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Fabulous Fall Colors Even in the Rain – Where to go Leaf Peeping in Steamboat Springs

I’ve been to Steamboat Springs many times, but this was my first time to see it covered in a palette of autumnal hues. From Rabbit Ears Pass to the Yampa River, the fall colors are spectacular in Steamboat, even if you have to dodge rain showers like I did on my leaf peeping road trip.

I was going to hike Rabbit Ears Pass on way into Steamboat, but the storms on the pass made the alter my plans. I did take the road to Dumont Campground to enjoy the unique rock formation the pass is named for and to see the fall colors.

As a hike alternative, I decided to try Mad Creek Barn, one of my favorite summer hikes. Knowing there’s an aspen grove right before the meadow that is home to the historic barn. I figured it would be a great fall hike even in iffy weather. It was sprinkling when I started then a steady rain started about 15 minutes into my hike. I had my rain coat so I hiked anyway. I had the trail to myself, including at Mad Creek Barn. The barn was built in 1906 by local rancher James “Harry” Ratliff as his homestead. Historic barns are iconic symbols of Steamboat’s ranching heritage. It was getting close to dusk so I booked it back down the trail, not running into a soul on this popular trail until my last half mile where I encountered a party of three and a solo guy with their dogs. The good thing about hiking in the rain is the lack of crowds even on popular trails. Plus the fall colors in hues from rust to gold have a different look in the rain.

For dinner I headed to Aurum, one of my favorite restaurants in the state. Usually I dine on the deck so I can enjoy the Yampa River, but it was raining so I dined inside. I started with an “As You Wish” gin cocktail and dined on a jalapeño corn soup special, “Bee Grateful” salad, and pan seared Alamosa trout. I saved a little room for the chocolate terrine, one of their decadent desserts.

With a full tummy, I retreated to my room at The Steamboat Grand. I’ve stayed here multiple times becuase of its great location in Mountain Village. The rooms are usually spacious and some have kitchenettes. My room this time had a huge tub!

The next morning I was up early hoping to try Rabbit Ears Pass hike again. I stopped in the Drunken Onion, a grab-and-go market in the Wildhorse Marketplace. I got a latte and scone and headed up the pass. I didn’t get very far as the fog was already really thick on the west side of the pass.

I headed back into town and up to Fish Creek Falls. The falls are just a few minutes from downtown and the hike is short to the prime spot to see the 280-foot falls. It’s just 0.5 miles round trip. The colors along the short hike are wonderful. I had also thought about hiking to the upper falls but the rain started again.

Instead I met a friend at Creekside Cafe for lunch. Creekside is one of my favorite spots for breakfast in Steamboat. Instead of getting my usual Benedict, I decided to try the Veg-HEAD, their veggie burger with a house made bean patty. It was delicious and I was glad I tried something new at a place I love to go to.

During lunch the rain ended so I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring starting first at More Barn in Barn Park. More Barn is the iconic Steamboat historic barn often seen in ads and commercials. I had never been to it and enjoyed learning about its history. Lena Yock purchased her 160 acre homestead in 1903. A son built the log barn to shelter dairy cows and store hay around 1926. The Yocks retired from agriculture in 1957 and sold the land to neighboring rancher Jerry More and his family. More sold his land to a developer in 2006. In 2008, the developer deeded 4 acres including the barn and cabin to the City of Steamboat. The barn was listed on the Steamboat Springs Register of Historical Places in 2009.

From there I went to one of Steamboat’s most iconic spots for fall colors. The Yampa River is glorious any time of years, but especially beautiful in the fall. One of the best views in the 9th Street Bridge.

Late afternoon I went on a scenic drive on County Route 129, heading north from Steamboat. This is a drive I hadn’t done before. I was floored by the fall colors, expansive ranches, tiny towns and many, many scenic views. After about mile 20 there’s free range cattle too, so you have to keep your eyes peeled for wildlife and cows. I drove it all the way to where it turns into a dirt just pass the tiny village of Columbine, established in 1897. I was losing daylight fast so turned around to drive 34 miles back to Steamboat making a quick turn-off at about mile marker 25 to look at Steamboat Lake.

Still full from a late lunch, I just stopped at Wild Plum for a quick grab-n-go for dinner before heading back to the Steamboat Grand.

The next morning there were still some light rain showers. I waited those out and some fog and hit the road about 7:30am. I headed back over to Routt County 129 to make some of the stops I didn’t get to do the day before. First stop was at about mile 6. There’s a bridge with a no trespassing sign so I stayed on the roadside admiring the beauty of the fall colors and Elk River in the early morning light. I also stopped at Red Dirt Trailhead/Christina State Wildlife Area and wandered through the fall colors along the river.

As the road opened up to ranch land, I took the first left at about mile 7.5/8 onto Salt Creek Road (Routt County 52E). I drove down a little ways enjoying the cows and horses roaming in the fields and made a quick stop to look at Salt Creek.

At mile marker 16.5 I’ll pull into the first small town on the route. Clark was established Sept 16, 1889. I loved the town sign which says “Elevation 7271, Population?” I laughed at the question mark for population. I stopped at Clark General Store. It’s a convenience store, grocery store, deli, liquor store and post office all in one. I got a veggie burrito and coffee to go so I could find a pretty spot for a picnic.

Leaving Clark, right after I crossed a small bridge over the Elk River, I turned right onto Seedhouse Road. I rolled down my windows enjoying the fresh crisp air as I drove a couple of miles along the Elk River.

At about mile marker 22 on Routt County 129, I turned right again, this time on a dirt road and drove 2 miles to Pearl Lake. The picturesque small alpine lake was the perfect spot for my burrito picnic and a short hike in the aspens.

Once back on Routt County 129, I drove another 3 more miles. At Hahn’s Village, I turned left to the Salt Flats Area of Steamboat Lake at mile marker 25. Steamboat Lake was my turnaround point. It was absolutely stunning, especially with clouds building for afternoon rain. This might be my favorite fall scenic drive in Colorado because it has everything – a river, ranches, and tons of color with the aspens and cottonwoods. Calling it a picturesque and scenic drive is an understatement.

My last stop was at Yampa River Botanic Park. This 6-acre gem is one of several public gardens in the state. It’s free and open May through October. It’s home to over 60 gardens with ponds, pathways, sculptures and quiet spots. I happened to visit while an event was going on. Seeing art in motion like dancers on skis and hearing music during my visit was a wonderful end to leaf peeping in Steamboat Springs.

Jennifer Broome have traveled extensive in Colorado and across the Southwest. She has visited Steamboat Springs a lot. Check out blogs on Aurum, Hiking to Mad Creek Barn, or Snowshoeing on Rabbit Ears Pass for more on Steamboat.