Leaf Porn, Leafing, and Leaf Peepers- and whatever other terms you may have heard to describe the Autumn rush here in Colorado. Checking out the foliage in the mountains is by far the busiest time of the year. And for good reason. The bright, golden leaves contrasted with cool evergreens is a sight to behold. Mix in near perfect weather, and you can’t blame the bumper to bumper traffic from Denver to Eisenhower Tunnel on I-70 alone. This post is to keep you out of traffic, relaxed, and in the locals’ good graces, as was intended. Keep in mind, leaf season is as short as it is beautiful- so it pays to have a good game plan ahead of time. As to the itinerary:
- Getting Started via Black Hawk (39.8036173, -105.4953669)
- Golden Gate Canyon State Park and Panorama Point (39.8371885, -105.4323611)
- Last Stand Tavern (39.9203197, -105.3705523)
- Caribou Road and Caribou Peak Trail, option 1 (39.9600522, -105.5091628)
- Fourth of July Road, option 2 (39.9730465, -105.6067507)
- Tolland Road to Moffat Tunnel, option 3 (39.9033469, -105.6418440)
Black Hawk- Gotta start somewhere, why not the historic mining towns of Black Hawk and Central City? The colorful Victorian Houses overlooking you on rocky cliff sides, mixed with high rise casinos, is a unique site. In truth, I wish there was more to do in these towns besides gambling away your money. For a glimpse of what it used to be, read “The Road” by Keuroac. I like his descriptions of the bar lined drunkenness of the 1950’s. Heading out of town, get your caffeine fix at Mountain Mocha next to the Post office. With an adjacent convenience store, stock up on everything you forgot this morning. For a good view check out the wooden steps to the south of the store- it puts you in position for some good shots.
Golden Gate Canyon State Park and Panorama Point- Head up the hill north on Hwy 119 (Peak to Peak Hwy). The view starts really opening up for you as you go over 9,000 feet. Take a right on the Hwy 46 (Golden Gate), then head into Golden Gate Canyon State Park. Golden Gate is one those hidden gems that is frequented by locals. This is a very enjoyable drive, with Thorodin as its centerpiece. Legend has it, the first settlers could not decide on Thor or Odin so they compromised- Thorodin! Pay the seven dollar entrance fee at any of the pay stations (cash or check only), and head to Panorama Point. From the top of Panorama, you can see clear views of Longs Peak to the north, and great views of James Peak and the continental divide. The area was carved out by glaciers, leaving us prominent rolling saddles, and steeply eroded canyons to enjoy. This is a great place to do a hike along the raccoon trail loop. It’s a fairly easy trail with great views of the continental divide. Meander through aspens and the kaleidoscope of nature, as sunlight beams through autumn leaves. This makes a great picnic place- find a spot that overlooks the continental divide, or if you don’t plan on hiking, just stay at the pavilion at the top of the hill. Head out of Golden Gate State Park via the Gap Road/Twin Spruce Drive Route, and take a left at Hwy 72 (Coal Creek Canyon Rd).
Last Stand Tavern – Is a fairly new joint, that used to be a German Restaurant. Skip the bar and head straight to the outside patio. This is a great half way point for a beer and amazing views of Blue and Crescent Mountains. There should be some fellow leaf peepers relaxing on the deck as well- your chance to swap stories and learn about some hidden gems. After your pitstop, head back north past Wondervu and take the switch backs down to Pinecliffe. Just before town, there is an unassuming pull off (39.96054, -105.38977), take a quick climb up for some great views of a canyon and South Boulder Creek. This is also a great picnic spot. Afterwards, continue north on Coal Creek Canyon Rd and get back on the Peak to Peak Hwy for three options of an out-an-back higher elevation route.
Caribou Road and Caribou Peak Trail (Option 1)- Just past Nederland is the Caribou Road, I picked this route first because you skirt along the side of a valley for much of the drive. Big open views mixed with some of the road being completely engulfed by aspens. As you get closer to the top you come across a small mine and a castle- well, I like to call it a castle. At the end begins a trail head that leads to a waterfall, if you’re up for it. There is also a four-wheel drive route to rainbow lakes, and when the say four-wheel drive- I think they meant monster truck of some sort. Don’t attempt it unless you have a serious off road vehicle. There’s tow companies in Nederland and Rollinsville that make a living off this road alone.
Fourth of July Road (Option 2)- Heading towards Eldora out of Nederland, head up the Fourth of July Road. I imagine they named the road this because its unpassable with snow until about after the Fourth of July. The road is slightly enclosed and climbs up elevation fast. Lots of tall, full grown aspens along the way. Half way up there is a pull off at a water fall (39.9730465, -105.6067507). It’s easy to pass, so you will have to keep a close look out. As you get closer to the end, the mountains really start opening up around you. Some of my favorite hiking is at the trail head, but it has limited parking so there is usually about a mile of cars along the road. I only hike up here if I can get to the trail head around 6 am. If this is the case, just use the roundabout at the end of the road and head back down.
Tolland Road to the Moffat Tunnel (Option 3)- Just out of Rollinsville, Tolland Road follows right along South Boulder Creek and the Union Pacific Railroad- leading to the Moffat Tunnel. Next stop, Winter Park! I find it funny, the west side of the tunnel (west Portal) is nothing but million dollar homes and a ski resort, the east side of the tunnel (east portal) is abandoned cabins and ranch land. Let’s hope it stays that way! Make sure you keep a few bucks on you along the way, the Gilpin County Sheriff’s family likes to sell lemonade along the road. As you get closer to the pass keep your eye trained along the north canyon’s side. Before there was a tunnel, the tracks followed up and over the mountains (Rollins Pass). Now the tracks are gone, but a four-wheel route remains. Up that trail is a mountain lake and a collapsed tunnel that leads to Winter Park. I’ve never drove that route, but I mostly only see four-wheelers and snow mobiles on it- if that helps any. At east portal, there’s a lot of great trails leading into James Peak Wilderness Area. All the trails lead to great mountain lakes, and even James Peak, if you want to walk the 14 miles or so. Check out my James Peak Post, if you’re serious about the climb.
Nederland and Very Nice Brewing Company- Sometime on your journey, make the time to stop into Nederland. This is one of my favorite mountain towns (very eclectic), at the bars you’re very likely to have a millionaire on one side of you, and a homeless hippy on your other. The town itself nestles up to a reservoir, and is the starting point into Eldora Ski Resort. Very Nice Brewing Company is a great way to cap off the day. A small, family run brewery with nightly music. It has a feel of an Irish Public House, with a Colorado flair. Dogs and kids are typically running around, locals are at the bar swapping stories, and with great nightly music- it’s, well, very nice.
Heading Home- Hopefully, by the time you read this, the Stage Stop in Rollinsville will be back up and running. Recently closed, it has the best character and history of any bar in the region (as well as a great upper deck looking down the valley into Rollins Pass). Along the way back, Roy’s Last Shot is a great stopping point as well. Roy has an eye for art, and has filled his bar from top to bottom with it (much of it done by himself). Another great deck with splendid views await you at Roy’s- make sure to take advantage of it. As you work your way back to Black Hawk, you’ll pass Golden Gate State Park again, but at a farther distance- giving you some perspective of what you saw up close. It’s easy to lose track of the road as you’re driving, so keep all your picture for when your stopped- and don’t miss the school zone on the way back. It’s easy to miss, and there is almost always a state-y around the corner.
All in all, the day trip took a leisurely seven hours- and 50ish miles of driving to complete. With any luck, you stayed out of traffic, enjoyed some views, and didn’t get any locals showing you “you’re number one”. Can’t have a better leaf day than that.
Thanks for reading!
• Helpful articles in CBS’s Fall Color Guide – Denver.cbslocal.com- then search fall colors
• Fill the tank, and clean those window-we’re looking at leaves darn it!
• Pack picnic supplies, there will be plenty of opportunities for breaks.
• Be mindful when driving on Hwy 119, I tried to keep the route to a slower, less bumper highway. Remember some people are just driving to work and don’t appreciate people going 20 under the speed limit. Locals affectionately call them “Leafers”. If someone’s on your but, just pull over at the nearest opportunity.
• Sunscreen, chap stick, rain jackets ect..(weather in the mountains can change on a dime!)
Special thanks to Editor Andi