Fall color-time trips always feel like racing across a one-way bridge between lands of warmth and coolness. Being on either side is OK, but the only place you can feel both natures is from the bridge.
Everyone else likes that balanced spot, too, and so the traffic pushes you on. Before you know it the colors have peaked and it's all over for another year.
The bright blaze in its moment always makes it hard to resist color country's call. New England is a perpetual favorite for diverse and dense colors. The entire northeastern United States outside of big cities is full of color, yet very crowded. The following are favorite fall color places where you can probably linger a while on the span between summer and winter.
Starting in the West, the higher you go into the Rockies, the more likely you are to see stands of aspen trees turning colors. Colorado is noted statewide for putting on a show.
There are more shades of color at lower altitudes, but the high fluttery golden aspens between 7,500 and 10,000 feet take the applause. They burst like golden charges under a royal sky, with forested evergreen hillsides spattered by the acre in vertical explosions of consistently electric color.
Some of the best viewing of colors is in the southwestern corner of the state and in the surrounding Four Corners area where you can stand simultaneously in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, where their borders converge.
This year, towns throughout the Four Corners region have sponsored Colorfest '86.
For the best colors you can drive from Durango to Silverton on a road called the Million-Dollar Highway, supposedly so-called because when it was originally paved the locals were so well off from the booming gold mines in their region that they could afford to pave this 50-mile stretch with gold chips. Others believe that the name came from the million-dollar views.
In any case, the road is rimmed by 13,000- and 14,000-foot mountain peaks splashed heavily with the glimmering gold-turning aspen leaves. The road also gets its heaviest use at this time of year as even the locals come out to rubberneck at the incredible beauty.
You can beat the traffic by going off-road for a guided Jeep tour, or you can rent a vehicle for your own four-wheel-drive excursions. Horses from numerous sources are available for trail rides.
Tamarron Resort is midway between Durango and Silverton and on the highway. They keep 35 horses in the heart of the color country just for such trips. Autumn rates, $90-$180 for a double room, phone (800) 525-5420.
If you are lucky enough to get a seat, you might want to travel on the Silverton narrow-gauge train. It cores through the heart of the colors four times daily, making the 90-mile round trip in around seven hours.
The steam-powered train ride is always a visual pleasure of river-carved gorges, mountain summits and endless unpopulated forests. The great Animas River roars below the rail bed and San Juan National Forest crowds the track on both sides. The colors quake in the wind, so close in places that you can touch leaves from the slow train.
There are moments when the swaying 20-m.p.h. train's rhythm of clamoring metals oddly lulls you into a hypnotic reverie, then suddenly you are seized by immersion into color, electric gold, bright enough to make you squint, then you pass through it, or it through you, it's sometimes hard to tell, as quickly as you made contact. Bring lots of film for this. The train ride costs $28 for adults, $14 for children, round trip. Season ends Oct. 26.
A Few Unsung Gems
Special hints: Here are a few unsung gems where you can stay and dine around the Four Corners. The Cortez Inn, $35 to $67, October to May, is the newest place in town. A great place for friendly hospitality in the heart of Indian country. Phone (303) 565-6000.
Up the road toward Telluride you'll find the Rico Motel, $25 to $30, double, phone (303) 967-2444. This is authentic mountain style. Rico probably has under 50 year-round residents, but the colors are outstanding near this extremely remote town.
In Mancos a restaurant called Millwood Junction serves possibly the best seafood in these parts at a Friday night seafood buffet for $11.50. The food is great on other nights, too. Entrees range from $9 to $16.
Father Murphy's, in Durango, makes good mixed drinks and also serves good sandwiches, about $4, entrees $5 to $9. Tamarron Resort and the antique Strater Hotel are not unsung, but they are dependably good places to stay. Rates at the Strater are $62 to $98, dropping by $10 in mid-October. Phone (800) 247-4431.
Call (800) 228-4524 for areawide information and reservations.
Up in the north country, in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of Minnesota, a special color bridge can only be crossed by paddlers in a canoe. The Boundary Waters are a million acres of lakes south of the Canadian border and west of the Great Lakes.