As other states start fussing over who has the better fall foliage — really, Arizona, trash-talking Vermont?! — Coloradans simply pack up their cameras and head out for the annual display that sets the gold standard for leaf peeping. You don't have to go far to find aspen ablaze with orange and yellow or maples and oaks that turn orange and red. Head to the mountains in the next week or so, though, as the leaves have begun to change already. Here are five Colorado towns about to be transformed by fall colors, and a few ideas for what to do when you get there.
The view: Just because the Maroon Bells are the most photographed peaks in North America doesn't mean you can't get a shot of them, too. They're popular for a reason — two 14ers snug against each other, surrounded by the 2.3 million-acre White River National Forest, with their reflections clearly defined in the shimmery lakes beneath them. It's easier to get in and out via shuttle from Aspen Highlands during the peak season through Oct. 6 ($6 adults, $4 ages 6-16, seniors); otherwise, you have to pay $10 to take your own car the 10 miles up Maroon Creek Road from Aspen Monday-Thursday. (bus access-only 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday-Sunday) and fight for a parking space.
To do: Take the bike along and get some exercise while taking in the stunning views along Castle Creek Road from town. The paved road follows Castle Creek as it ascends, gaining more than 1,760 vertical feet over 26 miles (round-trip) to about 9,754 feet. At the top, the town of Ashcroft is a great picnic stop and a fun place to poke around in the old ghost-town buildings. No bike? The drive is just as lovely.
Refuel: Owned by the group that made Cherry Creek Grill a hit in Denver, the White House Tavern (302 E. Hopkins Ave., 970-925-1007, Aspen, aspenwhitehouse.com) is indeed in a white house and serves savvy takes on cocktail favorites — the Sazerac, a mezcal Mule — and zippy snacks and sandwiches, including cheddar drop biscuits with ham and apple butter and a nicely dressed, extra-crispy grouper sandwich.
Recharge: The bargain stay in Aspen has long been the St. Moritz Lodge (334 W. Hyman Ave., 800- 817-2069, stmoritzlodge.com), which has a hostel on one side and standard rooms, some with kitchenettes, and condos on the other. A kitchenette with two queen beds in fall starts at $145 (no kitchenette, $119), a continental breakfast is included and the property has an outdoor heated pool — but do note that a three-night minimum is required.
The view: The sound of an elk bugling during the rut just seems to herald the arrival of fall. Visitors are almost tripping over elk in Estes Park and nearby Rocky Mountain National Park (nps.gov/romo) starting right about now, and the sight of them with a backdrop of gold-dappled mountains can be awe-inspiring. Take Trail Ridge Road through the park — it runs 48 miles to a maximum elevation of 12,183 feet — and shoot for off-peak times (weekdays and mealtimes on weekends) to avoid the "elk jams" that occur wherever bulls and their harems are found. During the evenings through September and October, members of the park's all-volunteer Bugle Corps can be found at the ready to offer insight into elk behavior and locations, and also help break up the jams.
To do: It's one thing to drive through the park, and quite another to get up close and personal with it. Since 1931, the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Nature Association (rmna.org) has been helping folks do the latter, offering reasonably priced, guided treks, including elk expeditions, hikes up Longs Peak, wildlife-photography expeditions and more. Fees start at $70 and include the guide, as well as shuttle, entry into the park and a sack lunch.
Refuel: The casual and friendly Wapiti Restaurant & Pub (247 W. Elkhorn Ave., 970-586-5056, thewapitipub.com) has something for everyone, done well, from Buffalo wings and onion rings starters — even a lightly breaded version of those tourist-teasing Rocky Mountain oysters — to grilled salmon, spaghetti and a "wapiti," a.k.a. elk filet, lean but still juicy. Kids are catered to, as well, with their own mini-ribeye and Kraft mac-and-cheese.
Recharge: The Saddle & Surrey Motel is a comfy, 1950s-style motel that's right off Colorado 7 (1341 S. St. Vrain Ave., 800-204-6226, saddleandsurrey.com) but far enough from town to be quiet. It's still only a few miles from the park entrance, too, and it's on the shuttle route. A continental breakfast is included, and the rooms have either a microwave and mini-fridge or a kitchenette. Fall rates start at $60 per night for a queen bed.
The view: Buffalo Pass is an 11-mile drive from Steamboat that takes you to the Continental Divide, past Summit Lake and toward the town of Walden. There are several other lakes, as well — all good for fishing — and the plentiful aspen groves in the Routt National Forest are full of trails for all skill levels, from toddler on up. To get there, take Park Avenue from town to Strawberry Park Road to County Road 38.
To do: Cowboy (or -girl) up and get out on the trail here with Del's Triangle 3 Ranch (55675 Country Road 62, Clark, 970-879-3495, steamboathorses.com), one of the oldest horse outfitters in the state. The wranglers will take you into Routt and through the lush Zirkel Wilderness Area. Riders age 6 and up can get out there for as little as one hour or a full day; rates start at $150 per person for half-day, with lunch (one-hour rides cost $55). Not a horse person? The mountain biking at the Steamboat Bike Park has more than 50 miles of gondola-accessed downhill and free-ride bike terrain (steamboat.com), or check out the moderately challenging 27 ½-mile Gore Pass Loop at Colorado 134 and Forest Road 185.
Refuel: Moderate prices and fun-and-filling comfort foods make Carl's Tavern (700 Yampa Ave., 970-761-2060, carlstavern.com) a locals' favorite. It's a great place to snack: Start with deviled eggs with blue cheese and bacon, maybe add house-cured sausages and pickles and a plate of "nuggets of love" — pork bits fried with shishito peppers — and wash it all down with a $2 PBR. Yes.
Recharge: The budget-minded Inn at Steamboat (3070 Columbine Drive, 970-879-2600, innatsteamboat.com) has killer views from some of the rooms, making this is a great time to check it out. The place has a Western feel, with log and leather furniture, and a continental breakfast plus waffles is included. Bonus: The heated pool and hot tub are open year-round. Fall rates start at $129 per night; a valley view costs $20 more per night.
The view: The easiest way to see the glory that is Telluride this time of year is to hop on the free gondola and head to the top — from there you can look out over the town and down into the canyon. Locals take the popular Jud Wiebe trail, a 2.7-mile loop that can be picked up by walking north from town on Aspen Street and crossing Cornet Creek. There's a short spur to Cornet Falls, and at the top, you'll be looking out over the town and the aspens and evergreens that crowd the surrounding San Juan Mountains.
To do: The clear San Miguel River runs right through town, but it's easy enough to get find public access to fly-fish in peace until the season ends around Oct. 31. Look for rainbow, cutthroats and brown trout; stop by the Telluride Angler (121 W. Colorado Ave., 800-831-6230, tellurideangler.com) to find out what they're hitting.
Refuel: Brown Dog Pizza (110 E. Colorado Ave., 970-728-8046, browndogpizza.com) used to be Telluride's beloved Pacific Street Pizza, but they were so popular, they had to move to a bigger location. The town is famously dog-obsessed, and the owners have two chocolate Labs, hence the name. The fabulous, crispy-edged pies remain the same, as a "Detroit Square" — baked in a steel automotive-parts pan.
Recharge: The New Sheridan Hotel (231 W. Colorado Ave., 970-728-4351, newsheridan.com) sits in an 1896 building and features a cool bar from the era, as well as pretty rooms with sitting areas and super-soft bathrobes, and hot tubs on the roof. Meals at the on-site Chop House — check out the butternut squash and Gruyère lasagna — are lavishly prepared and presented. Fall rates start at $148.
The view: It's impossible to escape the scenery in Vail, starting with the drive from Denver along the Interstate 70 corridor and continuing with the surrounding White River National Forest, in all its multihued glory. Hike, bike or take the gondola to the top of Eagle's Nest (weekends through Sept. 29, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., $26, bikes cost extra) for the experience.
To do: Aside from climbing them, the most fun way to get close to the trees providing all this color is to zipline alongside them. Zip Adventures (4 Eagle Ranch, 970-926-9470, zipadventures.com) is based 15 miles west of Vail in Wolcott and offers six courses, from "bunny" to "What Was I Thinking?" That's the actual name of the 1,000-foot course that sits 75 feet above the ground and goes along the length of the canyon rather than across it. Cost: $150 per person.
Refuel: Up the Creek (223 Gore Creek Drive, 970-476-8141, vailupthecreek.com) sits right alongside Gore Creek and is particularly charming at lunch in nice weather, when the breezes and water noises waft through the flower-filled dining room. Midday, the menu has interesting sandwiches like turkey and brie with orange-cranberry relish; at night it gets more serious with elk carpaccio and lamb chops.
Recharge: Antlers at Vail (608 W. Lionshead Place, 800-843-8245, antlersvail.com) has roomy condo units, TVs and DVD players in every room, a swimming pool and hot tub area, and your dog is welcome. Fall rates start at $280 for a one-bedroom unit.
Kyle Wagner: 303-954-1599, email@example.com or twitter.com/ kylewagnerworld