Prime locations to view fall colors by foot or car

EnvironmentRecreationPrime locations to view fall colors by foot or car
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By Zaylah Pearson-Good.

The last breaths of summer have nearly been taken here in the San Luis Valley. Golden seas of sunflowers signal that the precious months of wildflower blooms are almost complete. Busy birds, insects, and critters are stocking up to prepare for the cooler months ahead, some called to migrate, others to harvest and prepare for winter. Autumn is quickly approaching, and with it the miraculous turning of the leaves. Rich hues of gold, orange, and red will soon line our mountains and valley as temperatures drop and chlorophyl production wanes. Witnessing the colorful display of fall foliage is a special way to welcome the change of season and celebrate the beauty of our state. Consider a hike or day drive to some of the prime viewing spots for autumn leaves this September and October.  

Taking in the colors by foot

Locals know that you do not have to travel far to witness the brilliance of fall colors. The iconic aspen tree produces some of the most vibrant and unique fall leaves in Crestone and can be observed along any of our hiking trails. Specifically, North Crestone trail has long been a favorite spot for leaf-sightings. Beauty spans this trail from its beginnings at the trailhead above Forest Road 950 until its end at the remote North Crestone Lake. For those who do not want to complete the entire 5.7-mile trek and steep elevation gain, meandering any distance along this trail will satisfy one’s quest for fall foliage. 

For the ambitious hiker, some of the most pulchritudinous views of fall leaves in the Sangre de Cristo Range are along the North Fork Trail. Instead of following the North Crestone Trail to the lake, which requires a right turn at the fork several miles in, test out the trail less travelled to the left. Like most hiking trails in Crestone, this route will wind you along beautiful riparian areas as you steeply gain elevation and witness the remote, austere beauty of colorful aspens, cottonwoods, and wild shrubs. If you have energy, time, and the proper supplies, continue along this path until you meet its juncture with Venable Pass and later the Venable-Comanche Loop trail that will eventually return you to the North Crestone Fork and trailhead. 

Reaching above-treeline elevations, the top of this loop offers surreal views of both the San Luis Valley and the Westcliffe area, lit by the vibrancy of fall. This hike is long, difficult, and precarious at times, but highlights long stretches of aspen groves, lush vegetation, alpine lakes, and neighboring peaks. This trail is not for the timid but promises immense reward as one of the most incredible hikes to experience fall colors. Of course, our other local hikes, including those following South Crestone and Willow creeks also provide exquisite viewing opportunities. Always plan ahead for a day in the wilderness: check weather, bring appropriate supplies, and research your route. 

Taking in the colors by car

The beauty of fall is also easily seen from the passenger or driver seat of your car. A drive through Wolf Creek Pass will take your breath away. Discover the beauty of the San Juan mountains and wilderness as you climb the high mountain pass (10,856’) roughly 1 hour and 40 minutes southwest of Crestone. Highway 160 winds through the pass, showing off expansive stretches of forested wilderness, steep rock faces, open valleys, and fall foliage in all its glory! The pass overlaps critical migration corridors for many wildlife species, so as you enjoy the scenery, don’t forget to stay alert! Windy roads and occasional tunnels are added reason for caution. 

Wolf Creek Pass has many pull off opportunities for taking in the stunning views with your eyes or camera. Be sure to stop off at Treasure Falls roughly halfway through the pass. Gawk at the 105-foot waterfall that can be hiked to within half a mile from the parking lot. The hike to the falls is brief but steep. Despite being well-maintained, make sure you have good walking shoes. Don’t forget your camera too, as this is the perfect place to take photos of the San Juan wilderness, fully adorned in fall colors, next to one of Colorado’s tallest waterfalls. This is an excellent place to have a snack, refresh from the drive, and use the restrooms conveniently located near the parking lot. 

To complete this day of seasonal fun, continue following Highway 160 south for just over 15 miles to the charming town of Pagosa Springs. 

For those looking for a slightly shorter day trip, enjoy the captivating drive from Crestone to O’Haver Lake in the San Isabel National Forest. Before even arriving at the lake, admire the bold bands of cottonwoods, willows, and aspens that line the Sangres to the east and the San Juans to the west. This fiery show will prepare you for the sight to come after completing the hour drive to O’Haver Lake. Held within thick ponderosa pine and aspen forests, the lake calmly awaits you at 9,200 feet. In the fall, groves of aspens are aglow. Depending on the time of day, catch the golden reflection of the leaves in the peaceful lake. Spend the day exploring the recreation area’s multi-purpose hiking trails (spanning 487 miles), pitch a tent at the campground, or head into Salida for a hardy lunch/dinner at Moonlight Pizza & Brewpub or Amicas Pizza Microbrew. For camping reservations at O’Haver Lake, call 877-444-6777.

During peak times for fall foliage, mid-September through early October, the valley will be glowing. Observe as the colors gradually evolve, starting at higher elevations and finally landing in the open grasslands. Eventually, a routine drive along the open stretches of State Highway 17 will soon be a sight to see, as the valley’s native grasses, willows, birches, currents, sumac, serviceberry, and many more plants light up the lowlands. Don’t miss out on a special time of the year; plan an adventurous hike or captivating drive to some of the prime spots for viewing autumn colors. 

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