Plan your vacation correctly, and this may be one of the best places to see fall colors in Colorado. This may be the least-populated part of the West Elk Loop scenic byway, but it offers some great opportunities to see the aspen leaves change.
Fill up your gas tank in Carbondale, because there are very few signs of civilization as you head south on Colorado 133. As soon as you’re out of town, you’ll have just one thing to stare at for many miles:
Mount Sopris dominates the view. This big, beautiful mountain is just 35 feet shy of being a 13’er.
On my trip in early October, 2014, it was partly cloudy, but the mountain was still remarkable, especially with the fall colors surrounding it.
As you get closer to the foot of the mountain, the foothills will block your view. I soon got distracted with a side trip.
Avalanche Creek Road
I found a side-road that crossed over Crystal River (which 133 follows). Avalanche Creek Road runs southeast for about 2.3 miles, ending at a campground.
The fall colors in this area were extraordinary — and not just the typical yellow of aspen trees, that you normally find in Colorado. There was a nice mix of reds, oranges, and greens, mixed in with the yellows, on trees and brush.
As you can see, the dirt road was easily passable…
…until I reached this spot, where Avalanche Creek runs directly over the road.
Just below the road, there’s a small waterfall.
At first, I thought about turning around, but I eventually convinced myself to ford the creek. It was easy, even for my small rental car.
On the other side, I found more beautiful hills and gorgeous fall colors.
The campground is located in this area, at the end of the road. It offers six campsites.
I turned around and headed back over the creek, and back to highway 133.
About five miles south of Avalanche Creek…
… is the biggest community you’ll find along this part of the drive. You can’t miss Redstone for a couple of reasons. For one, the word REDSTONE is painted in huge letters on the road. The other noticeable attraction…
… is lined up along the side of the road. Two hundred coke ovens were built here, around the end of the 19th century.
At their peak, these coke ovens were producing 6 million tons of coke a year (the fuel made from coal — not the beverage). Now, the remaining ovens are protected as a National Historic District, and are fenced off, but still easy to see and photograph.
At the giant REDSTONE letters, you can turn onto a side-road that takes you on a loop through town. (You can see the entire loop in the Drivelapse video, down the page.) Many of the homes in Redstone were built in the late 1800’s by John Cleveland Osgood, to house the workers in his mining operation.
You’ll also find a monument to the area’s coal miners, made from mine roof support shields.
Coal Creek Road
I found another side-trip diversion on Coal Creek Road, which begins at the monument.
The paved road follows Coal Creek for a few miles…
… until you reach this gate. The sign suggests that hiking and mountain biking are okay, but there is no other information nearby.
Even though the drive up Coal Creek Road ended abruptly, it did lead to some beautiful views of the fall colors.
Back on Highway 133, the next stop is an attraction that’s right by the side of the road.
Hays (Hayes) Creek Falls
Hays Creek Falls is located just a couple of miles south of Redstone. It requires almost no hiking at all to see the falls. It’s worth noting, the road sign spells it “Hays”, but I’ve also seen it called “Hayes” in other places. I’ll show you more of Hays Creek Falls on a separate page.
Take some photos at the waterfall, then continue south on Highway 133. Next up…
… is the turnoff to Marble, Colorado. This area offered some remarkable fall colors, but it’s too much to cover on this page. Check out the Marble, Colorado in Autumn page for some leaf-peeping suggestions.
After the turnoff to Marble, Highway 133 begins its climb to McClure Pass.
Along the way to the pass, there are several great turnouts that provide amazing views, looking east.
Look at all those aspen trees!
McClure Pass is less exciting than many of the other high mountain passes in Colorado. 8,755 feet is high enough to feel some altitude sickness, but it’s nothing compared to some of the state’s 11- and 12-thousand foot passes.
On the south side of McClure Pass, you’ll still see plenty of beautiful fall leaves, but the views of the mountains are somewhat blocked.
Highway 133 will skirt the edge of the Paonia Reservoir for a few miles, and then you’ll reach Gunnison County Route 12. This mostly-dirt road will take you through the Anthracite Creek valley, then climb to Kebler Pass, which is home to one of the earth’s biggest organisms — a massive clone of aspen trees. As you would guess, it’s beautiful in late September and early October.
Which brings us to the big question: when is the best time to see the leaves change along Highway 133? My visit took place on October 8, 2014, and as you can see, the colors were pretty spectacular. However, many people told me that I was lucky, because the leaves were late in 2014. Most years, they will turn a week or two earlier. Your best bet is probably the last week of September, or the first few days of October — keeping in mind that drought, cold weather, or one big windstorm could change the entire year.
The Bottom Line
The West Elk Loop, and specifically, the stretch of Highway 133 between Carbondale and County Road 12, is one of the best places in Colorado to see the fall colors. Even if you can’t visit during the peak of color, it’s still a beautiful drive, any time of the year.
The West Elk Loop includes Colorado Highways 133, 135, and 92, Gunnison County 12, and US Highway 50. On this page, we’ll focus specifically on Colorado 133, from Carbondale, south through Redstone, to Gunnison County Route 12 — where the actual “loop” begins.
Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive from Carbondale through Redstone on Colorado Highway 133…
… and some detours off Highway 133: