Fall Road Trip: Family-Friendly Loop through Colorado
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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.
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.
Temperatures drop quickly after sunset, so bring warm layers. But don't miss the opportunity to see moon rise over Balanced Rock.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Air Force Falcons Women's Soccer - Free admission. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs
- University of Colorado Buffaloes Women's Volleyball - $8 general admission, 12 & under free. Boulder, Colorado
- Urban Air Trampoline & Adventure Park - Perfect place to burn off energy when weather forces you inside. Look for 2-for-1 deals on Groupon. Westminster, Colorado
- Boulder Book Store - Spend hours perusing titles in this incredible independent book store on Pearl Street. Great kids section with lots of used books at great prices.
- Plentiful Playgrounds - There are hundreds of playgrounds in and around Denver. Check out Westlands Park in the morning before hitting Cafe Rio for lunch.
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
- Girls Avalon Snap Fleece - Perfect layer for chilly mornings and breezy hikes at altitude.
- Girls Ezra Hoody - My 10 year old loved this super soft and lightweight hoody. Ezra LS available for Women as full button-down.
- Girls Kontra Short - Great for daytime hiking under clear blue skies.
- Girls Splash Roll-up Pant or Trekr Pant - Perfect for rock scrambling and cooler temps.
- Women's Kaskade Zip Neck - Base layer with thumb holes is great for layering or standalone.
- Women's Freethinkr Pullover and Freethinkr Asymmetrik Hoody - Unique styles are travel-friendly.
- Travrse Pullover - Available for men and women, this soft shell half zip is excellent for blocking the wind.
- Inspiratr Ankle Zip - These flattering, fitted women's work pants are my favorite for hiking.
- Weekendr Tight - Great for travel, hiking, and all-round wear.
- Helix Dress or Lea Dress - Slip into these super comfy dresses after a long day on the trail.
- KÜHL Trucker Hat - Keep the sun out of your eyes above treeline.
- Skull Hat - Don't forget a warm beanie for unexpected snow storms.
Nicole's idea of a perfect vacation involves hiking, trail running, SUP and secluded beaches with her husband and two daughters. She writes about travel, raising KÜHL kids and her obsession with outdoor apparel for KÜHL.