Summer’s wildflowers have faded, but a new burst of color is coming to Colorado’s mountains. Fall is here, and with the cooler temperatures, stable weather and glut of aspen gold, it’s one of the best seasons to get out for a hike.
Fall color normally hits in northern Colorado in mid-September, and the gold rush heads south from there, lingering into early October in our state’s southern reaches.
Whether you’ve got an afternoon for a family hike, a full day for a big climb or a long weekend for a getaway to Telluride, you’ll find a trail here that takes in autumn’s arboreal wonders. Take a look and lace up those shoes — the gold doesn’t last forever.
Editor’s Note: Given the uncertain nature of the coronavirus outbreak, make sure to check in with land managers before heading to the trail. And head to The Know to see more photos.
Fall hikes in Northern Colorado
Fern Lake Trail
Where: Rocky Mountain National Park
Hike length: 3.4 to 9.8 miles (round trip)
This trail starts on the upper end of Moraine Park and follows the Big Thompson, which rages with snowmelt through spring and early summer — and turns Fern Falls (2.5 miles from the trailhead) into a welcome misty respite for hot hikers. When the waters fade in the fall, the lower trail turns into a path of gold. Hiking with the kids? Aim for The Pool, a scenic spot 1.7 miles in overlooking the river; this is also a good turnaround for a relatively flat 5K trail run. More ambitious hikers will want to continue on to the falls, where the trail climbs through the forest, and the stunning backdrop of peaks at Fern Lake (3.8 miles). The imposing cliffs that rise over Odessa Lake (4.9 miles from the trailhead) are worth the extra push.
Flash of Gold:
Where: Buffalo Pass, Steamboat Springs
Hike length: 11.5 miles (one way)
Steamboat might be known for its champagne powder, but fall brings a noteworthy gold rush to the hills here. In season, the Flash of Gold is aptly named — it’s a trail lined with aspen groves starting at the Dry Lake parking area, 4 miles up County Road 38 from Steamboat Springs. If that seems like too long of a hike for the family, check out Panorama, a 1.25-mile loop from the Dry Lake parking area that has incredible views of slopes covered in gold.
Fall hikes near Denver
Black Bear and Horseshoe Loop
Where: Golden Gate State Park
Hike length: 5.4 miles (round-trip)
Golden Gate State Park is only 30 miles west of Denver, but it might as well be another world, thanks to uncrowded trails that wind through the lowlands, like this lollipop loop. Come fall, the colors transform the scenery into a true Golden Gate. One of the few hiker-only trails in the park, Black Bear climbs up a creek drainage through dense foliage, trees that grow so thick in spots they create an arc over the path. The grade is steady until it reaches an open meadow. Cruise past the backcountry campsites (terrific options for novice backpackers) and discover the ruins of a homestead site settled by John Frazer — a sign points out his vegetable garden.
Royal Arch Trail
Where: Chautauqua Park, Boulder
Hike length: 3.5 miles (round-trip)
This trail at the uber-popular Chautauqua Trailhead should be avoided at peak hours because of the crowds. But if you start early — before 8 a.m. — or can get there on a weekday, you’ll see why this trail to a red-rock arch is so popular. The hike is relatively short but climbs more than 1,300 feet in elevation, so it feels like you’ve accomplished something. In the fall, cooler temperatures ease the ascent, and the leaves burst forth in golds and reds that brighten the rust-hued backdrop of the Flatirons. The hike begins with a short hill through a grassy field, then enters the woods and continues past the base of three Flatiron rock formations and ends at a flagstone staircase leading up to the spectacular Royal Arch. Expect views of changing leaves across the entire Boulder Valley and, if you’re there at the right time, raptors soaring in the sky.
Lair O’ The Bear Trail
Hike length: 12.6 miles (round-trip)
Set off of Bear Creek Canyon west of Morrison, this popular Front Range trail is one you’ll share with mountain bikers. The route begins with a mellow walk along Bear Creek, past cottonwood trees that glow gold in the fall. After passing Dunafon Castle on the right (just over 1 mile from the parking lot), a sharp left turn takes hikers onto singletrack that climbs up several switchbacks for a mile or so of ascent. The hill crests, descends and heads through a meadow before moving back into the trees. At the intersection of the Panorama Point trail, hikers can take a left onto it to then climb to the top of a ridge for a view and some photos of the fall splendor before following the same route back to the trailhead.
Big Bluestem Trail
Where: Boulder, Open Space and Mountain Parks
Hike length: 4.35 miles (round-trip) with opportunity to add on
One of the rare Boulder trails that offers relative solitude, Big Bluestem connects with the Mesa Trail toward the southernmost end of Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks system. Rebuilt after the 2013 flood, this path snakes through knee-high prairie grasses putting on a fall show — big bluestem turns red in autumn — before climbing about a mile to its terminus with the Mesa Trail. The hike begins at the South Mesa Trailhead in Eldorado Canyon, but don’t be dismayed by crowds. Once you turn north into Big Bluestem from the Mesa Trail (at mile 1), you’re more likely to see a fox or deer than throngs of hikers. Enjoy the steady climb through aspen groves and bushes bright with berries before entering the pine forest for a quarter mile. Multiple options can extend the adventure: Shadow Canyon to the south or Shanahan Ridge to the north. Or simply turn left onto the Mesa Trail for a 2.5-mile downhill walk back to the trailhead.
Fall hikes on the I-70 corridor
Vasquez Ridge Trail
Where: Winter Park
Hike length: Up to 16 Miles (out and back)
This hike with plenty of peak-bagging options starts just a few miles from downtown Winter Park. From the Arapahoe Trailhead, which begins where Vasquez Road ends, cyclists are allowed on 4-miles of the rugged two-track (it’s also popular among equestrians), up to the 12,300 acre Vasquez Peak Wilderness boundary. Look for moose and signs of beaver as you climb through the lush and golden-leafy landscape toward treeline. In the high alpine, the trail switchbacks across smooth hills as it climbs to Vasquez Pass, where views of nearby Stanley Mountain and Vasquez Peak compete with the more distant and jagged Indian Peaks Wilderness to the east. Head west on a spur trail to 12,947-foot Vasquez Peak and then return via the same route — and celebrate the effort with margaritas and fish tacos at Pepe Osaka’s Fish Taco Bar and Grill in Winter Park.
Tenderfoot Trail and Tenderfoot Mountain
Hike length: 2.6 miles to end of trail or 6 miles to the summit (round-trip)
At 11,441 feet, Tenderfoot Mountain sits in the shadow of impressive Tenmile Range Peaks that tower to the west of Lake Dillon. The trail up this inconspicuous peak begins off County Road 51, only 2.3 miles off Exit 205 on Interstate 70. The lower, established trail is 1.3 miles one way and is a great family outing or a casual out and back (especially as an escape from highway traffic). Views of the Tenmile Range across Lake Dillon and the Gore Range to the west are postcard-worthy, and even more so in the autumn. The formal trail ends at a bench with a great lookout. Unlike most Colorado mountains, the best views for Tenderfoot are here at the base of the peak. Adventurous hikers can carry on another 2.2 miles on an improvised trail that eventually links into a matrix of forest roads that lead to the tree-covered summit.
Hike length: 9.4 miles (round-trip)
Even though this is a higher-mileage hike, it’s worth the walk. Take the Meadow Creek Trail (just off the north side of I-70 at Exit 203) and follow it as it passes cascading waterfalls, tall aspen groves and pine forests. The din of nearby traffic quickly fades as the peaceful trail gradually climbs to one of the most stunning alpine meadows in Colorado. Small ponds are fringed with blazing yellow and red willows as Eccles Pass comes into view. Climb to the saddle at 11,990 feet that looks out on the gorgeous lakes of South Willow Creek basin (an excellent backcountry backpacking destination) and 13,189-foot Red Peak in the distance. From the pass, it’s a 0.6-mile walk-up (one-way) to the modest summit of 12,313-foot Eccles Peak to the east, and 1 mile west (one-way) along class 2-lus slopes to the seldom visited top of 12,902-foot Deming Mountain.
Where: County Road 390, Leadville
Hike length: 5 miles (round-trip)
At 12,508 feet, Hope Pass ascends the Colorado Trail up Sheep Gulch through vanilla-scented pine forests and shimmering aspen groves, eventually chugging up above treeline to a saddle between 13,933-foot Mount Hope and 13,481-foot Quail Mountain. Views of the Rocky Mountain’s highest summits stand to the north, including Colorado’s loftiest summit, 14,433-foot Mount Elbert. Huron Peak, a 14,003-foot summit to the southwest, is often combined with a hike of Hope Pass over a weekend. Hope Pass is right in the heart of Colorado’s biggest mountains and the trail is well maintained. If you’re feeling burly, the off-trail scramble up Mount Hope’s class-3 East Ridge is a lot of fun. If you’re feeling just a little burly, a small lake on the north side of the pass is a nice destination for lunch and natural swimming pool for mountain dogs.
Eccles Pass and Red Buffalo Pass Thru Hike
Where: Meadow Creek Trail, Frisco, to Gore Creek Trail, Vail
Hike length: 13.6 miles (one way)
This challenging trek makes for a rewarding (but long) day out in breathtaking terrain through aspen and pine forests and alpine meadows (Note: fall comes to the tundra in more subtle but still stunning ways). Leave a car at the start of the Gore Creek Trail in East Vail, then drive over Vail Pass to Frisco to begin at Meadow Creek (or reverse it –the hike is accessible in either direction). From Meadow Creek, the trail climbs through the forest and then opens into alpine meadows before ascending Eccles Pass (11,917 feet), then past two lakes and up Red Buffalo Pass (11,742 feet). From the top, it’s a steady descent toward valley. Four miles from the start of the Gore Creek Trail, hikers will pass a marked split to Gore Lake on the right. Continue past the fork to make your way to the car.
Where: Boreas Pass, Breckenridge
Hike length: 5.8 miles (round-trip)
The dreamy summit views of 13,684-foot Bald Mountain span the length of the Tenmile Range from Peak 1 to Quandary Peak and beyond to Mosquito Range summits. Below, vibrant colors skirt the lower slopes of Breckenridge Ski Resort, where golden aspen forests swirl between stands of stalwart evergreens. This hike begins on the summit of Boreas Pass, a hard-packed dirt road accessible to passenger cars. Follow the Black Powder Trail to Black Powder Pass. From this saddle between Bald Mountain and 13,082-foot Boreas Mountain, leave the trail and ascend class-2 slopes to the top, hopping through a few stable boulder fields along the way. The broad, flat summit is perfect for looking out on the world. Hikers looking for a bigger day can tack on the class-2, off-trail walk-up to Boreas Mountain from Black Power Pass, which adds 2.5 total miles to the day.
Where: Beaver Creek
Hike length: 3.5 miles (one way)
A chairlift can give you a hand halfway through this hike. Begin this trail from Beaver Creek Village at the base of the ski resort’s Centennial Express Lift to hike your way into aspens and evergreens — and up an incline that climbs about 2,000 feet to the Spruce Saddle Lodge. Switchbacks help alleviate some of the vertical, but this is an uphill challenge to the top. The final mile of the climb reveals sweeping views of the ski resort and peaks blanketed in aspens in the Sawatch Range, and there’s a lookout that is ideal for a picture or a picnic. At the lodge, hikers can stop for a bite or a drink. The Centennial Express chairlift is closed for the season so you’ll have to hike down yourself.
Fall hikes Crested Butte and the Southwest
Where: Schofield Pass, Crested Butte
Hike length: About 12 miles
There’s no parking on Schofield Pass, so either hitch a ride or plan to trek uphill about two miles on Gothic Road to this iconic trail. Beloved by mountain bikers, the 401 is a Colorado classic that’s also open to hikers and trail runners. From the pass (10,707 feet), the trail climbs about two miles to an open alpine meadow high above treeline with stunning views of the surrounding peaks — and their aspen-covered flanks. This is a Big Picture type of hike, the kind that reminds you of how little a speck we humans are on the grand scheme of things. From its high point, the trail descends gradually for about seven more miles, a snaking singletrack that drops first through the pines and then lower, into a sea of aspen groves that lasts for several miles. Here the views from earlier are replaced by swaths of mesmerizing golden leaves. Bring a map as there are several options for ending the hike early. But most of all: look around. And as you marvel, keep an eye out for cyclists and others — this is a popular trail throughout the year.
Yankee Boy Basin trails
Where: Mount Sneffels Wilderness, Ouray
Hike length: 2 to 11 miles (round-trip)
Yankee Boy Basin is a popular spot for wildflowers, four-wheeling and fly fishing, but it’s just as good for fall hiking. After following county roads 361 and 26 just outside of town for around 8 miles, looks for a restroom marking the lower trailhead. (If you don’t have a heavy-duty, four-wheel-drive vehicle, do not continue 1.8 more miles to the upper trailhead.) Beautiful blue waters and lush foliage dominate the trail, and Sneffels Creek provides a soothing soundtrack. A quarter mile past the upper trail sign, there’s a junction: go right for the Mt. Sneffels Trail (the summit is 1.2 miles from upper trailhead), or left to Blue Lakes Pass Trail to extend the hike to 11 miles round-trip. The scenery changes dramatically here from green and gold to tundra and rock.
Jud Wiebe Trail
Where: Uncompahgre National Forest, Telluride
Hike length: 3 miles (round-trip)
It’s not hard to find good hiking in the Telluride region, given the surrounding San Juan Mountains. The Jud Wiebe Trail, though, is one of the most popular hiking spots for Telluriders and visitors alike. The 3-mile loop can be accessed from two spots in town — at the top of North Aspen or North Oak streets. It’s a steady, steep trek either way. The trail passes through several aspen groves as the trail levels out towards the back of the loop. Just a quarter mile from the Aspen Street trailhead is a spur to the Cornet Falls Trail, a quick diversion to the most beautiful falls this side of Bridal Veil, on the other end of town.
Fall hikes in the Aspen area
Where: Snowmass, White River National Forest
Hike length: 3.4 miles (round-trip)
More Sunday stroll than uphill cardio party, this trail is a local favorite for morning or evening dog walks (leash law is strictly enforced). Aptly named for following an old irrigation ditch, a flat start cuts across the ski area on Snowmass mountain. Continuing under the Campground chair lift, the trail leads to a bench that marks the spot for prime leaf peeping. After taking in hued views of Mount Daly, the trail continues with a gentle climb up to the West Government Trail and then descends to the East Snowmass Trail, ending at a convergence of trailheads that’s a popular gateway deeper into the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. It’s a short and sweet out-and-back trail that fits into any itinerary, despite the 20-minute drive from downtown Aspen and faint sound of dogs barking for the first few minutes (Krabloonik Mountain Dining & Dogsledding is located just below the parking lot).
Cathedral Lake Trail
Where: Aspen, White River National Forest
Hike length: 5.6 miles (round-trip)
Just past Ashcroft Ghost Town and before Pine Creek Cookhouse on Castle Creek Road, make a right at a small sign and continue on a gravel road for 0.5 miles to reach the trailhead. Plan to arrive early, as it’s a favorite day trip for fall hikers and parking gets tight. Beginning at an elevation of 9,880 feet, the first 0.75 miles is a gradual ascent through a gorgeous aspen grove, which opens up to the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness following the cascading Pine Creek up through the canyon alongside the trail. After leveling off for a much-welcomed break, the path continues steeply through spruce forests and past rockslides, where the steepest section yet awaits. After reaching the top of eight short but strenuous switchbacks, it’s about a 15 minute trek and one bridge crossing to the summit — a solid feat with a humble-brag worthy gain of about 2,000 feet. Here, Cathedral Lake is nestled at 11,866 feet at the base of the towering Cathedral Peak. An otherworldly gem amid the Elk Mountains and Swatch Range’s tallest peaks, it’s the perfect perch for a moment of solitude this season.
American Lake Trail
Where: Aspen, White River National Forest
Hike length: 6.4 miles (round-trip)
Only a 15-minute drive from Aspen’s downtown core lies a trailhead in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness that leads to one of the area’s most terrain-diverse day hikes. It begins at an elevation of 9,400 feet into a dense aspen grove, which follows a steep set of switchbacks for about 1.5 miles, then mellows out for a short stretch through a shady pine forest. From there the trail opens up into two open grassy meadows leading back into the woods — especially fragrant during months the leaves are flying. After a moderate ascent and with about half a mile to go to the alpine lake at 11,365 feet, the trail continues to a pair of scree fields with sweeping views of the Castle Creek Valley. The second-best reward to seeing an endless sea of gold leaves aglow along the way? Lunch on the rocky shore of American Lake, its vivid turquoise water so clear you can watch or catch a cache of cutthroats swimming about (fishing here is fair game).
Where: Aspen, White River National Forest
Hike length: 3.6 miles (round-trip)
Most leaf-peepers of the world make their way to the Maroon Bells in droves all season long to cross “the most photographed place in Colorado” off their bucket lists. Yes, it’s crowded. But if you plan accordingly, it’s so breathtaking that passing a few other fellow foliage enthusiasts along the way can’t ruin the experience. Until Oct. 1, visitors can only reach the Maroon Bells parking area via Roaring Fork Transit Authority’s free public bus (8 a.m.-5 p.m., leaving every 20 minutes from the base of Aspen Highlands). For a fee of $10 in the early hours (or better yet, anytime in October), drive yourself to get ahead of the masses and make your way past Maroon Lake; on the right, pick up the Maroon-Snowmass Trail. The heavily used dirty and rocky path traverses through an aspen grove with a likely chance for moose sightings in the early morning hours. A steady incline transitions into a sprawling scree field before dropping down into Crater Lake, which lies at 10,076 feet and where the Maroon Bells look even closer and more magnificent from where the trail starts.
This content was originally published here.