Text & photos by Maryann Gaug ©2020
After a summer of hanging close to home, Rover, my camper van, begged me to take it camping somewhere, anywhere. Perhaps my restless spirit grew more restless as the aspen on the hills near my house started to change. With kids back in school, the campgrounds wouldn’t be quite as full and insane as during the Covid-19 summer. Time to look for gold in them thar’ hills!
My six-day trip included state highways that I hadn’t driven in years, chosen because I recalled plentiful aspen or oakbrush along them. I would head west to Glenwood Springs, then south to make an oval, with a side trip to Dallas Divide and Telluride.
In Glenwood Canyon I marveled at either the mosaic or the total black created by the Grizzly Creek wildfire of August. How two blackened areas can be separated by one strip of green vegetation boggles my mind. Winding my way over McClure Pass near Aspen, some trees hadn’t a clue about changing while others donned leaves painted in red, yellow, gold, orange, and green. The oakbrush showed promise of good colors.
Twisty CO 92 south of Hotchkiss proved worth the slow drive with colorful aspen and nice oakbrush along the way. Heading west on US 50, my recollection of an oakbrush sea detoured me to the south rim of the Black Canyon. I timed that perfectly — the red, green, orange, yellow, and tan leaves didn’t disappoint. Finding a parking spot along the narrow road to take photos became a challenge. Lots of sightseers!
Dallas Divide aspen didn’t match their reputation as some hadn’t changed, and others had lost their leaves. One hill, however, dazzled my eyes, a vibrant clump of golden aspen nestled in red, orange, and green oakbrush. Towering Mount Sneffels reminded me of the two climbs I made to the top. I climbed what? Spectacular hills greeted me as I approached Telluride, a medley of yellow leaves mixed in with dark spruce and fir.
Retracing part of my drive, I headed south to Lake City down CO 149. Golden cottonwood trees formed a canopy to drive under. Bright yellow aspen adorned the hills as I headed up 11,530-foot Slumgullion Pass. Luckily a pullout appeared at a tight switchback as a semi headed downhill (please stay on your side!). Windy Point Overlook provided a good photo op, including 14,015-foot Wetterhorn’s pointy peak. I can still feel the fear when climbing the last steep face with a long drop below. I sat on top and didn’t move until we had to descend. I climbed what? The naked aspen at the top of Slumgullion and Spring Creek Pass (10,889 feet) looked cold, reminding me winter is coming too soon to the high country.
After a very cold night camping in South Fork (thank heavens for Rover’s propane furnace), I headed over Wolf Creek Pass. The east side aspen were colorful, while the green leaves on the west side still clung to summer. From Pagosa Springs I headed south to Chama, New Mexico, where I had to Covid-quarantine myself in Rover for 30 miles. Well worth no stops because the aspen on the way up Cumbres Pass and down La Manga Pass flaunted their brilliant colors. With no place to pull off the narrow road, only vivid memories remain.
After a night in Alamosa, I hoped for colorful cottonwoods along the Arkansas River, but they still wore green leaves until I turned north at Buena Vista to head to Leadville. Much to my surprise a few aspen hadn’t yet lost their leaves between Leadville and Silverthorne.
I couldn’t have timed my trip better. My choice of winding state highways, with little traffic, gave me time to enjoy my surroundings. Satisfied with the journey, the memories of colorful foliage and camping will carry Rover and my restless spirit through the long white winter.