There are only a handful of roads in Colorado (or for that matter, North America) that will take you above 12,000 feet. Highway 82 reaches that elevation in grand fashion — and along the way, offers a ghost town, sparkling lakes, hiking trails, and a stunning grove of aspen trees. Time your visit properly in the fall, and with a little luck, you’ll witness an explosion of fall colors on the drive into Aspen, Colorado.
It’s not very easy to get to Aspen, Colorado, and I assume the people who live there like it that way. There’s only one road through town — Highway 82 — and if you’re coming from Denver, you either have to deal with the curves and high elevation of Independence Pass, or drive all the way out to Glenwood Springs, then backtrack into town.
Highway 82 may be a pain to drive, but it sure is beautiful. So, switch your mindset from “gotta get there” to “gotta enjoy the ride”, and you’ll be fine.
If you’re starting in the east, from US 24, Highway 82 begins at Twin Lakes. This pair of connected lakes welcomes you to the scenic drive. For a few miles, Highway 82 runs alongside the northern edge of the lakes, while the mountains surrounding Independence Pass beckon up ahead. The lakes are inside a National Forest Recreation Area, so you can take some dirt roads and explore the coastline.
A few lucky folks have quite a view! These houses are perched on a ridge overlooking the lakes.
The best time to be here is probably early morning. I’m guessing the lighting would be better, the winds calmer, and the lakes less choppy. Both times that I’ve been here, it’s been windy enough to make it unpleasant. At least this time I was seeing some fall colors along the shoreline.
After you pass the community of Twin Lakes, the views are limited for a few miles. Highway 82 is surrounded by trees — but as of early October, I wasn’t finding much fall color. I started to wonder if this road would provide any good fall scenery. It did… but not until I was on the other side of Independence Pass.
Just before the road begins its big climb towards the pass, watch for this trailhead. The North Fork of Lake Creek trail…
… takes you up this valley, for a nine-mile out-and-back hike.
If you don’t have time for the hike, continue on the road, and you’ll soon be leaving the valley.
As you climb, watch for a turnout that gives you this view of the valley below. I took this picture during a 2012 trip up the road.
Both times I’ve been at Independence Pass, it’s somewhat of a miserable place. The air is thin, I feel dizzy and lethargic, and the wind is howling. It always makes me wonder how there can be so much wind, and so little air, all at the same time. There are some viewpoints to visit, and some longer hiking trails here, but I never feel much like hiking them.
Once you drop down from the pass…
… you’ll find another trailhead, where a couple of nice trails begin. One of them is the hike up to Linkins Lake. I hiked here in 2012, and enjoyed it. You can check out my hike to Linkins Lake here.
Back in 2014, I was headed downhill, and still hoping to find some nice fall colors. On the west side of Independence Pass, Highway 82 is curvy and treacherous. There are a couple of stretches where the two-lane road suddenly becomes a one-lane road with little or no warning. It’s very difficult to squeeze past oncoming traffic.
Even when there are two lanes, you need to take it slow.
Fortunately, I was starting to see some aspen leaves that were turning yellow, orange, and red.
It took some caution to find an appropriate parking spot, but these leaves were worth the effort!
As I dodged traffic, I found some beautiful leaves and shadows…
… and some towering tree trunks, reaching up to a blue sky.
As I continued down the road towards Aspen, the aspens got even better.
This grove seemed to fill the valley with aspen leaves, all changing color at exactly the same time.
It was a sea of yellow leaves, and thanks to the late-day sun, it was beautifully backlit.
I wasn’t the only photographer stopping here to take pictures.
Even the tree trunks scarred by graffiti were beautiful!
In case you’re wondering, I was here on October 6, 2014. I heard from some people that in that year, the leaves were running later than usual. In a normal year, the first week of October may be too late to see the peak of fall colors. Your odds may be better in the final week of September.
Bonus points if you can find this lady hiding in the forest!
One more attraction worth mentioning: on your way into Aspen, you’ll drive past Independence Ghost Town at the side of Highway 82. I explored the ghost town during my 2012 visit to the area. You can read about my visit to Independence Ghost Town here.
The Bottom Line
The drive over Independence Pass is always enjoyable. Be certain you’re prepared to deal with the possible effects of altitude sickness, and add an extra layer of clothing while visiting the pass. You’ll find some great fall colors in the aspen groves southeast of Aspen in late September and early October. Highway 82 also offers some great opportunities for hiking.
Colorado State Highway 82 is the main road through Aspen, Colorado. The highway runs from US 24, northwest over Independence Pass, through Aspen, Basalt, and Carbondale, and ends at Glenwood Springs and Interstate 70.
This page will focus on the most interesting part of Highway 82 — the section that runs from Twin Lakes to Aspen, over Independence Pass.
Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive over Independence Pass and through the aspen groves along Highway 82: