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Rocky Mountain Majesty: When the crisp cool of autumn arrives, the colorful hardwoods are a sight to behold

Writer and Photographer: ANN BUSH | Sept.-Oct. 2017

On this cold October morning, my German Shepherd mix Tipper and I are deep in the heart of the Rocky Mountains using the Continental Divide as our guide. Eyepopping autumn colors engulf us as we cruise through San Isabel National Forest to St. Elmo, one of the best preserved ghost towns in America.

In the 1880s, St. Elmo’s founders were drawn by dreams of gold and silver. At one time, the 2,000 residents supported a general store, town hall, saw mill, hotels, church, school and, of course, a saloon. When the mining industry declined, trains stopped running and most people moved away.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, St. Elmo is now popular with tourists. Open all summer, the general store offers strong coffee, snacks and St. Elmo souvenirs.

After a hike through Iron City Campground, Tipper and I head north. The mountains and San Isabel National Forest are ablaze with soaring white and gold aspens. Soon we reach Tennessee Pass where, at an altitude of 10,424 feet, we cross paths with the Great Divide.

RED CLIFF

When we pass a small sign with “historic inn” written in red letters, I turn down a steep curvy road and drive deep into the

forest to Red Cliff. Another former mining camp, Red Cliff is surrounded by rugged rose quartzite cliffs. In the middle of a pristine wilderness, the village has kept its charming historic character. It is now a destination for cross-country skiing and snowmobiling and, in the summer, bicycling and fishing.

After checking into The Green Bridge Inn, a family-owned historic hotel that reflects the village’s culture and rustic style, I head across the street to the Mango Grill to dine on delicious shrimp tacos.

By morning, a 2-inch snowfall overnight has changed everything. Gold and red leaves rest beneath fluffy white flakes and many of the scenic passes are closed.

The innkeeper says we should head north where we will encounter The Red Cliff Bridge (also known as Green Bridge), a marvelous cantilevered steel arch bridge. After undergoing a $3.6 million renovation, it received a National Steel Bridge Alliance Award for the best Reconstructed Bridge.

We are not far from the headwaters, where the 1,450-mile long Colorado River emerges as runoff from snow melt. It gains force as it joins other rivers flowing southwest through the Grand Canyon and ultimately ending into the Gulf of Mexico at Baja, California.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK

It’s snowing again as we reach the Kawuneeche Visitor Center, the west side entry point into the Rocky Mountain National Park, and learn that Trail Ridge Road leading into the park is blocked by 13 inches of snow dumped by a blizzard. Our only option is to go south for 40 miles and take another road entering the park.

It is almost bedtime when Tipper and I stagger into a hotel in Estes Park. The next day we finally make it to the BeaverMeadows entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park, which covers 400 squaremiles of meadows, rivers,

lakes, canyons, forests and mountains.

We savor every breathtaking view as we twist and turn through the park’s alpine ecosystem. Golden leaves still cling to stately aspens amid boulders, pine trees, juniper and chokecherry bushes. The inspiring drive serves as the perfect pinnacle to our mountain road trip.

 

Ann Bush is a Tyler-based freelance writer and photographer, she often hops in the car with her four-legged travel companion Tipper for natur excursions.

 

BE A WISE TRAVELER

What you need to know before going to Rocky Mountain National Park.

— Entrance fees are $20 per automobile for a weekly pass, or $10 if you enter on bicycle, motorcycle, or foot. An annual pass costs $40.

— Backcountry camping requires a permit that’s $26 per party from May through October, and free the rest of the year. You can get your permit online, by phone (970-586–1242), or in person. In person, you can get a day-of-trip permit year-round at one of the park’s two backcountry offices, located next to the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center and in the Kawuneeche Visitor Center.

— The park is open 24/7 year-round; some roads close in winter. It is in the Mountain time zone.

— Cell phones work in some sections of the park, and free Wi-Fi can be accessed in and around the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center and the Kawuneeche Visitor Center.

— Medical assistance is available at visitor centers and ranger stations at Longs Peak and Wild Basin (daily in summer, weekends only in winter). Estes Park and Granby have medical centers.

Source: Fodor’s Travel, fodors.com

CLOSER TO HOME

If you love the seeing hardwoods take on magnificent colors during fall, you’re in luck. There are great places to see the changing of the trees right here in East Texas.

Love’s Lookout: Situated atop a large hill, on Highway 69 just north of Jacksonville Love’s Lookout Scenic Park looks over a broad valley — a wide expanse of beautiful forest some 30 to 35 miles.

Texas State Railroad: Running between depots in Rusk and Palestine, the Texas State Railroad takes rail passengers right through the heart of an East Texas hardwood forest.

Winnsboro area: This charming Wood County town is known for its scenic fall driving routes and celebrates the changing of the seasons with the Autumn Trails Festival each October.

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