Four low-key destinations to enjoy the changing fall colors
Autumn is on the way and the mountains will soon be wrapped in the warmth of fall colors. With leaf peepers out in force, we recommend skipping the busy trailheads and crowded roadside viewpoints. If you want spectacular vistas and quiet photo-ops all to yourself, check out these destinations that lay just beyond the beaten path.
The Enchanted Circle, New Mexico
This 84-mile loop puts the “enchanted” in the Land of Enchantment. Circumnavigating New Mexico’s highest mountain – Wheeler Peak at 13,161 feet – this relaxing National Forest Scenic Byway winds through sage-infused desert before climbing into the wild and rugged mountains of northern New Mexico. From Taos, follow the route north as it parallels the Rio Grande before veering east into the Sangre de Cristo Range (Spanish for “Blood of Christ”). True to their name, the mountains take on a reddish hue at sundown, so you’ll want to plan on staying the night.
The Enchanted Circle passes two popular ski areas — Red River and Angel Fire — and includes an optional detour to the Taos Ski Valley where you can hike to the summit of Wheeler Peak. Be sure to keep an eye-out for bighorn sheep while you’re enjoying the sweeping views of New Mexico’s highest mountains. The route trends south after Red River, traveling through the expansive Moreno Valley and eventually winding west through the narrow Taos Canyon. Finish where you started and indulge in some fresh green chile on the Taos Plaza.
West Elk Loop, Colorado
Gorgeous at any time of the year, the West Elk Loop Scenic Byway shows its true colors during autumn. Connecting the Crested Butte-Gunnison area with far flung destinations like Delta County, this loop takes mountain passes and sweeping valleys in stride (if you’re coming from the I-70 Corridor, the route also includes Carbondale). Some of the most spectacular fall colors can be viewed from Kebler Pass, where one of the largest aspen groves in Colorado is located. Possibly the most impressive section of the loop, Kebler Pass is a seasonal 2WD dirt road that climbs to 10,007 feet and connects the ski town of Crested Butte to the lovely farming community of Paonia (think orchards and vineyards). Kebler Pass typically closes in November due to snowfall, so be sure to check the road conditions before heading out.
The 188-mile loop (273 if you include Carbondale) can be tackled in a day, but we recommend stretching it into a weekend excursion and enjoy a hike or a side trip to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
Oak Creek & Sedona, Arizona
Sure, Arizona isn’t the first place that comes to mind when planning a fall colors trip, but the contrasting hues of oak, cottonwood and willow paired with red sandstone towers makes the Sedona area an ideal spot for a mini vacation. Just north of Sedona in the Coconino National Forest, Oak Creek flows through a steep river gorge (known as Oak Creek Canyon) where views from Highway 89A and numerous hiking trails abound. Be sure to stop at the Oak Creek Vista Overlook on the northern end of the canyon before dropping in. The West Fork Oak Creek Trail is a popular hike, despite scars from the 2014 Slide Fire. As you follow the creek south, it eventually winds past Sedona – and possibly a spiritual vortex or two – where earthbound and celestial beings alike can enjoy the changing seasons. Cathedral Rock can be accessed via a short, steep trail. Although it’s one of the most photographed spots in Arizona, it’s hard to deny that the yellow blaze of willows swaying beneath vermilion towers isn’t worth a snapshot of your
The Telluride Free Gondola & Via Ferrata, Colorado
Telluride is the Hope Diamond of hidden gems, but we’d be remiss to leave these two adventures off the list. Connecting Telluride to the Mountain Village, the Free Gondola climbs to 10,540 feet above the San Juan Mountains. You can hop off here at the San Sophia Station to access hiking and mountain biking trails or ride the gondola all the way to the village. During the 8-mile, 13-minute ride, you can enjoy views of Telluride’s box canyon backed by 13,000 foot peaks and the Bridal Veil Falls. If you’re looking for something a bit more adventurous, grab your climbing gear. The Telluride Mountain Club maintains a Via Ferrata along the cliffs at the back of the canyon. While the majority of the route enjoys a narrow path along the cliff face, the “Main Event” transects a 500-foot vertical drop with iron rungs as your only foothold. The views are incredible… if you can stomach looking at them!
Margaret Hedderman writes essays, screenplays and the odd bit of fiction. She also produces multi-day experiential events like the Women Outside Adventure Forum in Durango, Colorado. Her work is available at margarethedderman.com.