3 Scenic Fall Drives in Colorado: Independence Pass, Owl Creek, Castle Creek

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If gold is your favorite color, then Aspen will be your favorite golden town when fall comes to Colorado.

Best Colorado Fall Drive #1: Independence Pass

Besides driving to the Maroon Bells, a fall drive over Colorado’s Independence Pass may be the Aspen area’s best leaf-peeping excursion. Whether you’re headed towards Aspen from the east or planning an out-and-back from downtown, you’ll enjoy mile after mile of golden views and crisp, fall mountain air. Stay in the car if it’s chilly, or bundle up to hike or snap photos. However you choose to experience one of the best fall drives in Colorado, you won’t forget the experience.

Independence Pass usually opens around Memorial Day Weekend and stays open through the first big snow, which means that a fall drive is the perfect “last hurrah” before the Pass closes for the winter. On this winding two-lane road, you can expect jaw-dropping views of the brightly colored fall landscape while gradually gaining elevation up to 12,095 feet at the Continental Divide. 

On a fall drive over Independence Pass, you can include side adventures for everyone which allow for full fall immersion:

    • Stop safely at pullouts and parking lots for memorable photo opportunities.

    • Park at the Grottos to stretch your legs, then wander through the golden leaves to the Grottos Ice Cave and Cascades waterfall.

    • Park at the Continental Divide lot and hike the old Jeep trail to Mountain Boy ridge.

    • Park near Independence Ghost Town and explore the handful of original structures that remain standing.

    • Hike the short (1.6 miles roundtrip) but steep trail to Linkins Lake and enjoy sweeping fall views along the way.

    • Take a short hike (1.3 miles roundtrip) with the family to Lost Man Reservoir and enjoy the reflection of the fall splendor in the water once you arrive. 

Best Colorado Fall Drive #2: Owl Creek Road

Not to be confused with Owl Creek Pass (further west), Owl Creek Road is a back road running between Aspen’s Buttermilk Ski Area and Snowmass Village. It’s a low-key, less crowded way to surround yourself with the vibrant golden colors of a Colorado fall. There’s also a paved bike path parallelling the road if you’d like to transition your mission-driven leap-peeping drive into a leisurely stroll through the splendor. The paved trail connects Buttermilk Mountain to Snowmass Village by wrapping around Sky Mountain Park. 

You’ll experience rolling fall-colored views of farm fields and ranches and the mountains that surround them. You just may see some grazing elk. While some fancy homes dot the hills, you’ll have plenty of space to imagine the landscape without them. And once you arrive in Snowmass Village, you can take the Gondola to Elk Camp and wander through the trees on trails to “get away” from any clutter.

Pick up Owl Creek Road road on the west side of Highway 82, right next to Buttermilk Mountain (turn at the light as if you’re going to the ski area, then stay on the road instead of heading into the parking lot). 

Best Colorado Fall Drive #3: Castle Creek Road

Castle Creek Road is another gorgeous fall drive in Colorado that’ll allow you to avoid the masses at the Bells. You’ll want to embrace the leisurely pace of this drive, not only to appreciate the scenery, but to look out for frequent cyclists and wildlife (deer, elk, roadside beavers and — though rare — even moose). 

Castle Creek Road is lined with dense groves of Aspen trees — you’ll feel like you’ve been wrapped in a cozy cloak of color as you begin heading steadily uphill. You’ll continue winding through Castle Creek valley as the road follows the creek. At each turn, you’ll see new, delightful views of vibrantly painted hillsides.

At around 11 miles, you’ll pass the silver mining ghost town of Ashcroft on your left and ACES’ Catto Center at Toklat on the right. Ashcroft is open for self-guided tours of the historic buildings with an honor system for admission fees. Across the road at Toklat, you can stroll the Bettie Willard Trail, pull up a chair by Devaney Creek, or chat with resident artists to extend your immersion in the Colorado autumn experience.

There are also a number of unforgettable hikes you can take as you continue down Castle Creek Road — American Lake and Cathedral Lake (and even Electric Pass if you’ve got the time) are frequently recommended for maximum enjoyment of the fall leaves’ performance.

There’s a reason the Pine Creek Cookhouse on Castle Creek Road comes so highly recommended, and it’s not just because it’s the only nearby restaurant at the end of the 13-mile road, just before the pavement turns to gravel and the ascent to Taylor Pass begins. Where else can you enjoy fine dining in a remote valley surrounded by the Elk Mountains and such colorful wilderness? Call to make a reservation before you leave the roundabout and enjoy a hot meal (be sure to try the wild game momos — Nepalese buffalo and herb dumplings) after nearby leaf peeping adventures are complete.

Colorado Fall Leaf Touring Tips

If you’d like additional recommendations, or even to arrange a guide for your leaf peeping adventure, contact our concierge. If you’re not an Alpine Property guest, we recommend you contact ACRA (the Aspen Chamber of Commerce) for further guidance.

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