Fall color in Colorado brings a breathtaking mix of golds and greens, as the Aspen trees start to change color. Here’s one of the best driving routes available to behold the fall splendor, plus tips for exploring a bit off the beaten path. Also some ideas to keep your kids excited about the adventure, where the good eats are found, and what your best bets are for accommodations, be it hotel, cabin… or tent!
Fall Colors of Grand Mesa
A year-round outdoor lover, I’d have to say that fall is my absolute favorite season in Western Colorado. One of the best places to behold the breathtaking mix of vibrant gold Aspen trees and contrasting evergreens is on Colorado’s Grand Mesa. Easily accessible from I-70, moseying along the paved Grand Mesa Scenic and Historic Byway offers a gorgeous and enjoyable experience.
The Grand Mesa is the largest flat-topped mountain in the entire world. It covers an area of around 500 square miles, and stretches for 40 miles east of Grand Junction. Topped by volcanic basalt, the Mesa has a maximum elevation of 11,333 feet.
Once on top, much of the area is flat. Partially claimed as Grand Mesa National Forest, there are numerous recreation areas, trails, lodges, and a Visitor’s Center to explore.
The Grand Mesa is truly grand at any time of the year. But in the fall, it’s definitely something to see.
Pull an All-Nighter
An easy day trip, Grand Junction is approximately 50 miles away from the Grand Mesa. So if you wish to spend time in the area, and are looking for traditional (in other words, non-rustic) accommodations – Grand Junction would be your best bet. Home to Colorado’s wine country, it’s actually a fantastic base from which to explore all that Western Colorado has to offer, with exciting day trips just 1-2 hours away in every direction.
But if you are up for an adventure, check out one of the camping or cabin options available on the Mesa. Small basic cabins, which share a nearby common rest area, can be rented from for seasonal rates which range from $29-79 per night. Mesa Lakes Lodge is another nice option, and is actually located a little higher up, in a more forested area. The Lodge serves a limited food menu, has multiple lakes in the vicinity, and has a variety of cabin sizes available with additional amenities.
Or if you’ve got access to a camper or tent… why not try camping? Fall is a more comfortable time to camp, as the mosquito season is primarily over.
There are multiple US Forest Service campgrounds open; our favorite spot is Island Lake Campground. You can’t make a reservation ahead of time, but this campground is rarely full. Each campsite offers a nice amount of privacy, a picnic table, and a fire pit. No extra charge for the “whistle pigs,” or marmots, that will keep you entertained on the hillside! Some sites have electric hookups, and water is available at the entrance to the campground. Pack some warm clothing and blankets if you plan to camp, since temps drop into the 30s and 40s at night during Fall months. Brrrr. But oh, those stars at night!
Don’t Forget the Eats
When we head up for a little exploring adventure on the Grand Mesa, we always make sure to bring some drinks and snacks. It’s not a huge area, but it’s so enjoyable that you can easily spend a few hours there.
I’d advise either grabbing snacks to take along prior to your departure, or stopping in the town of Mesa, Colorado, which you’ll drive through on your way up the mountain. There aren’t any gas stations or retail locations once you enter the Grand Mesa National Forest, aside from a couple of lodges with spotty hours and offerings.
At the END of your day, well that’s another story! Our favorite restaurant to stop and eat at on our way home is the Wagon Wheel in Mesa. This diner is frequented by the mountain dwelling locals, and serves up a juicy, never frozen burger in addition to authentic Western atmosphere. French fries are homemade, and delicious. If you like thicker fries, order the regular. The curly fries, which are my kids’ favorite, are thin, crispy, and mind-bogglingly long. Twice when we’ve swung by on a Saturday night, there was even a live, family friendly cowboy band playing in the corner. Yeehaaw! We always leave full and happy from the Wagon Wheel.
Stop and Smell the Pine Trees
When we visit the Grand Mesa to do some exploring, my kids are pretty tolerant of the driving portions. But the highlight is always stopping for some outdoor play time. I definitely recommend pulling over along the route a few times. Take a short hike, climb some rocks, hunt for wildflowers, or go on a quest to find that perfect walking stick. Search for plants that are found in the wild – just caution your kids not to pick any mystery weeds, unless you know what they are. Poison Ivy is found in the area, and is not your friend.
My son loves to climb anything he can find – the higher, the better. And my daughter’s favorite pastime is finding a way to work her gymnastic routines into any surroundings. That’s not just a fallen tree… it’s a balance beam!
Perhaps because I live in high mountain desert terrain, a highlight for me is always seeing water. Be sure to stop at one of the more than 300 lakes for some rock skipping, or to let Fido take a quick swim. Fishing for rainbow trout is popular here, and the ponds are stocked regularly.
You Can Go Your Own Waaaaay…
If you prefer (as I do) a side of seclusion with your dose of nature, don’t be afraid to explore. I’d encourage you to take some of the offshoot gravel roads you’ll see sprouting off from the paved highway, which will be much less crowded. You won’t need a 4 wheel drive… just head on down! There’s no snow to contend with, and fall is a dry time of year. There are several of these roads, and being off the beaten path leads to some big sight-seeing rewards.
True, it’s the wilderness. But you’d be hard pressed to get lost here. Most of the gravel roads on the Grand Mesa pop right back out onto the main highway. Worst case scenario, you have to back track from whence you came. And you get to see all that fall beauty from another angle, on your way out!
Back on the main thoroughfare, you’ll frequently see parking lots and pulloffs. These paved areas offer easy access points to park and traverse some of the more popular areas and lookout points. Some of them may be a bit crowded during busy Fall weekends, but by all means check them out if a trail catches your eye, or you see that perfect photo you need to capture.
Need Some Guidance?
A few miles past Mesa Lake Lodge, you’ll find the Grand Mesa Visitors Center. It’s a good place to stop, with Park Rangers available to answer any questions, or give you direction on just about any type of trail or activity. A small bait shop can hook you up, if you’d like to try your hand at fishing.
Don’t rely on this spot for drinks or snacks, though. We haven’t seen any of those options for sale. But it does have free maps, a gorgeous lake next door, and great advice.
Even if the Visitors Center is closed, the restrooms are usually still open for business.
When to Go
Known in Western Colorado as Color Sunday, this is every local’s cue that the Aspens are peaking in all their gold glory and it’s time to head up to see them. It’s usually called on the last weekend in September, and although it brings more cars than you’d typically see… it is well worth the visit. The fall splendor can be enjoyed anytime during September, and even into the month of October.
And if you come later than that… well, just bring your skis or snow shoes and we’ll have some winter fun instead!