Colorado really comes alive once fall arrives. Many leaf-peepers set out on day trips or weekend getaways to really soak up the vivid colors in the short window before the leaves tumble to the ground and the vistas turn forest green, snow white and slate gray.
So gas up the car or the motorcycle, grab your camera and don your favorite autumnal outfit. Here’s how to treat yourself to one of the most essential activities on the Colorado checklist: Leaf-peeping on the Peak to Peak Highway.
From Boulder, head west on Highway 119 toward Nederland. If you want to start your leaf-peeping excursion with a refreshing hike, head on over to the West Magnolia Trailhead, south of Nederland for eight miles of roads and trails popular with hikers, campers, mountain bikers and horseback riders. The trails are perfect for beginner to intermediate hikers as they wind over the West Magnolia hilltop and through brilliantly colored trees that will shower you with foliage confetti as you trek. If you want to hunker down for the night, dispersed camping at the 22 numbered designated sites is permitted.
Hiking West Magnolia can make your stomach grumble. In Nederland, you might chow down at The Mineshaft (menu here, 35 E 1st St, Nederland, 303- 258-0649). The eatery serves up modern comfort food with a southern twang such as a Eureka Scramble, which is a kitchen sink-type ensemble with homefries, spinach, red peppers, mushrooms and your choice of meat. Plus, The Mineshaft is dog-friendly, so if you need somewhere to go with your four-legged friend after a hike, this is a prime choice.
Perhaps instead of a hike and hearty lunch, you’d prefer to pick up a picnic and eat it lakeside as you take in the clear water reflecting the bright golden aspen trees.
If that’s the case, before leaving Nederland for the Peak-to-Peak Highway proper, stop at The Deli at 8236’ (menu here, 34 E 1st St, Nederland, 303-258-1113) to load up on sandwiches and salads. Then you might pop into The New Moon Bakery & Cafe (menu here, 1 W 1st St, Nederland, 303-258-3569) to satisfy your sweet tooth, caffeine habit or need for a sandwich on a bagel. For maximum picnic points, consider The New Moon’s deli packs for two. Ranging in price from $19.50 to $25, the packs are available with breakfast food, deli meats and cheeses, gluten-free goodies or vegetarian fare.
Peak to Peak Scenic Byway
After enjoying the beautiful sights and delicious food in Nederland, turn on to the Peak to Peak highway (Highway 72 , aka Caribou Street or W. 2nd Street in Nederland) designated by the special signage with a white flower. It’s important that your driver be careful traveling the Peak to Peak and pay attention to the road, despite the beautiful vistas. The route itself might be interesting to geography or transportation nerds: the winding road offers astounding views of the Continental Divide, and the Peak to Peak was established in 1918 and is Colorado’s oldest scenic byway, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation.
The scenic byway will take you on a breathtaking journey through Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests. Keep your eye out for the pull-offs located throughout the route as safe places to pull over, get out and attempt to capture nature’s stunning beauty in your camera or sketchbook. Mind the curves in the road and look out for cyclists, motorcyclists and traffic pulling into and out of pull-off areas.
If your roast beef sandwich from The Deli at 8236’ is starting to get soggy and you want a nice place to get away from the traffic and enjoy the scenery, don’t pass up Mud Lake just north of Nederland. Mud Lake is the perfect place to throw down a blanket or snag a picnic table and admire the reflection of the trees in the water. Walk off your lunch with a short, shaded, flat-loop hike around the lake and keep hunting for that perfect photo of the golds, reds, greens and grays.
A little farther along the Peak to Peak at Ward, follow signs and turn off at Brainard Lake Road to see, you guessed it, Brainard Lake Recreation Area.
The lake is surrounded by forest and offers views of the snow-capped peaks in the Continental Divide, not to mention the vibrant patches of golden leaves. The area is free after the summer season ends in mid-October, and before that, you can enter in a passenger vehicle for $12 for three days or as a hiker or biker for $1 for three days. Enjoy numerous day hikes, two hikes perfect for backpacking and five areas to picnic.
Another option for a relaxing hike and picnic or camping and fishing is The Ceran St. Vrain Trailhead, northeast of Ward and Hidden Lake, accessible via a turnoff on Overland Road. The trail is literally off the beaten path of the Peak to Peak and offers a shady 1.9-mile hike that follows the South St. Vrain Creek. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, the trail leads to a 0.5-mile road and then a 0.5-mile steep climb to Miller Rock. Miller Rock is a lovely high point that offers panoramic views of the mountain scenery. If a 5.8-mile round trip hike is not what you’re planning for the day, feel free to park at the trailhead and relax along the creek’s banks for an afternoon (or two! Dispersed camping is allowed at least 200 feet from the creek and trail).
As you finish up your day trip or weekend trip along the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway, turn east on State Highway 7 and follow the South Saint Vrain Creek to Lyons. Need to stretch your legs after all that driving? Try out the ever-beautiful Heil Valley Picture Rock Trail or the Hall Ranch Bitterbrush Trail across the road as you enter Lyons. This pair of hikes prohibits pets.
And of course, if you’re hungry or thirsty, you shouldn’t leave Lyons without sampling the first Oskar Blues Brewery location Oskar Blues Grill & Brew (menu here, 303 Main Street, Lyons, 303-823-6685). It’s the perfect place to finish a long day of leaf-peeping with a hearty supper to soak up signature beers. Complete your photo album by grabbing dessert (or lunch or second supper) at quaint cow-patterned Lyons Dairy Bar (menu here, 138 Main St, Lyons, 303-823-5800). Share a chili dog and a banana split as a reward for observing the gorgeous fall colors in Colorado.
Put a cap on your odyssey by stopping at Western Stars Gallery & Studio (website here, 160 E Main St, Lyons, 303-747-3818) on your way out of Lyons if it’s a Friday, Saturday or Sunday. There, you’ll find fall-themed art by local artists such as paintings, cards and décor to take home as keepsakes.