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COLORADO

Novel lodges for leaf peepers

By day, admire the glorious fall foliage north of Telluride. By night, crawl into a yurt. They're roomy and surprisingly comfy.

October 12, 2008|Dan Blackburn | Special to The Times

RIDGWAY, COLO. — In Spanish, Colorado means red. In autumn, Colorado means red, yellow, orange, gold and green leaves and very blue sky. The combination is so breathtaking that you can use up every bit of memory -- in your brain and your digital camera -- trying to take it all in.

We found a special way to do just that on a four-day trip in early October: We stayed in a yurt, a dwelling developed in the 12th century by Mongolian nomads in central Asia.

In the last few years, a handful of companies have been building their own versions for those who want a touch of extra comfort outdoors.

When a friend told us about the yurts at Ridgway State Park north of Telluride, my longtime partner, Gloria Cortes, and I decided that this would be a great place to stay while enjoying the state's famed fall color.

Peak season runs from late September to mid-October, depending on the weather, something to keep in mind when you're planning next year's journey here.

The yurt that awaited us at the state park, which is home to some of the most glorious fall color anywhere in the West, was as pleasing -- and jaw-dropping -- as the scenery on our drive from L.A.

Big enough to sleep six people comfortably, the structure contained beds, a couch, a table, chairs, a refrigerator and microwave, a propane stove that turned on automatically, lights and ample electrical outlets. No bathroom, however. An extraordinarily clean restroom is nearby.

We are enthusiastic campers who usually sleep in a tent on trips, so to us, the yurt was a new standard of outdoor luxury. (However, you do need sleeping bags, plus lanterns and a camp stove for cooking on the metal picnic table outside the front door.)

Indoor cooking, although possible, is not encouraged. Need supplies? The small town of Ridgway is only a 10-minute drive away.

Seventeen yurts are scattered across seven of Colorado's state parks, said Kirstin Copeland, an 11-year park veteran and current manager. Three of the yurts, which were built eight years ago, are located at Ridgway. They are gaining in popularity; we had been advised to make our reservation a month and a half early and were glad we did.

Copeland said that more than 500 people a year now check into the park's canvas and wood yurts.

"We've been really surprised that they have withstood both the passage of time and the many, many occupants," she said.

Given that much traffic, it is amazing the yurts look almost new. They were also a cheerfully snug, warm place in which to review our photos at the end of the day.

The most difficult decision was deciding among the many nearby places to see the spectacular fall colors, which draw photographers and visitors from around the world.

We linked up for a couple of hours with internationally known outdoor photographer George Lepp, who was leading a weeklong workshop in the area. "There's enough to keep you busy for at least a week," he said, summarizing our dilemma nicely.

From a central launch point, you can head out to a full day at a single location; the area is so large that you can't do more than that. The changes in color come in waves. What was green one week may be multicolored the next. Most people stay in the area four or five days.

This year, we found some of the best fall color and scenery around Owl Creek Pass, which tops out at a little more than 10,000 feet. County Road 10, just north of Ridgway, is a sometimes rough dirt road that is accessible to any vehicle with moderate clearance. It winds steadily up to the pass and then drops down into mostly marvelous scenery around the Silver Jack Reservoir area.

We lost count of the number of times we stopped to marvel.

The pass is in the Cimarron range and provides several views of Chimney Rock, one of the area's most prominent landmarks.

It would be almost criminally remiss not to mention Red Mountain Pass, another important and easily reached pass, the high point of the so-called Million Dollar Highway, which is officially known as U.S. 550.

Another popular area for fall colors is the Dallas Divide along Colorado 62 west of Ridgway, where many classic autumn photos have been taken. The many dramatic settings also make it a favorite of moviemakers. (Think "True Grit" starring John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn.)

But Jim Pettingill, who lives in Ridgway and has photographed the region for many years, argues that the fall color is only part of the picture.

"It's not just the fall color . . . but also the dramatic mountains with their extraordinary rock formations, the old, abandoned mining ghost towns and the history of the region that all play a part in making this area so popular with visitors," he says.

He's right. History. Scenery. Cool place to stay. Lots to see, plenty to do. What's not to love? As our governor would say, we'll be back.

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travel@latimes.com

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The route to fall color

THE BEST WAY TO COLORADO

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