Autumn in Colorado is never going to be the same as autumn on the east coast. We just don’t have as many trees that turn so many vibrant shades of color. But we do have cottonwoods and aspens and willows, all of which turn yellow (and sometimes the aspens even give us a little bit of orange)… usually some time around mid-September.
As we probably should have expected, given the utter chaos that was 2020, the status of Colorado’s fall colors was thrown into question when the mountains got a dusting of snow at the end of August. And then another storm rolled in immediately after Labor Day weekend and dumped up to 14 inches (36 cm) of snow. The cold and snow – coupled with the previous two months of drought – meant we were now at risk of the trees turning from green straight to brown.
But all hope was not lost. Although the colors weren’t as stellar as usual, Pat and I were able to find some bright yellow leaves again this year. We set off early on a Saturday morning for a scenic drive up and over Boreas Pass, a 22 mile (35.5 km) dirt road that connects the towns of Breckenridge and Como. It’s a fairly well-maintained road and plenty of sedans made the trip. There are some potholes to dodge and a couple very rocky sections; having clearance made it easier, but it should be manageable in pretty much any car.
The pass follows what used to be the Highline Route of the narrow-gauge Denver South Park & Pacific (DSP&P) railroad, connecting Denver to Leadville. This stretch from Breckenridge to Como was – at the time – the highest elevation narrow-gauge railroad route in the country. It was built to support the mining operations on which Colorado was essentially founded. The town of Breckenridge was established in 1859 when gold was found in the area, while mines near Leadville produced gold, silver, and – as you might guess from the name – lead. Como was originally settled by coal miners, but when the DSP&P built a railroad depot there it became a very important transportation hub as well.
The railroad was built from 1880-1884 and, though it changed hands a couple times, operated until 1937. By this point, mining was in decline and the automobile industry was ramping up, rendering the railroad no longer profitable. The tracks were dismantled soon after and the materials repurposed to support US efforts in WWII.
While Breckenridge is now a famous ski destination and Leadville is well-positioned to support outdoor recreation, Como has the appearance of a ghost town. About 400 people still live there, but you wouldn’t know it from a distance. Many of the buildings have fallen into disrepair. However, in the last few years they’ve been working to stabilize the old depot and roundhouse and rebuild some of the tracks, with the ultimate goal of offering tourists a short scenic and historic train ride. Also, the depot building is now a small museum.
How do I know all of this? Well, Pat and I stopped in Como to read a sign about the town’s history and wandered down to take a look at the old depot and adjacent hotel. There we encountered a man involved in the renovations, who walked us through the museum and told us all about this little old town. I hope this project brings in some tourist revenue for them!
But anyway, I’ve gotten a little off track here by talking about Como first. We actually started on the Breckenridge side of the pass. So let’s rewind a little bit. Boreas Pass Road climbs from the south end of Breckenridge, fairly quickly opening to provide some views of the town and surrounding mountains. People also walk and bike up this road; it’s typically plenty wide for everyone to share.
After taking in the views we found ourselves driving through tunnels of yellow, the road lined by aspens on both sides. Although this would be a pretty drive any time of year, it’s particularly advertised as a fall colors destination. I can see why.
After an extended stretch of yellow, we entered a pine forest. There are many dispersed campsites along this section of road. The road also passes Baker’s Tank, which was built to support the railroad. The sign doesn’t actually specify, but we’re assuming it was a water tank.
The road climbs gradually for about 12 miles (19 km), eventually topping out on the Continental Divide at Boreas Pass (elevation 11,482 feet/3500 m). There is a parking area here and some old buildings and railroad relics. The largest building is a Section House, built in 1881 to house the workers responsible for maintaining this section of the railroad. It was restored about 15 years ago and now serves as a visitor center – though it was closed due to COVID.
The other attraction here is a 3 mile (4.8 km) round-trip hike up to Black Powder Pass. We weren’t planning to do any hiking, as the air quality in Colorado had been pretty terrible all week due to smoke. However, the winds had changed overnight and the sky was blue once more, so we decided to go for it. The trail gained about 700 feet (215 m) through the remaining forest and up to the tundra and the pass. Not the most scenic hike we’ve ever done (let’s be honest… Colorado sets the bar pretty damn high when it comes to scenery) – but after a full week spent inside to avoid the suffocating smoke, it felt good to be up in the mountains again and breathing the crisp autumn air.
From here, it was all downhill to Como. The views aren’t quite as spectacular on this side of the pass. Also, the aspens on this side weren’t really turning yet. It’s amazing how simply driving over a mountain pass resulted in such a drastic difference.
And that brings us to Como and the end of Boreas Pass Road.
After our Como history lesson, we detoured a few miles to the south for some German-style beers and brats at South Park Brewery’s Oktoberfest celebration. And then it was back to Denver, thus completing our one-day Colorado fall colors/history/craft beer road trip.