While the rest of the United States’ forests transform from summer hues of green into an autumnal polychrome of oranges, yellows and reds, Colorado chooses to welcome fall in a far more gilded manner. Starting in September, high in the mountains, giant swaths of aspen trees begin to change from gentle green to an explosive gold that turns what is already one of the country’s most beautiful states into an Aurelian dream. Slowly, through the end of October, leafy gold drips from the alpine line, down along ski runs, and rivers into the pastoral countrysides and quaint mountain towns across the Centennial state, turning Colorado’s mountains into a heaping treasure chest.
There are dozens of places throughout Colorado where visitors can take in this seasonal wonder. Perhaps the best place to see them is in the town of the same name. Aspen, Colorado, is home to hundreds of thousands of aspen trees that transform against a backdrop of beautiful and dramatic mountains, creating some of the most spectacular vistas.
Aspen also sets the Colorado bar when it comes to eating and drinking. High-end eateries and world-class chefs have long been drawn to this exclusive mountain town, which boasts a handful of the country’s best ski slopes and five-star hotels. Here are three spots to watch the leaves change and three Aspen restaurants to eat afterwards.
Owl Creek Road and Woody Creek Tavern
Owl Creek Road sits between Aspen and neighboring Snow Mass and, though not as dramatic as our other views, is lined with beautiful ranches. The golden aspens stretch down to pastures full of stately horses, sweeping ranch homes, and grazing cattle. Where as other spots can be crowded, a drive up Owl Creek Road allows time to stop for photos and really take in the epic landscape.
Heading back to town, stop into Woody Creek Tavern. This restaurant was a longtime favorite of famed Aspen resident Hunter S. Thompson. The walls are chaotically decorated with thousands of old photographs, along with Thompson articles and other memorabilia and madness. One sip of a blue agave margarita after a day leaf peeping and the spirit of Gonzo is once again alive. This divvy spot is known for its enchiladas and margaritas — a perfect way to wrap up a day driving through the mountains.
Castle Creek Road and Pine Creek Cookhouse
Castle Creek Road is located just on the outskirts of the town of Aspen as you enter from the west. In addition to taking in the leaves, which grow more and more gold the higher in altitude you go, stop by the ghost town of Ashcroft or spend the morning hiking high above the alpine line to Cathedral Lake.
Just before Castle Creek Road turns to dirt (those with big enough cars can press forward), you will arrive to the Pine Creek Cookhouse. This beautiful restaurant overlooks Castle Peak (the ninth highest summit in the Rocky Mountains) and, in the fall, the patio is wrapped in a blanket of gold. Enjoy Kurt Russell’s (yes, that Kurt Russell) Home Ranch Patty Melt or the rainbow trout with cauliflower purée, kale, roasted shallot, oven-roasted tomato, and a lemon caper butter sauce.
The Maroon Bells and Pinon’s
Come the first of September, the Maroon Bells — known to many as the most photographed mountains in North America — begin to receive dustings of snow. As we creep into September and October, that snow, which remains in the crevasses and creaks of the mountains, is then augmented by the golden fleece of changing aspens. To really bring it home, those snowy mountains fleeced in gold are then reflected back by way of a sub-alpine lake which sits at the mountains’ base. This display is not only one of the most beautiful sights in Colorado or America but, to this humble travel writer, in the whole world.
So why not go from Aspen’s natural crown jewel to one of its longest standing culinary institutions? Pinon’s, located in the heart of downtown Aspen, has been a favorite for Aspen’s most sophisticated palates for 30 years. For a starter, try the duck quesadilla with chanterelles, caramelized onion, manchego, and chili aioli. The Freddy Salad is a staple and, for an entrée, consider the Dover sole or rack of lamb. Feeling even bolder? Try the Hudson Valley foie gras served with pineapple, brioche, and aged balsamic vinegar.