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On The Road Again

These aspens on the Grand Mesa turn not just yellow, but orange and sometimes red.

These aspens on the Grand Mesa turn not just yellow, but orange and sometimes red.

Fall is here, and you’d like to go for a drive to see nature’s colors, but you dread the traffic and don’t always know where to go to find the best views.

A new book, Scenic Driving Colorado: Exploring the State’s Most Spectacular Back Roads by Stewart Green, may be just your ticket. OK, the book’s not “new” exactly—it is the sixth edition of a book that has appeared under several different titles, and this one is totally updated.

Green, the author of numerous books on scenic drives and rock climbing in the West, makes Colorado Springs his base camp. He’s been driving the highways and byways of Colorado and other Western states, taking stellar photos along the way, for decades.

“Last year, I drove every one of the (30) routes and a bunch of thousands of miles and shot a lot of new photographs,” he says. “And I found out a lot of new things. Quite a bit had changed, especially the growth of the mountain towns. There are so many new things being offered now.”

His travels—“like a thorough fact check”—revealed more recreational facilities and opportunities, ranging from a fabulous climbing wall in Telluride to the complete renovation of the Ouray Hot Springs pool. The latter, a city-owned operation, was once what might be called “rustic” and is now spanking new with amenities and improvements that impressed Green.

Hot springs around the state have, in general, become more refined, he says. “There aren’t many wild ones left anymore.”

Green’s guide still focuses on the rich history, natural wonders, and fascinating geological features of the state. “It’s an interpretive guide to the drive, so I want to tell people what they are seeing—make all those things accessible so people understand them,” he says.

So for the best autumn hues, when should you go?

“In my experience, the aspens these days are changing mostly in late September, but with climate change, that’s later than it was some years ago.” He also recommends watching the weather/fall colors reports, going during the week when there’s less traffic, and choosing one of his suggested less traveled roads (below).

In any case, he strongly encourages folks to get out and explore the state. “So many people have moved to Colorado in the past 15 years,” he says. “I hope they will…travel our state, explore it, appreciate its history, understand the fragility of our landscape, and make sure that it’s taken care of.”

Color Commentary

If you’re looking for a good fall color drive that is off the beaten path, Green has some recommendations:

Grand Mesa Scenic Byway:

“It’s not as well known as some other routes,” but the Grand Mesa Scenic Byway from I-70 to Cedaredge is a good choice, he says. “The aspens are just amazingly spectacular, and there’s really not that much traffic.” And, he adds, you’ll see colors you might have never seen elsewhere in aspen trees—“beyond golden, into orange and red.”

Flat Tops Scenic Byway:

Winding its way from Meeker to Yampa along the Flat Tops Wilderness in northern Colorado, this drive offers great diversity of terrain, Green says. “Not only are there aspens up high, but lower down, the cottonwoods along the White River are often gorgeous. I actually prefer the cottonwoods to the aspens,” he admits.

Unaweep-Tabeguache Scenic & Historic Byway:

This high desert scenic byway skirts the Uncompaghre Plateau in Western Colorado through the red rocks of Unaweep Canyon and along the Dolores River, where the cottonwoods and willows offer every shade of gold, orange, and red. Unaweep canyon is lower, so the aspens change later than in the high country.