Thousands of Colorado “Front Range” folks and out of state visitors flock to the mountains in late September/early October. They are seeking the ultimate mountain color tour. One of the best routes for a Colorado Color Tour is the West Elk Scenic Byway.
Using the Gunnison-Crested Butte area as basecamp and starting point for the color tour, the route may be driven in a clockwise or counter clockwise circle. My preference is clockwise, starting out through Gunnison and then heading west past Blue Mesa Reservoir. The route passes through the towns of Crawford, Hotchkiss and Paonia with a final drop from Kebler Pass into Crested Butte. Coming full circle, you will drive a total of 204 miles. An optional addition to the circle route is to do an out and back spur to Carbondale, hitting the scenic towns of Marble and Redstone along the way. Check out the West Elk Loop website for a map and complete information: https://www.westelkbyway.com/
Driving west out of Gunnison, the largest lake in Colorado comes into view – Blue Mesa Reservoir. It sits within the Curecanti National Recreation Area, part of the National Park Service. Visit the Elk Creek Visitor center for maps and resources. Enjoy fishing, boating, hiking, camping, and even some beach areas. After turning right onto Route 92, pull over and check out the dam and the beginnings of the Black Canyon. A few miles up the road, it is worthwhile to pull into Pioneer Point and at least walk to the overlook points. You’ll be rewarded with views all the way down to the bottom of the canyon. If you have the time and stamina, take the hike down to the bottom, then back up. For more information on Curecanti: https://www.nps.gov/cure/index.htm. Further down the road before Crawford, you will reach the turnoff for the North Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. This is the side that is less visited. Visitor information can be found here: https://www.nps.gov/blca/index.htm.
Farm stands, markets, orchards and vineyards dot the route while passing through the towns of Crawford, Hotchkiss and Paonia. These communities based in agriculture present some great tasting opportunities for visitors. Be sure to check out Orchard Valley Farms just outside of Paonia, where visitors may shop for local produce, products and even taste their own wines from Black Bridge Winery: https://www.orchardvalleyfarms.com/. The towns of Hotchkiss and Paonia are worth a stop for lunch or strolling through some cute, local shops. My personal favorite lunch stop is Zack’s BBQ in Hotchkiss: http://www.zacksbbq.net/.
The Largest Living Organism?
After turning onto Kebler Pass Road heading back towards Crested Butte, the color show soon begins. Some contend that the world’s largest living organism, the giant aspen forest, resides right here along this dirt road: https://www.5280.com/2015/11/colorado-by-nature-the-worlds-largest-living-organism/. Aspen trees in any particular grove are connected underground through their root systems. While Colorado’s colors are famous mainly for the bright yellow aspen trees, there will be plenty of orange and even red along this stretch of the route. The aspens shine bright on both sides of the road, covering mountain sides and eventually creating an overhead canopy.
Crested Butte and Gunnison
From the top of Kebler Pass, it’s an easy drop down straight ahead into the charming Victorian ski town of Crested Butte. This town warrants some time spent strolling, shopping and dining on Elk Avenue. However, if heading back towards Gunnison, a right turn onto County Road 730 (Ohio Pass Road) will yield majestic views of “the Castles,” rock formations casting Scottish castle silhouettes. The road winds through golden aspens which then yield to idyllic ranch pastures below. Turning right onto Highway 135 leads right back to downtown Gunnison, where more shops and restaurants await after an amazing color tour day!
Jen Bickford is the General Manager of Three Rivers Resort in Almont, Colorado located between Gunnison and Crested Butte. Three Rivers Resort is the perfect basecamp for this color tour, offering a variety of cabins, vacation homes, RV sites and lodge rooms. Rafting and fishing trips are offered from the resort throughout September. Stop by Three Rivers Smokehouse restaurant through September for homemade BBQ, burgers, salads and a cold beer!