The Fallorado Trip
The Aspen Groves of Colorado and Balloons of New Mexico in Autumn
This trip is a ten-night driving tour of Colorado and New Mexico, during the most colorful part of fall. The trip begins and ends in Denver, however Albuquerque could be used as an alternative start and end point.
Denver to Colorado Springs
The trip began in Denver, Colorado. I arrived at the airport around lunchtime, and I had a couple of hours to run the typical first-day errands: stocking up on sodas and snacks, buying a cooler and ice, etc. Once that was done, I drove through Denver and headed south. My destination for the evening was Colorado Springs -- where I would spend two nights. But, along the way, I wanted to get into the groove of hiking and photographing, so I detoured over to Roxborough State Park.
Roxborough is an interesting spot in the Rocky Mountain foothills where the plains come to an end, and some beautiful red rocks jut out of the landscape. There are easy and more difficult hikes here, and I had enough time to do a couple of the easy ones before the park closed. Then, I drove on to Colorado Springs for the night.
Hiking around Colorado Springs, and Pike's Peak
I wanted to spend this first full day of the vacation acclimating to the high altitude of Colorado, by hiking and hanging out at around 8,000 feet. Then, I figured, I'd be ready to venture higher on the following days. For my first destination of the day, I headed out to the Red Rock Open Space in Colorado Springs. This area has a similar landscape as Roxborough to the north, and it's part of the same outcropping that forms the extraordinary Garden of the Gods, just a mile or two away. The Red Rock Open Space has a seemingly endless variety of hiking trails, enough to fill an entire day with serene walks and exploration. I pieced together a nice loop, and spent a couple of hours there.
My next decision was both good and bad. I knew, on this trip, I wanted to drive to the top of Pike's Peak, the 14'er that looms over Colorado Springs. I had never done it before, and it bothered me that I had always missed this very obvious attraction. So, I decided to hope that my 24 hours in Colorado would have been enough to adjust to the altitude.
And that's why Pike's Peak was a bad decision. I needed at least one more day at lower altitudes to be ready for the extreme height of Pike's Peak. But on the other hand, I quickly learned that the drive up and down Pike's Peak is much more than a simple detour -- it's at least a half-day affair. If I had tried to squeeze the trip in, the following morning, I would have missed out.
So, I drove up Pike's Peak on the toll road, just recently paved, that takes visitors to the very top of this 14,110 foot mountain. Despite the wooziness caused by the thin air, it was an incredible trip. The sky was blue, and the views of Colorado stretched out forever. I ate donuts in the gift shop, and took photos of the cog railway that provides an alternate method of reaching the peak. On the drive down, I had to stop several times to shut my eyes and rest. Altitude sickness feels like a bad case of motion sickness, coupled with a splitting headache. I drove straight back to my motel in Colorado Springs, hit the bed before sunset, and didn't get up until the next morning.
Colorado Springs to Aspen
This day was devoted to driving across Colorado, to reach my next destination: Aspen. It's also the day that I finally started to see Colorado's spectacular fall colors. I was traveling in early October, which is usually a week or two after the peak of the golden Aspen colors. But, in 2014, fall was running late, and as luck would have it, I was right on time.
I started with a drive out one of my favorite dirt roads, Gold Camp Road. It's an alternative to the paved US 24 which circles around the north side of Pike's Peak. Gold Camp Road swings around the south side, and ends in the semi-ghost town of Victor -- another of my favorites. The leaves were really beginning to turn along Gold Camp Road, which made the slow drive even slower, as I stopped dozens of times to take autumn pictures.
From Victor west, most of the drive was unexciting. I saw some more leaves at Wilkerson Pass on US 24, but most of the drive was surprisingly flat and straight. The town of Buena Vista provided a nice break from driving, and then I crossed over Independence Pass on Colorado Route 82.
On the west side of the pass, as I approached the appropriately named town of Aspen, I discovered some of the best fall colors of the trip. A huge grove of aspen trees covers the road, and all of the trees were perfectly synchronized, at their brightest yellows of the season. The late-day sunlight lit them beautifully from behind. I spent the rest of the daylight here, along the road, taking pictures, then drove on into my motel for the following two nights.
Hiking at Maroon Bells Wilderness
I had come to Aspen so that I could pay a visit to the incredible Maroon Bells Wilderness, which is just a few miles outside of town. This highly-visited and often-photographed spot is just as great as it looks in pictures, and you can easily spend an entire day hiking here. Unfortunately, the aspen trees here were a bit further along than everywhere else. I had missed the peak of fall colors at the Maroon Bells by about a week -- but there were still some leaves hanging on, and it was by no means a total loss.
I arrived at the Maroon Bells at the only appropriate time -- before sunrise. You have to get there at the crack of dawn to get the most iconic photos of the purple-colored peaks, being hit by the first beams of sunlight. If there's any chance of catching the iconic reflection of the scene in Maroon Lake, it's at dawn, before the wind kicks up.
I don't know what the temperature was, but it had to have been below freezing, and on this day, the wind was definitely not calm. I joined a couple dozen other photographers with tripods at the edge of the lake, and tried to keep my fingers from going numb, as the earth slowly rotated. Once satisfied with my images, I retreated to the car and blasted the heat for a while, taking a bit of a nap as I prepared for an extensive hike.
That hike was just as nice as I expected, and perhaps even a little better than on my previous visit, in 2012, when I followed the same route. I hiked up to Crater Lake (which unlike Maroon Lake, was glassy and calm), and then went beyond. The trail takes you around the foot of the Maroon Bells. I went further than I did before, perhaps about five miles one-way, and then turned around. It was enough to thoroughly exhaust me by the time I returned to the car.
Even though I was tired, I spent some time, just before sunset, cruising around on a bicycle in downtown Aspen, just to see the sights. My hotel provided the bike for free. It was a great way to end the day.
Aspen to Ouray, through amazing fall colors
On this day, I drove further than I should have, but it was necessary to see some of the best fall colors in western Colorado. From Aspen, I drove up to Carbondale, then followed Route 133 south. There isn't much in the way of cities or towns along this road, aside from the communities of Redstone and Marble. There are, however, millions of aspen trees and dozens of viewpoints which let you see the snow-capped peaks with slopes shrouded in yellow, orange, and occasionally red.
I explored a few side roads (including Avalanche Creek and a road above Marble), then crossed McClure Pass, dropped down the other side, and turned onto County Route 12. This is another great road, which provides a shortcut to Crested Butte, Colorado. Along the way, I passed through another great aspen grove -- which is said to be one of the largest single organisms on the earth, because all the trees grow from the same root system. Again, the fall colors were peaking here during the first week of October, which was perfect for me (but slightly later than in a typical year).
My destination for the night was Ouray, Colorado, in the San Juan Mountains. That's a long way from Crested Butte, so after leaving town, I stuck to the paved roads and tried not to waste any more time. Still, it was well after dark, with a storm rolling in, when I arrived in Ouray.
Rain, Fog, Snow along the Million Dollar Highway
That storm that arrived the previous night hung around for all of Day Six. You'd think that would have ruined this part of the trip -- but it was quite the opposite. This ended up being my favorite day of the trip, and maybe even of the year, because the drizzle, rain, and snow slowed me down, and made me stop and enjoy myself more thoroughly.
I took the drive over Red Mountain Pass on the Million Dollar Highway from Ouray to Silverton. It was foggy, but the fog seemed to drift in and out, creating some beautiful scenery when mixed with the autumn leaves. At the pass, it was pouring the snow, with big, wet flakes. Such a sight is a real treat for a Floridian like me. On the other side, Silverton awaited. In rain, snow, or sunshine, this is one of my favorite mountain towns.
I returned to Ouray and decided to go to a museum -- something I rarely do on vacation, because I'm always in a hurry. I spent an hour or two wandering around the Ouray County Museum, in the town's old hospital (the early 20th-century operating room is still on display!). I ended the day with a visit to Cascade Falls, which is just above downtown.
The long drive south to Albuquerque
After a relaxing day of staying in place and taking it slow, this day needed to be all about putting miles on the odometer. I was headed for Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the final days of Balloon Fiesta were wrapping up. I hoped to arrive by mid-afternoon, eat some green chile, then attend an evening glow at the Fiesta. In order to do so, I had to quickly drive by the beautiful fall colors near Durango, and head into the desert of northern New Mexico. The transition from trees and leaves and moisture to wide-open desert badlands was jolting, and I wondered if I shouldn't have skipped Balloon Fiesta and stayed in the mountains.
Balloon Fiesta was, of course, a good choice, as it always is. However, the mad dash to arrive in Albuquerque for this night's events was fruitless. The evening glow was canceled due to high winds, and an approaching rainstorm which soaked everyone at the park.
Balloon Fiesta, Breaking Bad, and Green Chile
Balloon Fiesta doesn't allow you to sleep in. And even though I got up at a ridiculous hour, it wasn't early enough. I got caught in a traffic mess on Interstate 25, and never made it into Balloon Fiesta Park for the Mass Ascension of balloons. A bad thing turned into a great one, when I sought out the spot where many of those balloons were landing -- and I got to watch them all touch down along a road north of Albuquerque.
I had only recently discovered the TV series Breaking Bad, which was filmed almost entirely in Albuquerque. So, I spent the middle of the day as a superfan, driving around from one notable location to another to snap selfies in front of places like Walter White's house, the Superlab, and the A1A Car Wash. Even though it's a show about the seedy world of meth making and consumption, Breaking Bad does a great job showcasing the quirks and unique character of Albuquerque.
After another good New Mexican meal (this time at Garduno's, which was featured in Breaking Bad), I returned to Ballon Fiesta. This time, a few balloons inflated, but the wind was still a big problem. This is how it is with Balloon Fiesta -- you can't schedule just one visit. You need to plan on several visits over at least a full weekend, or else you stand the risk of being shut-out by weather.
Albuquerque back to Colorado
The Mass Ascension on this morning was also canceled, but the Balloon Fiesta staff did their darnedest to make it a good day. Since this was the final day of the 2014 Balloon Fiesta, they delayed the fateful cancelation decision as long as they could, until well after sunrise. A few balloons ended up inflating, but no one flew.
I ate an early lunch, then left town. It was time to return to Colorado, and I hoped to find a few more leaves before I had to leave. So, I took Interstate 25 out of Albuquerque, headed north. I bypassed Santa Fe, because I've been there several times before. But I did stop for some sightseeing in Las Vegas (New Mexico), Springer, and Raton. I ended the day in Trinidad, Colorado.
Trinidad is located at the southern end of the Highway of Legends Scenic Byway. The route follows Highway 12 in a semi-circle, swinging west towards the mountains, then returning to the interstate at Walsenburg. I drove the entire route, and found some decent fall colors along the way -- nothing as extraordinary as what I had seen further west, but still quite nice.
The Highway of Legends took up more than half the day, and then I finished the afternoon with a drive up the Frontier Pathways Scenic and Historic Byway. It follows Highway 165 into the mountains, passing an unusual tourist attraction: Bishop Castle. This hand-built stone castle is one man's lifelong project. Visitors are allowed to climb the towers and explore. It's free, but donations are suggested and souvenirs are available.
I wrapped up the final full day of the trip with a drive up to Castle Rock, where I spent the night. It was far enough from Denver to be reasonably priced, but close enough to allow me to easily drive to the airport the following day.
Around Denver, and to the Airport
I only had a few hours to kill before returning my rental car and flying out of Denver, so I took a scenic drive around the perimeter of the city on Colorado 470 (the western side of this highway is toll-free, as it passes by the foothills).