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Colorado Weekend Getaways: Expect the Unexpected

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I climbed the steep hill, slipping between white-trunked aspens, their golden leaves shivering in the cool breeze.

Ahead my two dogs bounded over fallen logs, nosed dead bushes, and circled back to check on me with a quick glance.

At the hill’s crest, I looked over the small valley to white-capped mountains beyond. Late afternoon sunlight torched the countless aspen’s gold leaves which glowed brighter than sun-streaked California girls with their slim trunks and graceful bows. Later that night,┬áthe campfire never felt so warm.

In the dark tent, I curled up tight to warm dogs but still shivered due to improper planning for a brisk fall mountain night (yup, I forgot a hat, wool socks, sweatshirt… the works, thanks very much). And except for our sole drunk camping neighbor who shot off his pistol in shattering bursts, we were alone in Colorado’s woods — an unexpected delight.

Fall is the perfect time for Colorado weekend getaways. As for what to pack: to expect the unexpected.

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Ghost Mining Towns

Colorado was born as a true Old West mining state. Gold, silver and lead flowed through her mountains’ veins. And men flowed from the east to tap her wealth, leaving once they’d drained her dry.

Now you can wander through her old mining towns and imagine what life was like back then.

  • Victor: a still-inhabited ghost town that used to mine gold, with 1890s structures and a chance to peer into the well-preserved past.
  • St. Elmo: Colorado’s best preserved ghost town will make you feel like you stepped into a John Wayne movie. But for the good stuff, rent ATVs at the general store and head up to Tin Cup: an infamously rowdy town that didn’t last long.
  • Pitkin: an 1870s quartz-mining camp with nicely-preserved, still-standing buildings (one of the largest collections in the state). Beware of trespassing: lots of these buildings are privately-owned.
  • Gilman: the ghost town I’m dying to see. This town, founded in 1886, mined lead and zine. In 1984, evacuation of the town was ordered by the EPA due to toxic fumes leaching from the ground. Perched on a cliff, Gilman is outside Minturn, along Highway 24, and only accessible by ATVs. It’s also dangerous to visit due to the toxic fumes. However, many parts of the mine and town are, spookily, still as they were when their owners left 20+ years ago.

Don’t Forget to Pack

  • A headlamp to explore dusty corners
  • Warm fleece zip-up
  • Wind-resistant and water-resistant jacket because snow or sleet is possible at the higher elevations
  • Warm hat for chilly breezes
  • Sunglasses as Colorado famously has 300+ days of sunshine
  • Bear spray (better to be safe than sorry)

glenwood hot springs

Hot Springs

Ah, hot springs — a fun, naturally occurring way to relax and enjoy the outdoors for a weekend getaway. Just a short drive from Denver, you’ve got your pick of hot springs to choose from:

My favorite is Glenwood Hot Springs Lodge (3 and a half hours away from Denver). It’s the proud owner of the world’s largest hot springs pool, two water slides and a mini-golf course.

Don’t Forget to Pack

  • Your swimsuit
  • Warm fleece zip-up for chilly fall nights
  • Flipflops
  • Warm hat for stargazing after soaking
  • A semi-nice dress or blazer for a dinner out on the town

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Best Drives to See Colorado’s Aspen Trees

A great way to enjoy Colorado’s famous golden aspens is, simply, to head west on I-70 and try to stay on the road while gazing at their beauty. Or, check out the towns of Silverthorne and Aspen (more info below).

If you’re looking for a day-drive, here are the best drives to see the aspens changing to gold:

  • Peak to Peak Highway on Colorado highways 119, 72, and 7 from Black Hawk to Estes Park. Exit Interstate 70 at the Highway 119 exit (Central City Parkway exit).
  • Boreas Pass between Como and Breckenridge. Take Boreas Pass Road off U.S. Highway 85 in Park County to find a gravel road that was an old railroad bed, but now offers views of aspen groves above and below.
  • The Maroon Bells Wilderness in Aspen. Access it from Aspen on Maroon Creek Road.
  • Guanella Pass from Georgetown to Grant. Get to it from I-70 to Georgetown and over Guanella Pass Road, or south on U.S. 285 to Grant and catch the pass road over to Georgetown. Pause above the treeline to catch a few of Mt. Bierstadt (14,065 ft.) on the east side of the pass.

Don’t Forget to Pack

  • Warm hat that covers your ears to fend off the chilly wind
  • Wind-resistant and water-resistant jacket
  • Fleece zip-up to layer under wind-resistant jacket
  • Extra water: higher elevations can bring on altitude sickness
  • Sunscreen: you’re closer to the sun and that warm sunlight reflects off mountain lakes right onto your face
  • Your camera

Fall Festivals

By the time October hits, most of the Oktoberfests have come and gone. But that doesn’t mean you’ve missed out on Colorado’s great fall festivals.

Here’s a quick list of the fall festivals happening in and around Denver:

  • Zombie Crawl: one of the largest zombie events in the nation. Dress up for the fear factor and gather with the other walking dead along Denver’s 16th Street Mall.
    Info: October 17 at Skyline Park.
  • Boo at the Zoo: ever gone trick or treating at a zoo? Now’s your chance.
    Info: Oct. 24-25, Oct. 30-Nov. 1 at Denver Zoo
  • Denver Arts Week: seven neighborhood art districts, 20 museums, 100 art galleries and one free night at some of Denver’s top museums (Nov. 7).
    Info: Nov. 6-14
  • Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival: sample delicious craft distilleries’ wares in this event. Bonus: the spirits tasting is indoors.
    Info: Oct. 23-25
  • Frontier Historical Museum Ghost Walk in Glenwood Springs: give yourself the shivers on this ghost walk through Glenwood Springs’ oldest cemetery to listen to ghost stories.
    Info: Oct. 16-17, 23-24, 30-31. Tickets: $18/person and sell out quickly.
  • Pick your pumpkin: harken back to childhood and wander the vines to find your perfect pumpkin. Colorado has tons of pick-your-own-produce farms to choose from.
    Info: see site for details.

Don’t Forget to Pack

  • Sunglasses for frequent sunny days
  • Your ID (most festivals have local brews to try out)
  • Warm fleece or jacket for chilly fall nights
  • Scarf to fend off cool breezes
  • Long-sleeve or t-shirt (depending on your body’s normal operating temperature) as fall days can end up getting warmer than you realize
  • Merino wool socks in case the day of festival dawns cooler than anticipated: warm feet = warm body
  • Warm hat that covers your ears

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Don’t-Miss Towns

Some of Colorado’s best towns are found after a scenic drive west, clear of Denver’s sprawl. Most of these towns are stocked with soaring mountain views, small town charm, and oftentimes, a bit of Colorado history thrown in.

Aspen

Founded as a silver mining town, but now known for being a swanky ski town, this not-really-small-town is worth visiting for the drive to get there and its spectacular aspen groves.

Instead of the normal route of I-70, take CO 91 to US 24. I dare you to keep your eyes on the narrow, guardrail-less road as you twist through winding mountains, a waterfall splattering onto the road, and cresting a hill that feels like you’re breaking into the sky itself.

Oh, and this town in aptly named: you can’t escape the rustling beauty of gold aspens here.

Like most mountain towns in Colorado, you’ll find tons of great camping, fishing, and hiking spots in adjacent White River National Forest. My favorite is the hike up to Maroon Bells, then follow the trail past the lake towards a hidden, less touristy lake book-ended by two mountains kissing.

Drive time from Denver: 4 hours

Silverthorne

A small ski town sandwiched between Lake Dillon and Keystone Ski Resort, you can find lots of spots for fall camping. Around the town, great swaths of aspens paint the mountains gold.

The town is fully stocked with grocery stores, a brewery, movie theater, and shopping outlets in case you need a break from the rustic life. You’re just a 10 minute drive over to Lake Dillon where you can enjoy late-season fishing or hiking around the glittering lake.

Check out these back-country hikes for an intimate view of Colorado’s famous aspens.

Drive time from Denver: 1 hour and 45 minutes

Estes Park

Best known for The Stanley Hotel, the infamous setting of Stephen King’s popular novel, The Shining . You don’t have to stay at this sprawling white mansion to roam its halls with the rumored ghosts. Daily tours are available, complete with ghost stories and history.

Stand on the front lawn to enjoy the panoramic views of the Rockies and revel in the fact that construction on this century-old house was begun in 1907 with supplies painstakingly carted over rough roads.

Or, venture into Estes Park, right outside Rocky Mountain National Park, now celebrating its 100th anniversary.

Enjoy camping around the lake, horseback riding in the mountains, or cross your fingers to hear some rutting elk bugling to each other (’tis the fall activity up here!).

Drive time from Denver: 1 hour and 30 minutes

Don’t Forget to Pack

  • Merino wool socks
  • Warm hat that covers your ears
  • Scarf
  • Wind-resistant jacket
  • Warm fleece to layer under jacket if needed
  • Long-sleeve or t-shirt to layer with or layer down to if the sunshine gets hot
  • Earplugs
  • White noise machine
  • Your camera
  • Bear spray

TL;DR

Colorado has a wealth of awesome weekend getaways for you to explore in gorgeous fall weather. Most are found only a short drive out of Denver. Avoid the ski season tourist rush by visiting in the fall to enjoy Colorado’s quaking golden aspens and its other charms.

Don’t forget to pack these key items:

  • Sunglasses
  • Warm hat to cover your ears
  • Warm zip-up fleece
  • Merino wool socks to keep your body temperature regulated
  • Your camera to capture the stunning mountain views

Photos credited to Imfromdenver.com, Glenwood Hot Springs.

Image: Don Graham (Flickr)

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