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Chasing Fall Splendor on Colorado’s Western Slope

Elk graze in Telluride’s Valley Floor conservation area.

Follow the yellow tree road to Telluride.

Ribbons of fog and quick-moving snow blew sideways as my guide, Eliza, and I scaled Elliott Mountain’s jagged ridgeline in search of a golden window. It was the first day of October in southwest Colorado’s moody San Juan Mountains, and the untimely wintry mix had thrown a wrench in my long-held dream of witnessing peak fall foliage from the summit of one of the area’s famed fourteeners. Mother Nature’s wrinkle instead rerouted us to a lower perch – still some 12,000 feet skyward – where, winded and wide-eyed, we were greeted by a blur of clouds and mist. And then, just before our descent, the shrouded white wall cracked ever so slightly, unveiling an electric aspen vista aglow on the forest floor.

This wasn’t my first trip to the San Juans, but it proved to be my most auspicious. I fell in love with this quiet and hard-to-reach nook of Colorado – just over seven hours by car from Denver and roughly the same from Salt Lake City – on a cross-country road trip with my dog, Gus, more than a decade ago. Over the years, we’ve hiked beneath summer rainbows on its craggy, high-altitude trails; cold-plunged in the crisp waters of the San Miguel River; and rode Telluride’s fabled gondola like a carnival come and gone, up and down and back again. A week too early. A day too late. I’d always just missed seeing the majestic range crowned in full-on fall glory.

Dunton Hot Springs’ Bath House.

Quaking aspens and their autumnal hues have long lured leaf peepers to Colorado. “You came at the perfect time,” Eliza told me as we gazed at one whirl of yellow after another on our drive down the mountain to Dunton Hot Springs, where a swanky cabin awaited me in a resurrected ghost town. “Did you know they’re one of the biggest organisms on earth?” As a matter of fact, I did. What I soon discovered, however, was that groups of these whimsical members of the willow family are called a “stand,” and below the soil, their entwined roots grow together as if holding hands. And here I thought they had me at yellow.

Madeline Hotel & Residences in Telluride’s Mountain Village.

Heightening the season’s allure was my hideaway at Dunton, a secluded resort tucked in a storybook alpine valley (elevation: 8,850 feet) about an hour southwest of Telluride. More than a century ago, the property – like many a mountain alcove – bloomed as a settlement for west-moving miners in pursuit of silver and gold. When Christoph Henkel purchased it in 1994 and renovated in the years after, the retreat’s four manganese-rich thermal pools swapped body-worn prospectors for Gucci-wearing adventurers and the occasional A-lister. (While browsing its cozy library, a stand-alone structure built out of an old granary, I spied an Oscar winner’s signature in the guest book.)

Wrapping Dunton’s 14 historic cabins, which gleam with Old West furnishings and artwork handpicked by Christoph’s spouse, art dealer Katrin Bellinger, is an amphitheater of conifers and red rock. My two-bedroom log abode hung on the edge of the Dolores River. Bundled up over a hot cup of coffee on the back deck, I’d listen to its trickling soundtrack at sunrise while, in real time, the distant aspen tree line transformed before my eyes. Afternoons, I’d rotate between the Fall Creek Trail, beautified by a 40-foot waterfall on Dunton’s back end, and the nineteenth-century Bath House’s alfresco hot spring, stamped with fourteener views of snow-dusted El Diente.

Main Street, Telluride.

Jonathan Ross

But my mission had to roll on, so after a couple of days I hopped in the car and headed 32 miles away to Telluride, my favorite place on earth. The celebrated ski town shines on Colorado’s Western Slope come wintertime, but arrive in early fall – after festival and monsoon season and a few months shy of steady, knee-deep powder – and, in comparison to the ever-busy Vails, Aspens, and Park Cities of the world, the crowds are more than mild. Even Bridal Veil Falls, Colorado’s tallest waterfall at 365 feet, gushes at a summertime clip.

Few byways, if any at all, rival the scenery of the San Juan Skyway, and on a sun-splashed October day, it leaves travelers searching for superlatives. Strawberry brushstrokes and tints of apricot would crash the treetop palette party in just a few days’ time. Overlooks were crowded, brimming with long-lensed photographers aiming at Wilson Peak and its gold-laced foreground. Farther ahead, a herd of elk grazed riverside in a blonde valley as road-trippers pulled off and pointed out their windows.

On my final day in the neighborhood, I joined a group of leaf peepers on a frigid open-air Jeep tour. Numb-faced but wowed, we skirted up a janky dirt road to wild mountain crannies high above Telluride’s box canyon, which was dappled in sunlight thousands of feet below. When the vehicle parked, a lone aspen stand wreathing a rock spire, ablaze and luxuriant, transfixed my gaze as if placing me under a spell. I couldn’t look away.

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