Colorado is known as a wonderful fall destination, and aspen turn to gold in the high country in mid-September to mid-October. In particular, the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado offer fantastic opportunities to see fall colors while hiking, biking, swimming, or just wandering. The area around Owl Creek Pass and Silver Jack Reservoir is a special location with countless hillsides of golden aspen at the base of rocky peaks, beautiful hiking trails, and wonderful vistas just from the road.
The road starts off of US-550 just north of the town of Ridgway and south of Ridgway State Park. It is a dirt road that is generally accessible to all vehicles –though when wet or snowy, it is a good idea to have a high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle. The road has moderate traffic and can be muddy in spots. As you approach the pass, the most prominent peaks in the Cimarron Range are Chimney Rock (11,781 feet) and Courthouse Mountain (12,152 feet). The first mandatory stop is the Vista Point, which is 8.8 miles from US-550. It is a great spot to watch the sunset. A short walk along the trail southwest from the parking lot will lead you to a spot where there are oak groves and golden aspen in the foreground, spruce and fir closer to the mountains, and the rocky peaks in the background.
Another 5 miles up the road is the trailhead to Stealey Mountain Trail No. 219, which provides access to Courthouse Mountain from the west and connects to other trails. The trail winds through aspen groves, and it is open not only to hikers but to mountain bikers, horses, and motorized recreational vehicles.
Two miles up the road is True Grit Meadow, which offers great views of Chimney Rock and is named after John Wayne’s famous movie, a portion of which was filmed in that meadow. This is also a good spot to camp; though there are no facilities, dispersed camping is allowed throughout this area.
Sixteen miles from US-550 is Owl Creek Pass (10,120 feet). The road going south (860A) from there requires a high-clearance vehicle. It parallels the West Fork Cimarron River, and it offers access to some good sites to camp and also to the trail to Courthouse Mountain. The alternative is to proceed from Owl Creek Pass to Silver Jack Reservoir on road 860, which follows the West Fork Cimarron River going north. Along the way there are good vistas of aspen-covered hillsides and rocky outcrops.
Silver Jack Reservoir is 9 miles from Owl Creek Pass. There are plenty of spots for primitive camping around the north end of the reservoir along East Fork Cimarron River. Other places to camp a bit farther north include Silver Jack, Beaver Lake, and Big Cimarron campgrounds. From the reservoir there are fantastic vistas of aspen and peaks on both the east (including High Mesa, 11,540 feet) and west (Cimarron Ridge South, 11,526 feet). Hikes include High Mesa and Windy Point to the east and Lou Creek Pass to the west.
Cows range free along the road, so drive slowly and be careful. Further, as in any other high country roads in Colorado, weather can change rapidly and be unpredictable. Snowstorms are not uncommon in late September to early October when fall colors peak in this area. Cell phone reception is spotty at best, so you can get the local weather forecast by tuning to FM 99.1.