Autumn is a luminous time with the colorful leaves and crisp air hinting at chilly days to come. Before the snow flies, soak up the natural beauty of Northern Colorado on a four-day road trip from Fort Collins to Steamboat Springs, complete with a yurt stay along the way.
Here is our ideal itinerary.
Day 1: Fort Collins
There’s much to see and do in Fort Collins, home of Colorado State University, Old Town Fort Collins (the inspiration for Disneyland’s Main Street, USA) and a Colorado Historic District as well as Colorado Creative District.
Rest Your Head: Book accommodations at The Elizabeth Hotel, a modern luxury hotel in Old Town that includes record players in the guestrooms and a lending library of musical instruments. For a smaller, more affordable option, Remington Flats is a boutique studio hotel with locally made snacks and a fleet of New Belgium cruiser bikes perfect for exploring nearby Old Town.
Fill Your Belly: For delicious sandwiches, visit Yampa Sandwich Company or Spoons. For something a little more elevated, check out the options at Ginger and Baker, Next Door American Eatery and The Regional. If you need a little spice, order up a breakfast burrito or tacos from Vatos Tacos and Tequila.
Play Away: Soak up nature and gawk at the changing leaves at one of the nearly 50 nearby natural areas. Soapstone Prairie Natural Area, with its wide-open vistas and nearly pristine grasslands, is also home to the iconic American bison. This year marks the five-year anniversary of the herd’s reintroduction to Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and Red Mountain Open Space. Visitors may see them from the road in their fenced pasture through November. If you feel like taking a beautiful fall hike, head to Horsetooth Reservoir, west of Fort Collins. The Inlet Bay Trail connects the Blue Sky Trailhead and Soderberg Trailhead and includes 2.7 miles of easy trails.
For a nature fix right in town, stop into the Gardens on Spring Creek to see acres of new gardens and experience the new Conservatory Butterfly House, a 1,500-square-foot glass enclosure with 400 North American butterflies fluttering about. Meander through the river district north of Old Town and check out the kayakers, SUPers and tubers at the new Poudre River Whitewater Park.
Day 2: Fort Collins to Poudre Canyon and Cameron Pass
Before you head out, consider picking up provisions for your day and evening at one of the smaller mom-and-pop grocers like Beavers Market or local co-op Mountain Avenue Market in Fort Collins.
From Fort Collins, follow CO Hwy 14 and the Cache la Poudre River, the state’s only designated wild and scenic river, toward the spectacular Poudre Canyon. The Poudre Canyon is one of Colorado’s Scenic Byways. Pass the village of Kinikinik and keep a lookout for fly-fishers, rafters, kayakers, and standup paddleboards as you ascend. Head over Cameron Pass (summit 10,276 feet), and take a peek at the Medicine Bow (north) and Never Summer Mountains (south) in the rearview mirror.
Rest Your Head: Book a Never Summer Nordic Yurt stay, a unique twist on Colorado’s iconic hut trips. These remote backcountry shelters are located in the Colorado State Forest State Park and offer a secure, secluded refuge. Each yurt is set up with beds, woodstoves, and basic cooking facilities for the ultimate social distancing escape.
Play Away: Explore whatever hiking and biking trails are near your yurt. You can also head to Lake Agnes, a 2.5-mile out-and-back trail that begins at historic Agnes Cabin in State Forest State Park. The stunning lake, nestled in a cirque at 10,320 feet, is well worth the trek. Also nearby, the rated difficult American Lakes trail features commanding views of the Never Summer mountain range.
Day 3: Cameron Pass to Walden to Rabbit Ears Pass (Continental Divide) to Steamboat Springs
Pack up and head for Walden, where you can stop for comfort classics at the River Rock Café at the Antler’s Inn on the main drag.
From Walden, continue west on Hwy 14 and enjoy wide-open vistas, fields of sage and prairie grass, the occasional cattle ranch, abandoned cabins, and peaceful miles until you reach the base of Rabbit Ears Pass. Turn west (right) onto Hwy 40 and immediately start the climb over Rabbit Ears Pass (summit 9,246 feet), a gold mine of fall colors as the seasons change. Make a stop on your way in or out of town for the perfect photo op. Watch for the famous Rabbit Ears (on the north side of the highway) in the distance. Continue into Steamboat Springs, home to miles of singletrack and paved trails, the beloved F.M. Light & Sons, and another Colorado Creative District. Rest Your Head: For a smaller, more affordable, family-friendly lodging option check out Rabbit Ears Motel, which boasts an ideal location on the south end of town, adjacent to the Yampa River. Nordic Lodge, a comfortable mid-downtown location, offers a variety of amenities at an affordable price.
Fill Your Belly: For arguably the best pizza in town, visit Blue Sage Pizza. Freshies is a local favorite for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For tasty Italian food with a twist, be sure to swing into Mambo.
Play Away: Tour the local trails: Steamboat’s 2A Trails Program allows users to enjoy miles of seamlessly connected multi-use trails in five main network “pockets” in and around town. Hike Luna Lake accessed from the Mad Creek trailhead (Mad Creek and Buffalo Pass Trail Systems), a lesser-trekked hike travels along the Continental Divide Trail. Bikers can hit up G.E.M. trail, accessed from Flash of Gold trail (Buffalo Pass Trail System). Particularly gorgeous during the aspen’s golden show, the 2.5-mile loop trail boasts incredible views and a 360- foot elevation gain.
Families will love to explore the Yampa River Core Trail, a 7.5-mile paved multi-use recreation path that runs through the heart of Steamboat Springs along the Yampa River. Along the route, check out the Yampa River Botanic Park, a six-acre sanctuary of 40 gardens, ponds and sculptures. Finish a big day on the trails with a soak at Old Town Hot Springs, in the heart of downtown Steamboat, or strike out for Strawberry Park Hot Springs, an adventure on the edge of the Yampa Valley. Both offer a relaxing soak and a refreshing dip into Steamboat’s colorful history.
Caramie Petrowsky is a freelance writer and public relations professional based in Aurora. She’s looking forward embarking on a few leaf-peeping road trips in the fall.
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