The drive from Denver to Independence Pass is hands-down the best one-day fall leaf-peeping road trip. Although there are other drives to see fall colors closer to Denver, none compare to the incredible 280-mile round-trip drive from Denver to Independence Pass.
Make as many or as few stops as you want on this incredible one-day leaf-peeping road trip.
The Rocky Mountains in Colorado are beautiful all year round. But, for a few weeks in the fall, the Rocky Mountains morph from beautiful to jaw-dropping, unbelievably spectacular. Huge aspen stands cover hillsides in vibrant splashes of gold and orange against the bright blue sky. The ground cover turns contrasting shades of red, orange, yellow, and green.
Fall in the Rocky Mountains seems magical. It is the perfect time to take a day trip from Denver.
I’ve lived in the mountains of Colorado for over 20 years and although there are beautiful fall colors right out my front door, I still love to take leaf-peeping drives and explore different parts of Colorado. Independence Pass is the one close-to-home drive I try to do every fall. It is hands-down my favorite fall color drive close to Denver.
If you have just one day to see the fall colors from Denver, this is the perfect itinerary for you.
Table Of Contents
- Best Time To See Fall Colors In The Rocky Mountains
- Tips For A Perfect Leaf-Peeping Trip From Denver
- Fall Leaf-Peeping Drive From Denver – One Day Itinerary
- Add An Overnight Stay to Extend Your Leaf-Peeping Drive From Denver
Best Time To See Fall Colors In The Rocky Mountains
The leaves change in Colorado at different times depending on the latitude. Generally, the leaves in the northern mountains of Colorado start to change first followed by the central mountains and finally the southern mountains.
For this leaf-peeping day trip from Denver, it is a pretty safe bet that the fall colors will be at their peak the last two weeks of September.
A sudden cold snap, extreme wind, or a few inches of snow can cause the leaves to fall suddenly. It is always so sad when this happens, the beautiful fall colors are completely wiped out overnight and the season changes from fall to winter instantly.
If there is a storm in the forecast for the last few weeks of September, try to plan your drive a few days before the storm. If the weather holds out, the first week in October can also be a great time for leaf-peeping.
Tips For A Perfect Leaf-Peeping Trip From Denver
- Avoid weekends if at all possible! Leaf-peeping is a popular activity for MANY people from Denver (can’t blame them, it is absolutely incredible). There will be much less traffic on week days. If you have to go on the weekend, leave early in the morning to avoid traffic on I-70 and go on Saturday instead of Sunday to avoid the Sunday afternoon traffic on I-70 back to Denver.
- Prepare for Colorado fall weather. Tempurature swings in the Colorado mountains can be drastic. Fall mornings can start out cold and the afternoons can be hot. Dress in layers and make sure to bring a jacket.
- Pack a lunch and snacks! There are some great restaurants along the way but it’s always nice to have snacks or lunch ready for when you are starving after a hike.
- Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife! Along this route it is common to see sheep, elk, deer, moose, fox, or coyotes.
The Perfect Fall Leaf-Peeping Drive From Denver – One Day Itinerary
This one-day leaf-peeping road trip from Denver to Independence Pass and back is approximately 280 miles and will take five and a half hours without any stops. But, stopping is part of the fun! With stops, this amazing drive will take you all day.
I’ve included several of my favorite restaurants along the way as well as some short hiking trails and great places to take fall color photos.
Denver to Loveland Pass
Start your day from Denver heading west on Interstate 70 up into the mountains. I haven’t designated any stops along interstate 70 but it is quite a scenic drive (despite being a major interstate). Around the town of Georgetown, the bright yellow leaves will become more apparent.
Take exit 216 US-6 and drive past Loveland Ski Resort and follow the steep winding road to the top of Loveland Pass. Most of Loveland Pass road is above treeline so there aren’t any aspens but the ground cover turns beautiful shades of orange and red.
Stop at the top of Loveland Pass to walk around and take in the incredible mountain views from an elevation of almost 12,000 feet. There are several hikes you can do from here but if it is still early in the morning it will most likely be cold at that elevation.
Read my post about Free Things To do in the Summer in Summit County for more information on exploring Loveland Pass
Loveland Pass to the Haywood Cafe in Keystone For Breakfast
After exploring Loveland Pass, continue on US-6 down the other side of the mountain. Once you pass Arapahoe Basin Ski Resort and get below the treeline you will again see the beautiful yellow stands of aspens covering the mountainsides. When you arrive in Keystone, take the second left for the Haywood Cafe.
The Haywood Cafe is my favorite breakfast spot in Summit County. The food, drinks, and service are all top-notch. On top of that, the fall color views from the restaurant are absolutely incredible.
I LOVE the corned beef hash and eggs. Yummy.
Haywood Cafe to Old Dillon Reservoir Trail
From the Haywood Cafe, continue west on US-6 for 7 miles around Lake Dillon. Take a left at the Dillon Dam Road stoplight and go straight at the traffic circle. The Dam Road is one of the most scenic fall color drives in Summit County. Both sides of the road are lined with aspens.
Keep your eyes peeled for the hiking trail sign along the road on the right, the parking lot is hidden behind trees.
The hike is 1.7 miles round trip through bright yellow aspen stands to a small reservoir on the hill. The views of the lake and Ten Mile Range along the way are incredible!
For more information about the Old Dillon Reservoir Trail and other hikes nearby check out the post 5 Easy Hikes In Breckenridge (And Nearby)
Old Dillon Reservoir Trailhead to Mayflower Gulch
From Old Dillon Reservoir Trailhead you will get back on the Dam Road heading West. Turn right at the Summit Blvd stoplight and go around the circle to get on Interstate 70 heading West.
The drive on Interstate 70 through 10 Mile Canyon is beautiful with plenty of bright yellow aspen trees and craggy mountains. Take the Copper Mountain/Leadville exit #195 and head past Copper Mountain towards Leadville on Highway 91 for 5.3 Miles. The large trailhead parking lot will be on your left.
Mayflower Gulch trail is six miles round trip but the fall color viewing is all within the first mile and a half below the tree line. Aspen trees can be seen in the distance but the highlight of the trail is the multi-colored ground cover against the dark evergreens.
After about a mile and a half of steady incline, you will come to an open valley with some old mining cabins and the jagged sawtoothed mountains as the backdrop. The perfect place to eat a picnic lunch!
Mayflower Gulch to La Plata Gulch
The drive from Mayflower Gulch to La Plata Gulch is my absolute favorite for fall color viewing! The road from Mayflower Gulch to Leadville heads up above the treeline for a few miles and then back into the beautiful stands of aspens and evergreens with huge stretches of multicolored ground cover.
After Leadville, the valley opens up with excellent views of the 14,000-foot peaks to the west. Turn right 14 miles from Leadville on Highway 82-West following signs to Twin Lakes and Independence Pass. The two high mountain lakes are a great place to stop and take some pictures.
The tiny town of Twin Lakes is picturesque in the fall with the aspen-lined main street and towering mountains covered in bright yellow aspen stands.
A few miles from Twin Lakes is Willis Gulch Trailhead, the first available spot to stop and walk in the aspens. I’ve never done the whole trail but it is the perfect place to walk around and leaf-peep. There are some wonderful spots to take fall color pictures.
From Willis Gulch the drive is incredible all the way to La Plata Gulch (about 6 miles). La Plata Gulch trail actually goes to the top of La Plata Peak, the fifth highest mountain peak in Colorado at 14,336 feet! But, for a relaxing leaf-peeping walk, park in the parking lot along the highway and walk on the dirt road, not the actual trail. The dirt road crosses a bridge over the river with incredible views on either side. About a mile up the road, the trees open up and the mountain views are great.
From La Plata Gulch you can continue the 9 steep winding miles to the top of Independence Pass or head back to Leadville for dinner. The views from the top of the pass are amazing but the drive goes above the tree line not long after La Plata Gulch so the leaf-peeping ends.
La Plata Gulch to Quincys in Leadville for Dinner
After a fun day of hiking, driving, and leaf-peeping, head to Quincys Steak and Spirits for dinner. The restaurant is in a historic building on Main Street in the old mining town of Leadville. The menu is unique and simple. So simple in fact that they only sell one thing- steak. The steak comes with a salad, bread, and baked potato. During the week Quincys serves filet mignon and prime rib on weekends. Simple but consistently good.
Back to Denver
All good things must come to end. The drive back to Denver is 100 miles. But, with no stops and all highway and interstate, it shouldn’t take too long.
Add An Overnight Stay To Extend Your Leaf-Peeping Drive From Denver
If you have more than one day and want to take advantage of the short leaf-peeping season, book a hotel room!
There are several options to extend your fall colors drive from Denver-
Disclosure- Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.
The drive to Aspen is less than 30 miles from La Plata Gulch and the Aspen side of Independence Pass is stunning. The drive back to Denver is 200 miles from Aspen through Glenwood Canyon on Interstate 70.
Where to stay in Aspen –
High End – If you really want to splurge, book the St. Regis Aspen Resort. This five-star resort is absolutely amazing. The location is perfect, the heated outdoor pool is an added bonus, and there is every amenity you would expect from a five-star resort.
Mid Range– The Shadow Mountain Lodge is a great mid-range hotel with an outdoor pool a few blocks from the center of town.
Budget– Aspen isn’t known for budget accommodations but I’ve found if you look for a room on priceline.com you can find some great hotel deals on weekdays in the fall.
Glenwood Springs is a cute town 70 miles from La Plata Gulch (past Aspen). End your leaf-peeping day with a soak in the gigantic hot springs pool.
Check out this post about fun Things to do in Glenwood Springs
Where to stay in Glenwood Springs –
High End– Glenwood Hot Springs Resort is by far my favorite place to stay in Glenwood Springs! Access to the gigantic hot springs pool is included in your room price and it is a short walk from the pool back to your room.
Mid-Range– Hotel Glenwood Springs is a great mid-range hotel option. The indoor pool and water slide and suite rooms with bunk beds are perfect for families.
Budget– There are plenty of budget options in Glenwood Springs. For the best rate book through Priceline.com.
Silverthorne is 63 Miles from La Plata Gulch (on the way back to Denver). Or the awesome ski town of Breckenridge is about 10 miles from Silverthorne (a bit out of the way but worth the detour).
Where to stay in Summit County –
High End– If you are looking to splurge, you will want to book One Ski Hill Place at the base of Peak 8 in Breckenridge. The location is amazing and there is a heated outdoor pool!
Mid-Range– Hampton Inn & Suites in Silverthorne is a great mid-range hotel option. The hotel is newer and in an easily accessible location.
Budget– Book one of the handful of budget hotels in Summit County on Priceline.com to get the best deal.
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