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Oct 31, 2018
For last year's Colorado fall color season, I looked for locations within a day trip range of Denver but farther up in the mountains to try and find more impressive colors than the limited opportunities on the Front Range. I settled on an excellent loop over Guanella Pass, Kenosha Pass, and Boreas Pass, and if you're interested in learning about that drive you can read my blog post all about it called A Colorado Fall Color Tour. While doing my research for that trip, I also made note of another location, that while it was beyond the reach of what I was looking for then was definitely a place I wanted to target in the future. Kenosha Pass, the location of Colorado's largest aspen grove, was something I had my eye on for this year. In my further research, I discovered that it was also just one part of a larger scenic loop, the West Elk Loop Scenic Byway. Heading south from Glenwood Springs, this scenic journey makes a lollipop lope through some of southwestern Colorado's most exceptional terrain. I made my plans to include all of it, with the long trip necessitating an overnight stop in the town of Gunnison in the southeastern corner of the loop.
The western half of the loop is a journey through the history of western Colorado. On your way south from Glenwood Springs, you pass by the turn off for the town of Marble. This area was the source of the marble for the Lincoln Memorial, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and other famous spots in our nation's capital. Coming into the town of Redstone, you'll pass by a line of coke ovens right by the highway, leftovers of the mining past of this area. Entering the actual loop portion of the journey, you pass through the small towns of Somerset, Paonia, Hotchkiss, & Crawford. Ranches and wide open spaces dominate this section of the loop, as after most of the mines in this area played out many residents turned to ranching. If you have the time, I side journey from Crawford can take you to the north rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. This deep canyon with steep walls allows sunlight to the river in the bottom for only a short time each day. The less visited north rim area closes in the winter, so if you want to take the time for this make sure it is open. We still had a lot of road in front of us, so we continued on this time. By the time the main section of the loop reaches the Gunnison River, it is no longer in the national park. The canyons here are still impressive though, and there are some excellent spots to pull off and enjoy the views. We stopped at the Hermits Rest Picnic Area, an excellent place to stop to eat if you have food with you. A steep trail also descends into the canyon to the river from here. The Pioneer Lookout Point also has great views, looking down into the canyon at a formation called the Curecanti Needle. After settling into the hotel in Gunnison, some of us returned here for a night photography session to take advantage of the area's very dark skies. Crossing over a dam, you then travel along Colorado's largest lake, the Blue Mesa Reservoir. We caught an excellent sunset along the lake shore, and then continued on to our hotel in Gunnison.
After spending the night in Gunnison, we continued on the following morning. The loop heads north from here towards the town of Crested Butte. It was along this section of the route that we began to see more of the aspens still displaying their fall colors. More ranches line the highway here, and the aspens on the mountainsides above can make for some picturesque scenes. Entering the town of Crested Butte, the view is dominated to the northeast by its namesake mountain. Besides being the gateway to Kebler Pass, Colorado's biggest fall color hot spot, the town is also well known for excellent wildflower displays during the summer. This historic town is a destination all by itself, and much time could be spent exploring the area. It is in the midst of town that you make the turn west on the road that leads to Kebler Pass. Soon you are climbing up out of town with excellent views all around you. An early pullout gives a view back to the east of Mount Crested Butte, surrounded by aspens in the foreground. The road eventually turns to gravel, and many opportunities abound for excellent views of the aspen forest that surrounds you on all sides. One side trip we chose to pursue was the road that branches off over Ohio Pass. Shortly after going over the pass a large curve in the narrow road provides a wide open view of the valley below to the southwest. Again the aspen forest dominates the foregound, with the mountains across the valley providing an excellent backdrop. This side road eventually finds its way down into the valley, continuing all the way to Gunnison. After traveling it for a short time, we returned back to Kebler Pass road and continued west over the pass itself. Beyond the pass the road begins to follow Ruby Anthracite Creek, and views back to the east open up here and there. Again, there are many excellent spots to pull to the side and take it all in. We chose a stop at the Cliff Creek trailhead to get out and explore inside the forest for awhile. The photo at the bottom of this post is just one of the moments I captured in this area. The aspens here were much taller than I had seen exploring in areas close to Denver, making the forest seem much deeper and alive. Another side road farther west leads to Lost Lake, but we continued on as again our time was growing short. Eventually the road begins to make its way out of the aspen forest, and views back to the east show the aspen grove extending all the way back up the valley. It's an autumn scene unlike any I have seen in Colorado. Reds, yellows, and greens all mix together as the forest changes colors in different stages. The mountain peaks of the West Elk Wilderness rise above it all. It's an appropriate final climax to this part of the journey. Soon the loop portion of the lollipop closes itself, and you are headed back north, over McClure Pass, and on your way back to Glenwood Springs. If there's one Colorado journey you're going to take near the end of September, this just might be it.
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