Fall Road Trip: Family-Friendly Loop through Colorado

By Nicole on October 04, 2023
8 min read

During our daughters' fall break in early October, we headed to Colorado for a 7-night road trip. Beautiful weather, late-changing Aspens, and endless activities made for an unforgettable getaway.

Colorado Springs

After picking up our rental car in Denver, we immediately drove to Colorado Springs and had just enough daylight to drive through Garden of the Gods.

Garden of the Gods

A registered National Natural Landmark, this public park is a must when visiting Colorado Springs. The soaring sandstone formations are stunning any time of day, but they take on an ethereal quality at twilight.

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Twilight at Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, Colorado

Temperatures drop quickly after sunset, so bring warm layers. But don't miss the opportunity to see moon rise over Balanced Rock.

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Moon rise at Balanced Rock, Garden of the Gods

After our twilight drive, we were anxious to come back and explore the park's 15 miles of trails in the morning. We lucked out and were in town for Motorless Morning. Once a month, from 6 AM to noon, the park closes its roads to motorized traffic. From the trails, we watched cyclists, skateboarders, and even roller skaters in costume traverse the park's roads.

Palmer Trail & Central Garden

The Chambers/Bretag/Palmer Trail is a moderate 3-mile loop that circles most of the park. We opted for an abbreviated route to get closer to the main garden. From the main park entrance and lot at Gateway Road, we picked up the Bretag Trail and hiked to the junction with Palmer Trail.

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View of Kissing Camels, Garden of Gods, Colorado Springs, Colorado

We followed the trail to higher ground for outstanding views of the park's central formations. Instead of continuing along the Palmer Trail, we took a connecting path to the Central Perkins Garden Trail to weave among the sandstone giants in the main Garden. This accessible, paved path is great for adventurers of all ages and abilities.

Siamese Twins

After exploring the Garden, we walked back to our car and drove to the park's Southern entrance. From Balanced Rock, we took connecting paths to the Siamese Twins trail head. This easy 1-mile (round trip) hike led us to one of the park's most interesting features and its incredible view of Pike's Peak.

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View of Pike's Peak through Siamese Twins window

Manitou Incline

After our second night in Colorado Springs, we continued our road trip. Before we started the long drive to Aspen, we gave our legs and lungs a killer workout on the Manitou Incline. Sitting at the base of Pike's Peak and gaining 2,000 feet in elevation in less than a mile, the Manitou Incline is known as the ultimate fitness challenge. We quickly shed our layers as we climbed 2,768 railroad ties to reach the top. The Barr Trail makes easy work of the descent with 3 miles of switchbacks down the mountain.

Manitou Incline. Manitou Springs, Colorado


After conquering the Manitou Incline, we headed west on US-24 toward Buena Vista. At the start of the drive, Pike's Peak loomed in our rear view mirror, but we quickly turned our attention to the rolling ranch land and bright splashes of golden aspens amidst dark spruce pines. Buena Vista was a great place to stretch and stop for lunch. We visited Buena Vista in 2018 on a day trip from Leadville and fell in love with this family-friendly town. There's a great riverside playground with bouldering rocks, a quaint local bookstore and plenty of options for meals and snacks.

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Enjoying fall colors in Buena Vista, Colorado. KÜHL FLIGHT JACKET and INSPIRATR ANKLE ZIP

Independence Pass

From Buena Vista, we headed North and turned onto Highway 82. This winding road is not for the faint of heart; vehicles over 35 feet in length aren't permitted; and the pass is closed in winter. The drive is breathtaking, both literally and figuratively; it tops out at 12,095 feet at Independence Pass before swiftly dropping into Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. We spent two nights in the Snowmass ski area, taking advantage of offseason rates to score a great deal at the Westin ski lodge.

Posing at Independence Pass, Colorado

Cathedral Lake

After arriving in Aspen in late afternoon, we drove to the extremely popular (and crowded) Maroon Bells. We spent a little time exploring the lakeside trails and gorgeous aspen stands, but opted out of longer hikes.

Golden Aspens, Maroon Bells Wilderness, Colorado

I was initially upset not to explore this area more, but my disappointment quickly disappeared the next morning when we had the incredible Cathedral Lake to ourselves. The challenging Cathedral Lake trail climbs 2,000 feet in 2.8 miles to reach a pristine alpine lake nestled below the 13,950-foot Cathedral Peak. From the start, the trail quickly climbs through an aspen forest.

Views from Cathedral Lake Trail, Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, Colorado

After entering the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, the trail steepens and snakes along the cascading Pine Creek. The trail flattens briefly before entering another steep section through scree fields and sharp switchbacks. We didn't fully appreciate the sheer steepness of the switchbacks until the precarious descent on the return.

Trail finds, Cathedral Lake Trail, Colorado

After the switchbacks, the trail forks to the left, and the lake is only 15 minutes away. When it comes into view for the first time, you can't help but stop and appreciate the lake's breathtaking beauty.

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Cathedral Lake, Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, Colorado. Pictured in KÜHL VARA HOODY and SKÜLPT SHORT

We followed the shoreline trail to the end of the lake and sheltered from the wind to enjoy a well-deserved snack before heading back.

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Cathedral Lake, Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, Colorado. Pictured in KÜHL GIRLS EZRA HOODY.

Shrine Ridge Trail

On the drive from Snowmass to Boulder, we stopped just past Vail to hike  Shrine Ridge. This short (3.4 miles round trip), high-elevation trail quickly climbs through open meadows, quiet pine trees and up the ridge for stunning panoramic views of the Gore Range and Holy Cross Wilderness at more than 11,000 feet. A popular wildflower hike in summer, we had the trail to ourselves on an autumn weekday.

Shrine Ridge, Vail, Colorado. Pictured in KÜHL GIRLS AVALON SNAP FLEECE


After four days of beautiful fall weather, a cold front swept over the Rockies and brought the season's first snowfall. We hightailed it out of the high country and hunkered down outside Boulder until the front passed. After several days of challenging hikes at elevation, the girls were more than happy for a low key day at the movies.

Chapman-Tenderfoot Loop

Our last full day in Colorado brought snow-covered pines, blue skies and mild temperatures. We drove up Flagstaff Mountain to the Tenderfoot trail head at Realization Point. Most guides suggest starting down the Chapman fire road, but we took the Tenderfoot trail instead. The trail quickly opened up to incredible views of the snow-covered Rockies in the distance. A short spur trail led to an overlook for even better views.

Tenderfoot Trail, Boulder, Colorado

The trail connected to the Chapman road for an easy, gradual climb back to the start. Only 2.5 miles round trip, this hike is perfect for families. In our case, it was a great way to enjoy the snow even though we hadn't packed heavy duty winter gear.

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Chapman Drive, Boulder

Bonus Hike: Mt. Sanitas

The Mt. Sanitas loop is another Boulder gem. We did this 3-mile hike in 2018 and started up the gradual Sanitas Valley Trail. We turned onto the East Ridge Trail for a steep ascent to the summit before descending the very steep Mount Sanitas Trail. Many trail runners start the loop in the opposite direction for a challenging climb up the log steps and boulders to the summit.

Summit of Mt. Sanitas, Boulder, Colorado

More Kid-Friendly Activities

There's no shortage of family-friendly hikes in Colorado, but when our girls needed a break from the trails, we didn't have to look far. From college athletics to amazing playgrounds, Colorado has countless options to keep kids happy.

What to Pack

Except for a single snowy day, we had perfect fall weather all week. Chilly temps quickly warmed with the sun, so layers were perfect for adjusting throughout the day. KÜHL is expanding their line of gear for young adventurers, and my girls lived in their cozy fleeces and long-sleeve tops all week.

KÜHL Packing List for Fall

Nicole TravrsePullover

Nicole's idea of a perfect vacation involves hiking, trail runningSUP and secluded beaches with her husband and two daughters. She writes about travelraising KÜHL kids and her obsession with outdoor apparel for KÜHL.



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