When summer gives up her fight, fall's glory comes to life. In Delta County, the changing of the color guard is an autumnal rite of passage that is well worth the wait. Typically, the best time to view the fall foliage in this area of western Colorado is late September through early October. If you have a hankering for the hues, fill your gas tank and pack your camera so you can enjoy one (or all!) of these three scenic drives in Delta County.
Along the way, be sure to keep your eye out for roadside stands that will be loaded with the products of the annual fall harvest, such as apples, potatoes, squash and onions. And, consider timing your trip around one of the fall festivals celebrating the season to round out your Delta County autumn vacation.
The West Elk Scenic and Historic Byway is a 205-mile loop that takes six to eight hours to complete (though you can always tackle just a portion of it, then turn back). The West Elk Loop derives its name from the West Elk Mountains, which the route circumnavigates. Major geological upheavals created the rugged landscape and rare natural beauty the drive traverses.
The scenic trek begins in Hotchkiss and continues on to Paonia. About 12 miles past Paonia, you'll pass through Somerset, a small mining community with three working coal mines. East of Somerset, take County Road 12, leading to Kebler Pass – a dirt road that is accessible by car during the summer and fall, and only by snowmobile in the wintertime. Kebler Pass weaves through pine forests and huge aspen groves, and is considered one of the most spectacular places to view fall colors in Colorado.
Continuing on, you will see the Gunnison River, and Blue Mesa, Morrow Point and Crystal lakes. Shortly after crossing the Lake Fork Bridge, watch for Colorado Highway 92, which leads to the north rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The park is marking its 10th anniversary as a national park this year, and there are plenty of turnouts and picnic areas where you can stop to celebrate. You'll also find trailheads to explore the park, and see the sheer canyon walls from which Black Canyon derives its name – and that drop 2,000 feet into the river below.
The West Elk Loop continues into Crawford, where you can visit to Crawford State Park, popular with boaters, fisherman and campers. To complete the loop, travel 10 miles north of Crawford back into Hotchkiss.
Trekking across one of the world's largest flat-topped mountains that the Ute Indians called "Thunder Mountain," the 63-mile Grand Mesa Scenic and Historic Byway starts in the town of Cedaredge. The byway has earned the apt nickname, "The Alpine Oasis in the Sapphire Sky"
From Cedaredge, head north on Highway 65 and up (quite literally – the Mesa's summit is at nearly 11,000 feet!) onto Grand Mesa. On the drive up, you will travel from fruit-filled orchards to hillsides covered with pinon and juniper, and eventually to forests of spruce, fir and aspen. Along the route are plenty of picnic areas, scenic overlooks and lakes (300 of them) to explore.
Escalante Canyon is part of the newly designated Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area, located just outside of the city of Delta. Escalante Canyon offers solitude and rugged, desert-scape beauty, large mesas cut by red canyon walls, and Native American petroglyphs. This stretch of the Gunnison River also offers some great canoe stretches and milder river fun.
To enter Escalante Canyon, drive north of Delta on U.S. Highway 50 for about 12 miles. A turnoff will take you southwest onto Escalante Canyon Road, a dirt road that is easily accessible with a two-wheel-drive car. Continue through privately owned pastures until you reach the BLM signs marking public access.
Stretch your legs on McCarty Trail, located about four miles into the canyon. Keep an eye out for wildlife, such as desert bighorn sheep, mule deer, golden eagle, turkey, elk, mountain lion, black bear and the collared lizard.
For even more of an experience, combine a fall foliage drive with one of the area's fall festivals.
Visit the Cedaredge Chamber or Commerce for more information.
The annual Mountain Harvest Festival has been celebrating the lifestyle of the North Fork Valley of Western Colorado since 2001. Enjoy 3 sparkling autumn days of music, art, performance, good food and local products. From musical workshops to poetry readings to wine tastings, the festival offers a rich assortment of inspiring events. Visit Mountain Harvest Festival for more information.
This popular festival celebrates the area's fruit-growing heritage. Enjoy the Golden Gala formal, a chili cook-off, music, booths and activities throughout the town. Visit the Cedaredge Chamber or Commerce for more information.