Over the next two weeks, the aspen trees will turn from green to a beautiful blaze of yellow and gold. And if the sun remains, and the rain stays away, Roaring Fork Valley residents will be in for quite a show. While our immediate surroundings are some of the best in Colorado for fall foliage, now is the time for that hike, drive or weekend getaway — before the inevitable snow flies.
Dunton Hot Springs
Every morning you wake up at Dunton Hot Springs in Dunton, Colo., an authentic ghost town circa 1893 that has been transformed into a luxury resort, the world around you is different. Aspen groves change before your eyes, turning a vibrant orange, yellow then gold. Snow dusts the peaks of the mountain around you.
Located near the town of Cortez, about one hour southwest of Telluride, Dunton was once home to about 3,000 people. After it was abandoned, the crumbling infrastructure was purchased by a German businessman,w who reimagined the location as an all-inclusive luxury resort.
The saloon, general store and several of the original 19th-century cabins exist in the same location where miners once settled in pursuit of silver and gold more than 120 years ago. The three mineral-rich hot spring pools, which soothed both settlers and Native Americans, still bubble up from the center of the earth rich with lithium and magnesium; the waterfall still flows with mountain water. The dance hall and the post office remain in pristine condition. Every step you take in Dunton is atop the footprints of some former resident’s footsteps.
When you check into Dunton, it’s as if you are moving into this picture-perfect Western town. Twelve of the resident hand-hewn, log cabins have been completely restored with modern plumbing and luxury interiors, but the character, the energy and the charm of the historic location has never been lost. There are people rocking on their porches, kids running in the fields, couples enjoying drinks in the saloon.
The saloon’s bar itself is carved with hundreds of names of those who drank there before, including that of Butch Cassidy. While it has never been fully authenticated, it is said the legendary outlaw stopped in Dunton in 1889 en route to Utah after robbing the San Miguel Valley Bank in Telluride. Today, guests can stroll in at any time of day to pull a cold Ska Brewing beer from the tap, enjoy a glass of Sutcliffe Vineyards wine, or pour a cocktail to enjoy anywhere on the property, including the historic bathhouse that covers one of the legendary hot springs, or in the library that houses hundreds of books from the classics to modern art.
Endless hiking and mountain biking trails, horseback riding, fishing and exploration allow guests to get lost in the surrounding wilderness, until the lunch bell rings at noon or the fire pit is ablaze at dinnertime.
To capitalize on the dramatic seasonal transformation of the area’s extensive groves of aspen trees – Dunton Hot Springs and its nearby sister property, Cresto Ranch (a luxury tented resort) have teamed up to offer guided half- to full-day forays through the San Juan Mountains, where guests have the opportunity to travel deep into the wilderness and explore hidden trails, mountain passes and deep valleys, made especially majestic this time of the year by the neon aspens blanketing the mountainsides. Dunton and Cresto guests can partake in self-guided hikes around each property. Cresto guests also have the use of two complimentary mountain bikes with each tent.
Fall rates begin at $550 per night with meals and unlimited beverages. www.duntonhotsprings.com.
Smith Fork Ranch
Located just outside of Paonia near the Needle Rock formation, and surrounded by the Gunnison National Forest, this historic property was once a working guest ranch, hosing communal gatherings, dinners and celebrations. It was then abandoned and fell into disrepair, only to be resurrected and enhanced by current owners Marley and Linda Hodgson, and their family.
After more than two years of transformation, Smith Fork was reborn as an all-inclusive luxury getaway for those who are ready to turn off TVs, power down their phones and live like kids again. The resort offers three individual cabins, the River Cabin house, and five individual rooms in the main guest house. Everything for guests is at the ready, and the young, amicable staff is steadfast with boundless energy so you can experience it all.
Take in the fall colors while horseback riding with one of Smith Fork’s guides — who provide knowledge of the animals, local rock formations and landmarks, trails and local lore — as you travel across rivers, up steep inclines and though thick aspen groves. Or take your mountain bike and explore on your own. When you return, a hammock for lounging awaits, comfortable nooks and crannies are there for naps and a hot tub beckons for an afternoon soak after a long day of exploring.
The service and accommodations are impeccable, but what separates Smith Fork Ranch from other guest ranches is the quality of its cuisine. Smith Fork is for food lovers. Organic produce is brought in directly from the garden, just 75 yards away. What is grown is also what is served, says executive chef Seth Bateman. Every meal is improvised from that day’s garden harvest, making each meal’s menu dynamic and fresh.
Every meal is noteworthy, even Sunday brunch, which at some resorts is an afterthought. Roasted pork loin, lamb tartine and extra-thick French toast served with walnut-rosemary maple syrup and house-made chorizo are among the winners on the menu. (For the record, chef Bateman’s house-cured bacon with maple glaze and pecans might be the perfect breakfast food.)
This fall, SFR’s three-to-seven-day immersive experiences — which include daily guided adventures, three gourmet farm-to-table meals per day, and unlimited recreation and relaxation activities — start at $2,730 for three nights. SFR’s bed-and-breakfast-only offer starts at $375/night, based on double occupancy. Be sure to ask about special rates for Colorado residents. www.smithforkranch.com.
Red Rooster Ranch
Hidden high above Glenwood Springs along a dirt road, far past the Spring Valley campus of Colorado Mountain College, stands a yellow European country house with a red roof — the Red Rooster Ranch. A small guest house with four rooms and soaring views of the Roaring Fork Valley, Mount Sopris and the surrounding forests, this property houses about eight guests at a time.
Owner Gretchen Hayduk-Wroblewski, an adjunct professor of writing at CMC, conceived of hosting small groups of artists, writers and independent travelers when she and her husband, Stash, built their home in 2001. Decorated with antiques from her husband’s native Poland, you are transported to a hill town in Tuscany as you sit at the kitchen table. Even the poplar trees that line the property suddenly appear to be soaring cypresses.
Nearby you can find great hiking and biking, as well as ample space and time for creative work. Recently, a writers group from New York made the Red Rooster Ranch their home for a week while they perfected their works.
Rates are $200 for two nights for first-level rooms. The second floor “Heidi Suite” costs $230 for two nights and can accommodate approximately six people. There is two-night minimum for each stay. On weekends a full breakfast is included. www.red-rooster-ranch.com.
West Elk Loop Scenic and Historic Byway
One of the best drives in the country during fall is right in our own backyard, because it brings you over Kebler Pass, which is home to the largest aspen grove in the nation. The West Elk Loop Scenic and Historic Byway is shaped like a lasso that’s been dropped on Colorado’s pristine communities of Carbondale, Redstone, Montrose, Gunnison and Crested Butte. Take in the view of Mount Sopris and the Crystal River Valley up to Marble, where the byway crosses McClure Pass through the Upper North Fork Valley before reaching Paonia and Hotchkiss, home to a network of orchards and farms in the area (great apple picking!). Moving south, the loop passes the Black Canyon of the Gunnison between Montrose and Gunnison. Finally there’s the Butte, you know it and love it. We all do, but it’s the drive back toward Carbondale, over Kebler Pass that will really blow your mind this time of year. Pad your drive time with several stops for picnic and picture-taking.
Note: The section of the West Elk Loop that crosses Kebler Pass (between Hwy. 133 and Crested Butte) closes in November.
Distance: 205 miles
Suggested time: Allow 8 to 10 hours
When Will Colors Peak this Year?
How will all of this rain and wind affect the aspen foliage this year? The simple answer is this: the more sun we get, the brighter the colors. Cool nights and warm days make for the best fall foliage show.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, the amount and brilliance of the colors that develop in any particular autumn season are related to weather conditions that occur before and during the time the chlorophyll in the leaves is dwindling. Temperature and moisture are the main influences.
“A succession of warm, sunny days and cool, crisp but not freezing nights seems to bring about the most spectacular color displays. During these days, lots of sugars are produced in the leaf but the cool nights and the gradual closing of veins going into the leaf prevent these sugars from moving out. These conditions — lots of sugar and lots of light — spur production of the anthocyanin pigments, which tint reds, purples, and crimson. Because carotenoids are always present in leaves, the yellow and gold colors remain fairly constant from year to year.
The amount of moisture in the soil also affects autumn colors. A late spring, or a severe summer drought, can delay the onset of fall color by a few weeks. A warm period during fall will also lower the intensity of autumn colors. A warm wet spring, favorable summer weather, and warm sunny fall days with cool nights should produce the most brilliant autumn colors. More rain or a deep freeze will arrest the foliage or cause them to drop earlier than normal.”
The Forest Service’s fall color hotline (1-800-354-4595) will provide details as the autumn color display progresses.