The month of September is one of the best times of the year to visit the High Country when it comes to breathtaking views. An explosion of reds, oranges and yellows from the fall foliage transforms the landscape into an artist’s palette. As locals know, the aspen leaves change suddenly and dramatically, and then in the same fashion, disappear. If you blink, you’ll miss it.
There are many places in and near Summit County for spectacular fall foliage viewing, and it just depends on whom you ask as to which one is the best.
1.) BOREAS PASS
Elevation: 11,488 feet
Boreas Pass in Breckenridge is an option for phenomenal views year-round, but even more so this time of year. The road is open to vehicles during the summer, or park in the lot and hike or bike up. The road has a gradual ascent to the summit, making it a relatively easy hike. Boreas offers an expansive view of the Blue River Valley and the Ten Mile Range, and also boasts views of Breckenridge Ski Resort.
“Boreas Pass showcases the best of both worlds, panoramic views and tight clusters of golden aspen,” said Rachel Zerowin with the Breckenridge Tourism Office. “You can drive the road or explore the singletrack, and both options give you that tunnel feel, with the changing leaves on all sides.”
In the late 1800s, early 1900s, the road was used as a narrow-gauge railroad, running from Breckenridge to Como. Closed to motor vehicles in the winter, the gravel road is drivable in the summer with any passenger vehicle. The pass is approximately 6.6 miles one-way, and it’s a popular spot for both summer and winter recreation.
General directions: In Breckenridge, follow Main Street to the south end of town (toward Blue River). At the southern end of town limits, turn left onto Boreas Pass Road (also known as County Road 10). Follow road for 3.5 miles to Bakers Tank Trailhead, with parking on the left, or continue on the road to drive over the pass.
2.) TOP OF THE ROCKIES NATIONAL SCENIC BYWAY
In Summit County, the Top of the Rockies National Scenic Byway starts at Copper Mountain and travels over Fremont Pass to Leadville, where travelers can take one route to Granite or, to loop back to Summit, follow the extension to Tennessee Pass, through Camp Hale, Red Cliff and Minturn, and back to I-70 East.
“That’s a gorgeous drive,” said Carly Holbrook, director of public relations at the Colorado Tourism Office. “There’s a lot of aspen on that route and a lot of wide-open spaces where you get expansive views of 14ers and fall colors.”
General directions: From Summit County, start the Top of the Rockies at Copper Mountain. Take CO-91 South to Leadville. At Leadville, there is an extension that continues south, or take US-24 West all the way to Minturn.
3.) HOOSIER PASS
Elevation: 11,542 feet
Distance from Frisco: 30 minutes; 20 miles
A route many Park County dwellers drive every day to get to Summit for work, Hoosier Pass separates the two counties. There is a large parking lot at the top of the pass for picture taking, as well as hiking trails for the adventurous.
“The wonderful thing about going to Hoosier Pass is it’s one of the highest passes in Colorado that you can actually drive to with a solid road that’s paved,” said Veronica Anderson-Bodnar, a sales clerk with the South Park Historical Museum and Visitor Center. “You can look over onto Summit County, you can also look over into Park County. Right on the top of that is Montgomery Reservoir. Montgomery Reservoir is a really nice place to go on a short hike — it’s not a very difficult hike. It’s also a great picture place; they have waterfalls there and you can actually fish.”
General directions from Frisco: Follow CO-9 about 20 miles south. The pass straddles the line between Summit and Park counties.
4.) GUANELLA PASS
Elevation: 11,670 feet
Distance from Frisco: 1 hour; 39.5 miles via I-70
Guanella Pass Scenic and Historic Byway is a 23-mile route through Pike and Arapaho national forest land that links Georgetown and Grant. From Georgetown, about 10 miles of the road is paved, with the remaining 12 to Grant unpaved, according to the town of Georgetown’s website. Although maintained for passenger vehicles, slower speeds will be required. Guanella Pass is a less busy tourist destination because the road is rugged, Holbrook said.
Along the byway, catch views of Gray’s and Torrey’s peaks, both Colorado 14ers.
General directions: Follow I-70 East to Georgetown. Take exit 228, drive to Guanella Pass Road
5.) KENOSHA PASS
Elevation: 9,997 feet
Distance from Frisco: 1 hour, 10 minutes; 52 miles
Take a drive through Park County toward Denver along Highway 285 to hit Kenosha Pass. The Colorado Trail crosses the summit of Kenosha Pass, and there are many hiking and biking trails nearby to take in the scene. There is a large parking lot at the top of the pass to stop, but it is super busy this time of year, especially on the weekends, so watch for slowing traffic and pedestrians when getting close to the top.
“This time of year, if you can drive (Kenosha Pass) during off-peak times, is probably the best advice I can give — for any of these drives really,” Holbrook said. “If you’re hitting them on the weekends, try to go really early in the morning, which is actually really gorgeous for photography if you can hit some of these areas for sunrise.”
Directions: From Frisco or Breckenridge, follow CO-9 South toward Fairplay. Once in Fairplay, turn left onto US-285 north. Follow 285 to Colorado Trail, turn right.
6.) KEBLER PASS
Elevation: 10,007 feet
Distance from Frisco: 3 hour, 45 min; 182 miles
The West Elk Loop Scenic & Historic Byway includes the 30-mile Kebler Pass road, and travels through the towns of Crested Butte, Gunnison, Montrose and Carbondale. The route also runs through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park between Montrose and Gunnison. Although a decent drive from Summit County, Kebler Pass boasts major aspen.
“Kebler Pass between Crested Butte and Paonia has the largest aspen grove in Colorado,” Holbrook said. “It’s probably our most iconic scenic fall drives. You also get McClure Pass on that drive, which is also stunning.”
The whole historic byway loop is 205 miles and takes around six to eight hours.
Directions: Follow I-70 West to CO-91 South. Take exit 195 for CO-91 South toward Copper Mountain/Leadville. Take US-50 West to N. Main St. in Gunnison. Take CO-135 North to Co Rd 12.
Travelers looking for a day trip can take a loop to combine Loveland Pass, Guanella Pass and Kenosha Pass. From Silverthorne, follow US-6 East, passing Arapahoe Basin Ski Area and over Loveland, hop on I-70 East to Georgetown, hit Guanella Pass, then Kenosha. From Kenosha Pass, take US-285 back to Fairplay, and hop on CO-9 North back to Breckenridge.
For a less heavily traveled thoroughfare, try Ute Pass Road north of Silverthorne. Follow CO-9 North for about 15 miles from Silverthorne before turning right on Ute Pass Road.
For those looking to stay close to town and get out of the car, Vanessa Agee, marketing and communications director with the town of Frisco, recommends hiking the Perimeter Trail in Frisco. That area has been heavily logged due to the pine beetle, resulting in expanding aspen groves and incredible views, she said.
“The views from the Perimeter Trail and from the top of the ridge are amazing,” she said. “First you see Ptarmigan Mountain and the changing aspen there, then you see the area around Wildernest and below Buffalo (Mountain), and then you see views of the aspen below Peak One above Frisco. It was the most broad and expansive view of changing aspen that I have likely ever seen.”
Access the trail from the new, paved parking lot at the entrance to the Frisco Adventure Park (intersection of Peninsula Road and Recreation Way).
During the prime leaf-peeping season, “you can’t really go wrong with any of the mountain passes,” Holbrook said, although that could change quickly with a cold snap or big snow.
Disclaimer: These are generalized directions from Google Maps, and do not include every single turn. So don’t get lost and blame us.
Originally published in September 2015 and regularly vetted for accuracy.