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2021 Colorado aspen tree viewing guide: Wildfires do little to darken fall color show

Colorado fall colors starting to pop
Peak aspen viewing is expected to take place in late September.
Miles Blumhardt, Fort Collins Coloradoan

Aspen aren’t only colorful in autumn, they also are resilient in the face of wildfire.

Despite Colorado’s historic wildfire season last year in which 625,000 acres burned, those waiting to take in the state’s fall colors won’t be disappointed in 2021.

While some aspen stands burned in those fires, many remain and will once again put on a show along popular drives.

The Cameron Peak Fire burned nearly 209,000 acres, including in prime aspen viewing areas around the upper Poudre Canyon, Pingree Park and Buckhorn Canyon.

But Camille Stevens-Rumann, Colorado State University assistant professor in the Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship, said even in areas where aspen burned new shoots are emerging from the ash. 

Aspen thrive in burn scars because fire removes competition and stimulates shoots to sprout on existing roots, allowing aspen to move in first and grow quickly.

“There have been quite a few smaller stands of aspen in the Cameron Peak Fire that did burn,” said Stevens-Rumann, who is researching the fire’s impact on the landscape. “But we didn’t see any places where aspen burned and there wasn’t any resprouting. There is potential for some expansion to aspen trees in the burn area.”

This year, most experts agree the peak aspen viewing will occur near the last week of September and into early October.

Best fall color viewing closer to Fort Collins

Closures due to the Cameron Peak Fire remain in effect on the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest. For up-to-date closure information, visit

Buckhorn Canyon/Pingree Park loop

One of the more popular aspen viewing drives near Fort Collins includes a loop consisting of Buckhorn Road (Larimer County Road 44H), Pingree Park Road (Larimer County Road 63), Colorado Highway 14, Larimer County Road 27 (Stove Prairie Road) and Rist Canyon Road (Larimer County Road 52E).

A small amount of color was beginning to show in the Buckhorn and Pingree Park area as of Wednesday, Sept. 8. Expect this area to reach prime time the last week of September.

This loop includes colorful golden aspen but also the yellows and golds of cottonwoods, willows, birch and rabbitbrush and the reds and oranges of mountain mahogany, three-leaf sumac and chokecherry.

A good loop drive is starting at Masonville and taking Larimer County Road 27 (Stove Prairie Road) northwest to Larimer County Road 44H (Buckhorn Road). Take it slow on Buckhorn Road as construction work due to fire and flash floods is ongoing and delays may be encountered.

Continue west on the gravel Buckhorn Road where the best aspen stands are in the area of the Buckhorn Ranger Station and Pennock Pass. This area was heavily burned in the Cameron Peak Fire but — while a recent drive showed some damage to small aspen stands in the area — many stands visible from the road remain unscathed despite large swaths of burned mountainsides.

This takes you to the gravel Pingree Park Road where you will turn right and head north to the Poudre Canyon and Colorado 14. Aspen stands dot the roadsides and nearby mountain sides.

At Colorado 14, turn right and head east to Stove Prairie Road. Aspen are few along this stretch but cottonwoods, rabbitbrush, sumac, mountain mahogany and chokecherry are abundant.

At Stove Prairie Road, turn right and head south to Stove Prairie Elementary School. This paved stretch is dotted with aspen along the windy road.

At the school, turn left and head east down paved Larimer County Road 52E (Rist Canyon Road) and back to Fort Collins. There are good aspen stands along much of this stretch.

Upper Poudre Canyon

The upper Poudre Canyon from Rustic to Cameron Pass is where the most damage to aspen occurred. This area offers closeup and panoramic views of the massive burn scar.

The aspen show resumes in abundance once over Cameron Pass and heading into North Park, making the drive worth it.

Rocky Mountain National Park

For the second year, the park has implemented a timed-entry permit reservation system that runs through Oct. 11.

That means you will either need to purchase a reservation permit or access the park without a timed-entry permit before 5 a.m. and after 6 p.m. for the Bear Lake corridor and before 9 a.m. and after 3 p.m. for the rest of the park.

Aspen stands along the popular Cub Lake/Fern Lake trail were heavily damaged, as were areas along the west side of the park.

The higher elevations of the park usually offer the first color of the season. A good loop drive is to take the slower and less crowded gravel Fall River Road up and take the paved and more crowded Trail Ridge Road down.

Hidden Valley Play Area on the lower part of Trail Ridge Road is one of the best viewing spots. Aspen are not overly abundant in the park, but there are streaks of color throughout.

The Kawuneeche Valley on the west side of the park was unharmed and offers good fall color.

Rocky Mountain National Park fall planner: Timed-entry permits, mask requirements and more

Peak to Peak Highway

This drive on Colorado Highway 7 from Estes Park to Central City/Black Hawk takes you along the eastern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park and offers excellent viewing. Drive this in the morning, as the majority of the aspen are to the west and will be lit up by the morning sun.

Best places to see aspen fall colors in Colorado

Kebler Pass

The 30-mile drive on a mix of pavement and gravel on Kebler Pass Road (Gunnison County Road 12) just west of Crested Butte to Colorado Highway 133 is the quintessential Colorado aspen drive.

This area boasts the largest aspen grove in North America. The drive takes you through a tunnel of aspen with golden leaves carpeting the road. And if that’s not enough, on the west end of the road are panoramic views of the West Elk Mountains.

The Bells are located about 42 miles southeast of Aspen off of Colorado Highway 82.

It’s said the Bells are the most photographed mountains in North America, and a visit here in fall only adds to the beauty. The view of golden aspen among dark green conifers reflected in Maroon Lake is breathtaking.

This place is usually crowded, so either get there early or plan to take a shuttle bus to the area.

Take Colorado Highway 62 west from Ridgway and for even more color continue to Colorado Highway 145 south to Telluride.

This area offers a superb combination of bountiful aspen and majestic mountains in 14,157-foot Mount Sneffels and 14,252-foot Mount Wilson.

This 63-mile paved road leaves Interstate 70 about 45 miles east of Grand Junction and heads up Colorado Highway 65 on the Grand Mesa to Cedaredge.

The world’s largest mesa is filled with color from aspen, cottonwoods and scrub oak dotted with aspen-ringed lakes. Take the Land’s End Road for a panoramic view of the Colorado River and Grand Valley 6,000 feet below your 11,000-foot perch.

La Veta Pass

This 50-mile drive on U.S. Highway 160 takes you from Walsenburg to Fort Garland. 

The highlight is 9,400-foot La Veta Pass, where golden aspen mix with the dark greens of pines. Stiff competition for viewing spots is ever present with the stunning views of the Spanish Peaks and Sangre de Cristo mountains that tower above the San Luis Valley floor.

Guanella Pass

This 22-mile scenic byway between Georgetown and Grant turns from paved to well-maintained gravel road. From I-70, take the Georgetown exit and follow the signs.

While the aspen show is grand here, expect to encounter crowds due to its proximity to Denver.

If you want to ditch the crowds, this 82-mile stretch of paved and gravel road between Meeker and Yampa is for you.

The Flat Tops Trail boasts one of the best aspen viewing drives in northwest Colorado. Some of the best aspen viewing is in the Dunckley Pass area.

For updated fall color viewing conditions in Colorado and across the country, visit

Reporter Miles Blumhardt looks for stories that impact your life. Be it news, outdoors, sports — you name it, he wants to report it. Have a story idea? Contact him at or on Twitter @MilesBlumhardt. Support his work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today. 

This content was originally published here.