit in the morning. It was super humid and cold, but we wanted to go explore the trail we came here for, so we bundled up in a bunch of layers and unloaded the dirt bikes. We wore our ski base layers, goose down jackets and ski coats, with buffs on underneath our helmets, and brought extra gloves and socks in case we got wet (my boots are not waterproof). The road had dried out enough that it wasn’t a sloppy mess, thank goodness, because we had to ride 20 miles on the dirt road just to get to the entrance to the single track trail. Blake had discovered via Instagram/OnX that there were a couple single track trails in this area that he’d never known about before, that go all the way to 12,000 feet. Most of the trails in Southern Colorado are jeep roads and high mountain passes, so single track at that elevation is actually quite rare. The weather held for us most of the day. We got a few snow flurries at our highest elevation, but snow was actually way better than rain anyway because it didn’t actually get us wet. The trail was everything Blake was looking for in his birthday ride and more. It was narrow single track with some sections flowy, and some technical rock sections, lots of river crossings, and then put us out in high tundra where some of the snow had even accumulated. Once we’d gotten back down to lower elevation we were in a yellow aspen tree forest. So many leaves had already fallen to the ground that it was actually hard to see the trail and kind of trippy when looking at the ground while riding since it was spotted with yellow leaves. We didn’t get rained on until we were on the road back to camp, and at faster speeds it was pelting our faces, but we knew it was only for 20 minutes. I’d say it was a very successful ride.
We moved camp to a dispersed area on the hillsides directly above the town of Creede, and it was such a great place to camp. It was a huge area of wide open grassy hillsides overlooking the town, and underneath the towering cliffs that lead into the Historic Bachelor Loop. There were tons of spots, easy access, and cell signal, but only a couple other RVs, probably due to the imminent weather. We did 3 days of riding while camped here and got rained on every single day. The skies were beautiful and dramatic with stormy clouds but then we’d get great afternoon light peaking through the clouds lighting up all those aspen trees.
We did one day of single track from Creede, and found some really fun trails that took us up to timberline. There were so many creek crossings though, and I ended up completely dunking both of my boots in the river at one point, completely soaking both feet and socks. We had to stop on the trail and empty out my boots, stripped down to take the socks off and tried to dry them on Blake’s engine. This was at the end of the trail, so then we had to ride home quick enough that I wouldn’t freeze my feet off. We ran into deer and moose on the trail that day.
The popular trail to explore in Creede is the Historic Bachelor Loop. This is a 17 mile loop starting from town that goes through silver mines and ghost towns from the 1890s. It’s essentially a graded dirt road any car could drive, with 15 or so stops at historic buildings, mines, or sites. You can extend the loop by combining it with Rat Creek if you have 4WD and high clearance and offroad experience. Rat Creek Road goes up to 12,000 feet and looks out towards the San Juan Mountains. When we got to the top of Rat Creek, there was probably an inch of snow on the ground, but only at the summit. We ran into another couple that had been taking in the view for hours, they said they just couldn’t leave. It was sunny, but with snow on the ground, snow capped mountains in the distance, and dramatic stormy skies. That is the classic Southern Colorado we’d been away from for so long. We ran into a Prius on our way down Rat Creek that should not have been there. The driver was piling up rocks in the river crossing after having turned around and trying to drive back down. Blake just had to shake his head. We’ve heard way too many stories of vehicles being on high elevation Colorado passes that should not be there, and that’s what gets these roads closed down to the rest of us. Do people just not do their research ahead of time?
The Bachelor Loop itself though is quite interesting and scenic even if you don’t add on the mileage for Rat Creek. The main attraction is seeing Last Chance Mine, the main silver mine, and driving under the ragged cliffs above it. We played around in some of the offshoots from the main loop, checking out where random dirt roads went and just admiring the aspens. Everything was still perfect fall colors. We got a downpour on our way back to camp and got soaked for about 15 minutes, and of course it let up right when we got back to camp.
Our last day in Creede we rode 25 miles on rutted washed out dirt roads out to the Wheeler Geologic Site. It took us a couple hours each way on our dirt bikes, and would take a lot longer in a vehicle, and you would definitely need high clearance and 4WD. Some of the ruts on the road were several feet deep, and some sections were just pure sloppy mud. We passed through hundreds of mud puddles. What I didn’t realize was that when you get to the Wheeler Geologic Site, you actually have to hike for about 3/4 mile to actually get to the viewpoint because it enters wilderness land. Normally for this type of situation we would’ve brought the saddle bags on one of the bikes with our tennis shoes, because hiking in dirt bike boots is never comfortable. At first we thought the hike was going to be much longer, but we’d gone so far out there we were still going to do it anyway, despite wearing all the gear. We ditched our knee pads half way up the hike, and got there much faster. Didn’t see a single person. The Wheeler Geologic Area looks almost like Bryce Canyon, with a bunch of rock spires formed by volcanic ash and erosion of thousands of years. But it’s so remote not a lot of people can get to it. Wheeler was actually the first national monument designated in Colorado in 1908 and was popular until the 1950s when tourists started going to easier accessed locations. It’s so infrequently visited that it got downgraded to a Geologic Area from a monument. Visiting areas like this are one reason we love our dirt bikes so much. There’s no way we could take our camper down that road, and even in a jeep it would take hours. Since our dirt bikes are street legal, they let us explore so much more than we could in our rig or on foot. We did 50 miles that day on the dirt bikes in just several hours. Even in an overland rig of some sort, it would take you hours and you’d have to stay long enough to make it worth it. I’ve always said it, we’re the kind of travelers that like to camp in beautiful places, but with relatively easy access, and then explore further on our bikes. We weren’t really sure how much you were supposed to walk around on the rock formations once we got to the Wheeler overlook. There was a wooden bench to sit on and check out the view, and I bet some people go climb around the rock features. We had no traction in our dirt bike boots though for that kind of activity, so we just admired the view before riding back. I think if you have the time and means to get here, it’s really worth checking it out. It’s like a Bryce Canyon but without the people.
My parents wanted to plan a weekend trip to see us in October, and since we already wanted to be in southern Colorado, we figured out the best location for them to meet us was in Durango. The weather forecast was still spotty, but Durango has more mild weather compared to places like Ouray and Telluride, and is a good sized city so they could get an AirBnB for a decent price.
Before meeting up with them, we dirt biked one more day in Hermosa Creek, just ten minutes north of Durango, on an epic and narrow single track through amazing fall colors. The trail actually went through a burn area from several years ago, and the aspens that had grown back were still only a few feet tall and really thin, so we got the amazing fall colors but could also see past the trees to the view of the creek below in the canyon. The trail was so narrow in parts I had to go insanely slow. We ran into a group of older guys riding, and they starting warning us of how narrow the trail got. We ran into them again on the way back and they were so impressed that I’d ridden the whole thing. At the end it turned into a two track that put us on a back road up to Purgatory Ski Resort. Again, the aspens were just in prime fall colors as we rode along the base of the ski resort.
We had two full days to explore with my parents, so we hiked on the Purgatory Flats trail one day, and went into Mesa Verde National Park on the other day. The Purgatory Flats trail is a 10.3 mile trail that winds along the Cascade Creek and eventually takes you to the Animas River. We didn’t plan to hike the whole thing, but it was an excellent place to see the high elevation fall colors. The first part of the trail switchbacks down from the parking lot down to the river valley, and you lose almost 800 feet of elevation in the first two miles. The switchbacks are in an aspen and pine tree forest, and all the colors were at their prime. Once you descend, the valley opens up to views of the surrounding 13,000 foot high mountains, which all had a light dusting of snow already. There were several places to stop and break along the creek, and then the trail meanders along the creek for a while in the valley. Then the trail starts to rise above the creek on a narrow shelfy path. We did about 2.5 miles one way before turning around. It took us a couple hours since we were stopping for photos of the fall leaves every hundred feet! The way back up took a little longer with having to gain all that elevation back.
My parents stayed at a condo near the golf course in Durango, and luckily there was easy enough parking for us to just park and sleep in the parking lot. We back up our bike carrier over the grass so that we fit into one parking spot. From what I read on iOverlander, Durango isn’t the most friendly city to full time RVers. It’s also a college town, so that makes sense if they are strict on street parking and stealth camping. The two nights before my parents showed up, we stayed at the Walmart south of town, which did allow overnight for RVers. We wanted to stay at the trailhead of the Hermosa Creek trail we rode, but there were signs all over saying no overnight and we thought it might be enforced. Luckily we didn’t have any truck or parking issues the whole trip with my parents, because that seems to be a trend every time they visit us. We only ate out once during the trip. We went to the Steamworks Brewing for beers and burgers, and it was excellent. I was stoked they had a Dunkel, my favorite beer, and a burger always hits the spot.
Mesa Verde National Park
Since I hadn’t been to Mesa Verde since I was a kid, and Blake had never been, and we thought it would be a dryer area to visit considering the wet weather forecast, we planned a day trip into Mesa Verde National Park. It took about a half hour to drive to the entrance from Durango. The park is way bigger than I thought, and has several different areas to explore that take a while to drive in between. There are a lot of overlooks, informational stops, and short hikes, that can all get a bit overwhelming after a full day of touristing, so I think it would be best to see the park over a two day period to break up some of the stops, unless you are realllly into cliff dwellings. Since it takes an hour to get into the main area of the park, I would consider staying inside the park if you were to explore for two days. There is a lodge halfway through the park, but closes September 30 for the season. Unfortunately the campground inside the park is only 4 miles from the entrance, which almost defeats the purpose of not having to drive all the way back out of the park. You cannot tow any vehicles past the campground, and there is a place to leave trailers near the entrance if you aren’t staying at the campground. The parking spaces at all the spots are pretty small so it wouldn’t be the greatest place for a large motorhome, and we were grateful we were exploring in my parents’ Subaru.
I checked the NPS website for information of any Covid restrictions, but didn’t realize that there was a separate page for information on touring any cliff dwellings, so I didn’t realize you had to get a reservation for any tours. The website also didn’t make it very clear that there were several closures in the park, or maybe I didn’t fully read the alerts section. Unfortunately several of the most popular cliff dwellings were closed for tours, and since we didn’t get a reservation we would be admiring from the overlooks.
On the initial drive up, the curvy highway gains 1600 feet and overlooks the Montezuma Valley. We stopped at the Montezuma Valley Overlook and the Park Point Overlook. There is a short walk from Park Point to the top of a historic fire tower at 8,572 feet, the parks highest point! From here you can see all the way to the high desert of Shiprock, New Mexico, and three different mountain ranges in Colorado – the San Juan, La Plata, and the Ute Mountains. It’s a historic fire lookout from the 1930s but still used today during fire season. There actually have been several large fires in the park since the late 1990s, burning more than 50% of the park. You could see all the old oak brush still burned and sticking through the new growth in most of the park. The young oak brush had turned really beautiful fall colors already, just burnt oranges and yellows. I don’t think the drive would’ve been quite so spectacular in any other season.
Once you get to the far view lodge, you can either explore the Chapin Mesa, or continue driving to the Wetherill Mesa. We only did the Chapin Mesa. Per the map it looks like the Wetherill Mesa would double the amount of driving required, and require a 6 mile hike at the end in order to see anything. This would be good to do on a second day in the park if you allowed for it.
Our first stop on the Chapin Mesa that we highly recommend is the Spruce Tree House, our first look at one of the cliff dwellings from 950 – 1300 AD. This one was closed to inside tours and we could only view from above. For our first view of the cliff dwelling, it was quite spectacular, but we would’ve loved to get closer to see some of the details.
From here you can get on the Petroglyphs Point trail, a 2.4 mile loop. This was one of those trails where the hike itself was way more interesting than the viewpoint. The petroglyphs themselves were rather underwhelming. We’ve seen better petroglyphs in places like Valley of Fire. However, the hike (the lower part of the loop) was very interesting and even required some moderate rock scrambling at the end. This lower route brings you along the side of the Spruce Canyon. You are on a narrow path built into the side of the canyon, sometimes with rock overhangs above you, and sometimes having to meander through or over boulders and tree roots. We actually took quite a long time to walk to the 1.5 miles because we were going slow and checking out our surroundings. Halfway through you get to see the base of an old cliff dwelling that is no longer there. There were also several sections where staircases had been built into the rock as part of the trail. The petroglyphs are at the midway point in the loop right before you have to do one section of easy rock scrambling up a short ledge. There are good handholds, so it’s not bad. Then you get up on top of the mesa that you’ve been walking underneath the whole time, and learn that the other half of the loop is a really easy footpath that could’ve got you there in no time! But we’re glad we did the trail counter clockwise like this because the trail was the majority of the fun. We looked at the petroglyphs for about a minute before continuing our hike. I’d recommend doing this trail like we did. If you want to only take the top trail to the petroglyphs and return the way you came, it wouldn’t really be worth it.
South of this stop the road splits to two areas, the Mesa Top House and the Cliff Palace Loop. The Cliff Palace is the most famous dwelling in the park, but the Cliff Palace Loop was closed for paving during our visit. But you do still get a view of it from the Mesa Top Loop.
The Mesa Top Loop has several stops for Pit Houses. These pit houses date back to 550 AD, and were dug into the ground several feet and they made wooden roofs. Some of the pit houses were bigger or deeper than others, and all were interesting, but once you’ve seen a few you don’t really need to stop at every single one. You must stop at the overlook for Square Tower House for another view of a cliff dwelling. When you are viewing the dwelling from a hundred feet above it at the top of the cliff, you really just can’t imagine how the people got to their dwellings all the time. This one even had some dwellings that were three stories high.
Sun Point View is the best spot for viewing a lot of cliff dwellings at once. From here you can look over to the Cliff Palace loop and all the cliff dwellings below the cliff on the other side of the canyon. You can see about ten huge cliff dwelling communities in a row. You are viewing from a distance, but there are a few stationary telescopes you can use to get a closer view. You can get several different viewpoints too as you keep driving the loop, and get a little closer to some. We stayed here for a while in order to see all of them. Near the end of the loop you can stop at the Sun Temple, which they believe was a ceremonial structure.
On your way back out of the park you have to stop at the Far View Sties. For some reason this stop isn’t well marked if you are driving south, probably because there isn’t a left turn lane and they don’t want you stopping traffic. Thus you have to stop while driving north. This stop was quite interesting because you can actually walk around in one of the pit house sites, while all the previous ones we stopped at were fenced off. This stop shows a more densely populated area of pit houses, more like a village, and you can see several different sites within a short walk. I would highly recommend stopping here on your way out of the park.
We didn’t get into the park until around 10 am, and we left around 4 or 5, and it was a good amount of time for several photo stops, all the good overlooks, a short hike, and a picnic lunch. Early October was a great time to go. We didn’t battle with any crowds, always found a parking spot, weren’t too hot, weren’t too cold, and had long enough days to get to enjoy it fully. Mesa Verde was really a perfect family activity while in the Southern Colorado area.
My parents had a fun trip and got to see all the fall colors on Wolf Creek Pass on their drive over from Denver. We played games, ate good food, and saw some great sites.
Our stop in the National Park concluded our Colorado fall road trip! I really think that fall this year was timed perfectly, and the colors were more magnificent than ever. Sometimes fall comes too quickly, or an early freeze knocks all the leaves off the trees, but this year was perfect. We hit some sporadic weather, but we couldn’t have planned it any better.
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