Our best tips for peeping autumn's changing leaves all across the west.

The overnight low at Winter Park, Colorado the other night was 32 degrees.  It won’t take too many more of those chilling temperatures to kick-start the West’s changing of the seasons.  To get you ready, we’ve collected everything you’ll need to prepare you for your next western states fall foliage viewing adventure.

What You’ll Need

  • First off: bring “the good'”camera.  Oh sure, bring the smartphone too… but bring the good camera.  While you’re at it, don’t forget to charge the batteries the night before, pack some spare batteries if you got ’em, bring a spare memory card and the tripod.  If you get lucky and strike it rich in “gold” you’ll be happy you brought the extra supplies.
  • Bring a jacket.  Or two.  In fact, layer up.  With the changing of the seasons, the morning temps will continue to descend with the passing of each day.  Combine that with the chilling winds of the high country and you’ll be abandoning that fancy camera in favor of your car’s heater before you get that epic shot.
  • Plan ahead.  Together, all 12 of the western states comprise a huge landmass and Autumn will come at different times for the 3 main regions; the northwest, central west and southwest.  When the trees change color will depend on where you’re going, but generally the NW changes in October, the central west begins to (quickly) change in mid-September, and the southwest typically changes during the first week of October.  Fall Color leaf touring is part art, part luck and part science as the optimum viewing windows change with each year’s variations in warmth, precipitation, and sun.   Each state’s viewing window is distinct as well, Colorado for instance can sometimes last only a week or two before the aspen leaves drop.
  • A map & this list.  The West is huge, has so much public land and so many back roads that a map is a must.  We recommend, hands down, the DeLorme Gazeteer series for each state.  They may be big, but they are detailed, current, and accurate… and they never need a cell tower to bring you the results when you need it most.  Not only that, but it’s also markable – go ahead and bring a pen or a highlighter and scribble your future legacy on its helpful pages.
  • A higher clearance vehicle if you can.  Getting off the beaten path is part of the fun of fall color leaf touring.  Not only that, but it’s a great way to give yourself some space from the all the other folks out looking at the leaves too.
  • Bring a picnic.  If the sun’s rays are favorable and the day’s are warm, nothing beats a couple of foldable chairs, some locally sourced brews, and picnic food.  If the sun is less than welcoming, then you can always hit up a favorite local cafe.
fall colors

Fall’s colors get their closeup. Image by Charles Watkins for B&R

Our Favorite Places

  • Colorado’s Kebler Pass.  The area surrounding south central Gunnison, Colorado is home to this photographer’s favorite.  Well known for its enormous aspen stands (which is the largest in North America), Kebler boasts hard to rival views of the golden colors of fall that are punctuated by the hardscrabble rocky spires of Gothic Mountain, Crested Butte and many other 13’000 and 14’000 foot peaks. Key tip: bring a coat since you’ll likely see some snow.
  •  Idaho’s Teton Scenic Byway.  Although technically on the Wyoming western border, Idaho’s view of the Tetons is no less spectacular.  The fall foliage that surrounds this often winding paved route is stunning and features memorable views of the mountains that burst with color, particularly at sunsets.
  •  New Mexico’s Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway.  The popular route which connects Taos, Angel Fire and Eagle’s Nest are bounded by some of the most scenic views in the ‘Enchanted State.’  The area is studded by numerous hiking and biking trails that bring you up close and personal with the mustard colored aspen leaves.  On top of it all, you get Taos’ celebrated culture and cooking.  Stop by the Old Blinking Light for a local favorite – the green chile burger.  Oh, and don’t forget Ojo Caliente’s hot springs too…
  • Utah’s Aquarius Plateau, Capitol Reef National Park and Boulder Mountain.  Located near the cozy south central UT town of Escalante and the high Dixie National Forest. Here, fall’s colors are contrasted with the gorgeous red rock canyons and juniper forested desertscapes.   Although UT 12 is major south-central Utah highway, between Boulder and Escalante it is not for the faint of heart.  Called the Hogsback by locals, this segment of UT 12 features steep drop-offs on both sides of the road.  Key tip: bring a map and be prepared for an awesome drive.
  • Oregon’s Willamette Valley.  Oregon’s central valleys surrounding the Willamette River can give viewers a stunning cornucopia of colors of vivid reds, brilliant reds, brilliant yellows and solid oranges.  In addition to the often overwhelmingly gorgeous views, the region is noted for its robust “Farm to Table” agriculture and culinary delights, as well as its well-respected wines.  Key tip: plan to spend some time here as the food, imbibes and arts culture simply can’t be taken in just one day.
  • California’s Big Sur along the Pacific Coast Highway.  Different than the interior spots, the Big Sur area of California’s PCH offers a unique mix of dramatic ocean cliffs on one side and brilliant fall colors on your other.  The sheer heights of the cliffs and water crashing on the shore below offer some of the most breathtaking views in the state. October offers reds and oranges in addition to the yellows which are found earlier in the season.

Check out these regional authorities for when and where else to go to see Fall Colors: