The Aspens have a special kind of sound as they turn their fiery yellows and reds. Flickering like flames in the wind brings these magnificent dying appendages to life. The autumn season in Colorado is a must-see event on any Rocky Mountain bucket list. After spending 11 years combing the Rocky Mountains, I’ve assembled this incredible list of the best fall hikes in Colorado.
The 2019 Fall Foilage Predictions in Colorado
Fall will arrive right on time this year. Prime viewing from most of the state (with the exception of the southern mountain ranges) is around the third week of September. With record snowfalls and plenty of precipitation, the aspens will be in full color this season! The leaves in the cooler, northern region of the state will turn first around the 18th of the month, while the southern part of the state will see peak colors in early October.
For daily updates, check out Crested Butte’s fall color coverage.
When is the Best Time to View the Aspens in Colorado?
Each year the aspens show their magic at slightly different times. This is largely due to rain and weather patterns throughout the year. In general, the leaves start to turn between the second week of September through October. Leaf Peeping Season, as it’s often referred to, in Colorado starts in the northern end of the state and slowly works its wait down south. Peak season for aspen viewing in Colorado’s most popular hiking areas is typically between the second and fourth week in September.
Tips for Fall Hikes in Colorado
Fall hiking in Colorado requires a little bit of pre-planning. First, don’t expect to have the trail to yourself. Fall is arguably the most popular time for people to hike in Colorado, right next to wildflower season. A lot of people go on scenic drives this time of year, and the most popular places to view the aspens have a tremendous amount of traffic, taking away from some of the magic. Fortunately for you, this guide focuses on the best fall hikes in Colorado without the massive crowds.
Lastly, always practice Leave No Trace and be sure follow any wilderness regulations.
Related: Tips for Aspen Viewing in Colorado
The Top Fall Hikes in Colorado that You’ve Never Heard of
Let’s dive into the best fall hikes to put on your bucket list this year. This custom list of hikes gives you the best of hiking in the Colorado mountains during the fall season. Each hike offers something a little different. All hikes on this list are dog-friendly.
Related: Local Tips for Hiking in Colorado
Hikers rejoice with these amazing resources:
- The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Hiking
- Kick-Ass Hiking Gear for Women, What You REALLY Need for a Successful Day Outside
Ptarmigan Lake at Cottonwood Pass
If you’re looking for majestic mountain views without the crowds, make your way to Ptarmigan Lake. The trail itself is moderate, with a few steep sections, but nothing too difficult. There are several lakes along the trail, each one worth exploring. If you’re lucky to catch an early snowfall here, it’s a real treat! The bright fall colors contrast greatly with the snow-dusted peaks.
Trail Facts: This is a 6 mile out-and-back trail with 1.5k vertical gain. The trail is right off of Cottonwood Pass and easy to access, just be sure to check for any road closures. Dogs are able to use this trail and it’s rated moderate.
Alternatively, check out Grand Lake this fall! There are plenty of hikes or you can relax by the water’s edge and take in the beautiful reflections of fall.
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Segment 4 of the Colorado Trail For Fall
Segment 5 and Segment 6 of the Colorado Trail get absolutely mobbed during the Aspen season. Unless you want to be on the trail with literally hundreds, maybe even thousands of people, avoid this area like the plague. Instead, consider tackling Segment 4 of the Colorado Trail. This will be a tough hike. There are plenty of long grinds on this hike, as the elevation gain is over 3,200 feet. However, you will hike through pristine Aspen groves. Go ahead, take a minute and walk into the middle of a grove, stop and listen to the serenity around you.
After climbing, the hike opens up to a stunning alpine meadow. The variety of grasses will have you sailing in a sea of color. It’s a magical experience that’s just a stone’s throw away from Denver.
Trail Facts: This is a 15.6-mile point-to-point trail, so it’s best to shuttle cars unless you can hike over 30 miles in a day. Another option would be to hike from the start of the segment up to the valley, have a snack, relax and enjoy the variety of vegetation, then head back. Overall, this is a moderate trail and you can see the colors rather quickly, making it an ideal option if you don’t want to tackle the full 15-plus mile jaunt.
Located less than an hour from Denver, this trail offers a huge bang for your fall color buck. The drive in is beautiful and you can relax at the lake after your hike. Make your way down a steep series of switchbacks (remember, you’ll have to come back up) and meander through a beautiful alpine valley alive with color. Make one final push to the upper lake and be rewarded with sweeping views and plenty of beautiful scenery.
Trail Facts: this is a 9.1-mile trail is certainly a lung buster, especially on the return. You’ll gain 2,142 feet of elevation, most of it in the last mile or so. Despite its difficulty, it’s truly stunning and well worth the effort.
Burro Trail to Windy Peak in Golden Gate State Park
When most people picture fall in Colorado, the first thing they think of is the aspens in autumn. With a place like the Burro Trail to Windy Peak, it’s easy to see why. However, I’ll be the first to admit that this is certainly a heavily-trafficked trail on the weekends. The Burro Trail gets my vote for the best weekday escape for fall foliage in Colorado.
Golden Gate Canyon is only about 20 minutes from Golden. When I went here on a Friday morning I had the entire place to myself and it was magic, making it my favorite fall hike near Denver. Another great spot to immerse yourself in the glory of the turning Aspens. Although this trail is rated as difficult on AllTrails.com, it is more of a moderate trail. The top of Windy Peak offers a stunning view of the foothills, complete with Colorado fall colors that will make you weak in the knees.
Trail Facts: Burro to Windy Peak is a 6.4-mile loop trail with about 1,900 feet of vertical gain. Located just off of Drew Hill Road, it’s easily accessible for any vehicle. There are other beginner trails you can loop in the area that offer stellar views without the gain.
The Upper Piney Falls Trail
Upper Piney Falls is simply one of the best fall hiking trails in Colorado. Start off near a picturesque lake and make your way through an enchanted aspen forest until you reach a breathtaking waterfall. The payout is big early on as you climb meander your way through a stunning aspen grove. Get there early and enjoy the morning light as it percolates through the flickering aspen leaves. Ambitious hikers can continue down the trail to reach a climber’s cut-off trail that heads toward the mighty Kneeknocker Pass.
Trail Facts: It’s only 5.9-miles out-and-back to the falls only gains 731 feet, making it an ideal beginner fall hike. You can make this pretty difficult if you’d like to continue onwards.
Salmon and Willow Lakes in the Gore Range
Fall in Colorado goes beyond the fantastic aspen foliage. High Alpine lakes have their place in the best fall hikes in Colorado. It’s rugged, remote, and beautiful. Salmon and Willow Lakes is no exception. It’s one of the more popular areas in the range, but that doesn’t mean you don’t earn it. For starters, there’s no overnight parking at the nearest trailhead.
What it lacks in ease, it makes up for in beauty. Although I wasn’t here in the fall, I could tell by the slight tinge in color that this place would be magnificent come mid to late September. East Thorne and Red Peak dominate the valley with their impressive ridgelines and striking dihedrals. The trail culminates at upper Willow Lake, where you come face-to-face with the iconic Zodiac Spires. Colorado, you are simply sexy.
Trail Facts: We backpacked in, coming from the North Rock Creek Trailhead. If you are day-tripping, or don’t mind risking parking on the street, start at the South Willow Creek Trailhead. Starting from here this is an 11.6-mile trail gaining over 3,000 feet of vertical. Most of the approach is through deadfall and beetle kill pine. Be prepared for little shade and a lot of stepping over downed trees. You didn’t think this would be easy, did you? It’s the Gores after all.
Trails and Hiking Areas to Avoid this Fall
The one thing that blows my mind is just how many people get out and look at the fall colors in Colorado each year. Some trails and areas have traffic jams that last over an hour and see record-breaking crowds in the tens of thousands. It’s awful to see some of these places get completely over-run and can really take away from the fall hiking experience. If you seek solitude, avoid hiking in the following areas of Colorado during the fall season:
- Guanella Pass
- Kenosha Pass
- Aspen town and around
- Rocky Mountain National Park
These fall hikes in Colorado are guaranteed to have you feeling like you’ve stepped into a fairy tale. Get out and enjoy the fall hiking season in Colorado without the crowds this season.