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Park City Fall Colors

Mountains majesty includes radiant trees Brian E. Clark September 5, 2010 Park City, Utah

— I prefer my mountains in winter, covered in deep snow. But coming in a close second is autumn, when the hills are ablaze with golden aspen. Many of the best places to see shimmering, translucent leaves are near ski and snowboard resorts, where visitors can take scenic chairlift rides to admire the foliage from on high.

RELATED STORIES: Leave summer behind with tour of autumn foliage. Colorado and Utah alone have 2 million acres covered with an estimated 1 billion aspen trees. Other mountain states, with their backdrops of rocky summits, dark pines, scrub oak and blue skies, have plenty to see starting mid-September.

Park City Fall Colors

Here are four winning drives, ranging from southwestern Colorado to the Badlands of South Dakota:

The 50-mile stretch of the San Juan Skyway from Telluride to Ouray in Colorado offers some of the planet’s most stunning fall scenery. For starters — and this part is on foot — take Telluride’s free gondola from town up 1,750 feet to Station St. Sophia, elevation 10,500 feet, for awe-inspiring views of leaves, ski runs and mountains. Then head west out of Telluride along the San Miguel River to Placerville. Go over the rugged Dallas Divide around Mount Sneffels, which tops out at 14,500 feet and is one of the most photographed peaks in Colorado. At Ridgway, head south through a broad valley bordered by red cliffs and mesas. Soon you’ll be in a constricted canyon with soaring peaks all around. This is the mining town of Ouray, which calls itself the Switzerland of America.

For those who like a little adventure, jeep tours head up to the 13,114-foot Imogene Pass from either Telluride or Ouray. If you want you can rent a four-wheeler to do this scary drive on your own. For Telluride info: (888) 605-2578, visittelluride.com. Ouray: (800) 228-1876, ouraycolorado.com.

Utah’s 9,700-foot Guardsman Pass connects the laid-back mountain town of Park City and the Brighton ski resort in neighboring Big Cottonwood Canyon. Along the way, you’ll see panoramic majestic vistas and abundant aspen. (You also get great views from the chairlifts at nearby Deer Valley, Park City and Canyons resorts.) To get on the road from Park City, follow Prospect Street south into the mountains, climbing past chairlifts to Guardsman Pass Road towards Brighton. You’ll be on a dirt road that’s a ski trail in winter. But don’t worry: unless your car has very low clearance, you can make it. More info  :(800) 453-1360, parkcityinfo.com.

The loop drive from Jackson, Wyo., to Teton National Park offers views of the Grand Teton — elevation 13,770 feet — framed by golden aspen trees. Head north from Jackson to Teton Village, where you can ride the Jackson Hole tram to Corbet’s Cabin at 10,400 feet. Then carry on via the Inner Loop Road through the park to Moose Junction. Continue north to Jackson Lake Lodge and return to Jackson via Highway 89. You’ll probably see elk and moose. This drive is one of the top loop drives in a national park because of the craggy peaks that rise more than 7,000 feet above the valley. Another sure bet is the 17-mile route over 9,000-foot Teton Pass to Victor, Idaho, from Jackson. Be sure to stop in the Victor Emporium, famed for its huckleberry shakes. More info:(888) 333-7766, jacksonhole.com.

In the rugged Badlands of South Dakota, one of the best autumn drives — complete with shining oranges, brilliant reds, subtle browns and purples of burr oak, paper birch, dogwood and quaking aspen trees — is a 70-mile loop with hairpin curves, spiraling “pigtail” bridges and slender granite pinnacles. It’s part of the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway, which runs through Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Custer State Park. Don’t be surprised if you come upon the park’s 1,500-strong herd of buffalo. Be patient, they’ll pass in time.