If there ever is an amazing time to see the Centennial State, fall in Colorado is it. The hillsides burst with seas of yellows and orange as the aspens begin to turn. In higher elevations, shrubs and bushes show of the quintessential Colorado fall colors, giving a whole new life to mountains before the winter settles in.
In fact, Colorado fall colors are one of the prettiest scenes in all of the US. Home to some of the best national parks for fall, along with countless scenic drives, gorgeous hikes, and stunning autumn scenes, you’ll want to make sure you get to see the fall leaves in Colorado at least once.
Early fall in Colorado happens to be my absolute favorite time to explore the state. The threat of afternoon storms is long-gone, the weather is still pretty perfect for camping, and the mountains are absolutely alive with shimmering color.
If you’re looking to explore Colorado like a local, and not a tourist, then you’ve come to the right place. I’ve lived her for 12 years and spent nearly every weekend having adventures in Colorado. Not to mention, I used to be a freelance writer for the outdoors, so I’m a literal pro when it comes to getting outside in Colorado.
Experience Colorado like a local and learn how to beat the crowds and find the hidden beautiful gems in the state.
About this Guide to Fall in Colorado
You’ll get the best advice for how to travel through Colorado in fall with info about:
- What to expect during the fall
- Traffic and crowds
- The best time to see fall foliage in Colorado
- Things to do during the fall in Colorado
- The best places to see Colorado fall colors
- Additional Colorado planning resources
What To Expect During the Fall in Colorado
Fall is a fantastic season in Colorado. The weather can vary from nearly 90 degrees to freezing with snowstorms, depending on what part of fall and where you visit.
Leaf Peeping Traffic and Crowds
Okay, so the absolute beauty of fall in Colorado is no secret. Locals especially love to get out to peep the leaves and discover the utterly stunning Colorado fall colors. This leads to mega amounts of traffic and crowds.
Honestly, as a long-time local, these herds of people surpass Colorado’s bustling summer peak. Hour-plus traffic delays are common en route to Rocky Mountain National Park, Highway 285 and I-70.
If you want to beat the crowds, you’ll need to head to your destination early – like before 8 am early. Plan on sitting in traffic on the way home, unless you opt to stay overnight and leave early on a Sunday or come back well after the sun goes down.
Trails are crowded and often over-loved in the fall. Always practice Leave No Trace and pick up your trash, use the toilet appropriately, follow ranger instructions, and leave it better than you found it.
Remember, if you’re bringing Fido along for a fall hike, be prepared to pick up and carry your dog poop bag with you. Don’t leave it on the trail, even if you plan on picking it up later. It ruins the trail for others and often times you’ll forget. You do this when you walk them at home, treat the trail the same way.
The Best Time to See Fall Colors in Colorado
One of the fun things about fall colors in Colorado is that peak for leaf-peeping is at different times in different parts of the state. The best time for viewing the Colorado fall colors usually ranges from mid-September in northern Colorado to early October in the southern part of the state.
If you really want to get your fill of Colorado fall foliage, take a Colorado road trip from north to south to hit the best foliage in each region at the right time.
Things to Do During the Fall in Colorado
Colorado is an absolute playground in the fall! With so many things to do in Colorado in the fall – from hiking to hot springs to scenic drives and so much more, you won’t run out of places to explore during the fall in Colorado.
1. Best Towns for Leaf Peeping in Colorado
You can find fall foliage in Colorado around the state, from the mountains to the foothills. Here are some of the top towns to check out the changing colors of nature.
The main attraction for leaf peeping in Colorado is the changing of the aspens, and what better place to see the aspens turn bright yellow than the town literally named for these trees? Aspen has tons of hiking trails to take you through the golden groves, and you can head up to Independence Pass for even more.
For a different leaf-peeping perspective, take a ride on the gondola to the top of Aspen Mountain and get a bird’s eye view of the foliage. Or you can head to the Maroon Bells Wilderness to catch the fall foliage reflecting off of some of the best lake hikes in Colorado.
Before winter ski season begins, Vail is worth a visit to check out the glorious fall colors. The Vail Bike Path runs from Vail Village to East Vail and showcases the aspens along the way. You can also take the gondola up Vail Mountain to see the Colorado fall colors then bike down one of the many trails.
If you prefer hiking through the trees, you’ll find so many great hiking trails in Vail and the surrounding area. Check out the Upper Piney Falls Trail for a real gem of a hike in the fall. Not only will you experience the sunlight making the aspens shine like gold, but you’ll start by a beautiful lake and end up at a breathtaking waterfall.
Crested Butte is one of the prettiest Colorado mountain towns no matter the season, but it bursts into color in the fall. If you’re a mountain biker, you’ll find plenty of trails in Crested Butte where you can bike through the trees. But your best bet for leaf-peeping is a visit to Kebler Pass which showcases the brilliant colors in Gunnison National Forest.
You can also find free Colorado camping in the area if you want to spend some extra time enjoying the beauty of the fall. And if you’re coming to Crested Butte from Denver, be sure to drive over Cottonwood Pass to take in even more of the seasonal colors.
Buena Vista brings some of the most beautiful scenery for fall in Colorado with both aspens at higher elevation and cottonwoods down lower along the Arkansas River. In fact, it’s one of the most scenic places in Colorado.
Leaf-peep to your heart’s content at Cottonwood Lake, where you can take a walk among the trees, kayak on the water, or have a perfect autumn picnic on the shore. And don’t miss a soak in Cottonwood Hot Springs, one of the quintessential Colorado hot springs.
In late September, Buena Vista also hosts the annual OHV Color Tour. Take one of the many self-guided tours in off-highway vehicles to explore the stunning foliage in the San Isabel Forest and around the Collegiate Peaks.
Golden lives up to its name in the autumn as it is blanketed with the yellow tones of fall foliage. Stroll along Clear Creek to see the cottonwoods changing colors or head up Lookout Mountain on the Chimney Gulch Trail on bike or foot for more of a challenge.
North and South Table Mountains also offer panoramic views of the whole area changing color, as does the hike up Mount Galbraith.
2. Best Fall Hikes in Colorado
You can’t visit Colorado without taking a hike! The best fall hikes in Colorado are stunning in any season, but become absolutely jaw-dropping when the leaves change.
Kenosha Pass is one of the most popular hikes for fall foliage, since it features incredible views and is just over an hour away from Denver along US-285. Part of the Colorado Trail, Kenosha Pass winds through several aspen groves with snow-capped peaks, including Mount Evans, appearing through the clearings. After hiking about 3 miles along the pass, you’ll be rewarded with broader views of the mountains and the aspens together.
Local Tip: Go during the week, or get here by 6 am if you want a chance at finding any solitude here. Parking often fills up by 7 am and the traffic jams are real.
For one of my absolute favorite fall hiking trails, head to Golden Gate Canyon State Park, just about a 20 min drive from Golden. The Burro Trail to Windy Peak offers amazing access to the colorful aspens with excellent views of the foothills in the distance.
The best time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park truly might be in the fall, to see the stunning rocky landscape draped in the golden fall foliage. And one of the very best hikes in RMNP to savor autumn is the hike to Emerald Lake.
For a short and relatively easy hike, the Emerald Lake hike offers incredibly rewarding views. You’ll see three alpine lakes (Nymph, Dream, and Emerald) and Hallet Peak in the distance, surrounded by the colorful changing aspens which will take your breath away.
The contrast of the crimson color of the Maroon Bells with the golden foliage of the fall is one of the most gorgeous places to soak up the beauty that fall in Colorado has to offer. The Maroon Bells Scenic Loop is the best way to savor this sight, and the easy trail is super close to Aspen.
Of course, as one of the prettiest Colorado hikes, this means that this trail is incredibly popular, so be prepared for crowds of leaf-peepers. I highly recommend visiting during the week, and if you can get there at sunrise, you’ll find magic light and more solitude.
Want to bag a Colorado 14er in the fall? The Sawatch Range is full of them, and Huron Peak is an awesome choice. Located in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, Huron Peak is one of the “easier” Colorado 14ers and has a very well-marked and easy-to-follow trail to the summit.
The hike up Huron Peak offers epic views of the Three Apostles, and the vibrant colors of fall only add to the insane views of the surrounding peaks in the Sawatch.
3. Best Fall Scenic Drives in Colorado
To make the most of fall in Colorado, take one of these incredibly scenic drives through the prettiest places in the state.
Trail Ridge Road
The highest continuous paved road in the US, Trail Ridge Road winds through Rocky Mountain National Park from Estes Park to Grand Lake. Not only is it one of the most scenic drives in Colorado, it is also designated an American Scenic Byway thanks to the spectacular natural sights.
Fall is definitely the most magical time to drive Trail Ridge Road with the brilliant colors of the foliage highlighting the already impressive landscape of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Local Tip: If you’re planning to be in the park after 9 am (or after 5 am for the Bear Lake Corridor) you’ll need advanced reservations to enter the park.
You’ll want to call shotgun for the scenic drive of Kebler Pass because the outstanding views and gorgeous Colorado fall foliage out the window will make it hard to keep your eyes on the road. This drive meanders through groves of aspen and evergreens as you make your way through Gunnison National Forest from Paonia to Crested Butte.
San Juan Skyway
Connecting the towns of Telluride and Durango, the San Juan Skyway showcases the grandeur of the San Juan Mountain range with a backdrop of the changing colors of the fall leaves in Colorado. The stretch of the Skyway which runs between Ouray and Silverton is named the Million Dollar Highway, and the views truly live up to the name (which actually might have come from the history of mining in the area).
Golden Gate Canyon
One of the best scenic drives near Denver in the fall is through Golden Gate Canyon State Park. The road that loops around the park will take you through aspen groves interspersed with evergreens. The highlight of the drive is Panorama Point, which offers a stunning viewpoint of the Indian Peaks in the distance.
4. Fall Train Rides in Colorado
A unique way to enjoy the fall season in Colorado is by hopping aboard a train on one of the state’s historic railroads to take a ride through autumnal beauty.
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
Running through the San Juan National Forest, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad follows the Animas River and provides stunning views of the San Juan Mountains. The scenery is extra spectacular when the trees change color in the fall.
You can take the train from Durango deep into the backcountry of Cascade Canyon, or make a stop in Silverton to learn more about the gold mining history of the area.
Georgetown Loop Railroad
Located just an hour west of Denver, the Georgetown Loop Railroad is a quick fun fall getaway. Ride the train over the Devil’s Gate Bridge as you take in the views below and around you. The railroad runs special Colorado fall colors tours in September to see the changing foliage, and you can also head to nearby Guanella Pass for breathtaking leaf-peeping.
The Leadville, Colorado, & Southern Railroad takes you from depot in Leadville up to the Continental Divide. You’ll head through the San Isabel National Forest and get awesome views of Mt. Massive and Mt. Elbert.
On certain weekends in September, special fall rides take the train the entire length of the track (an additional 1.5 miles from the normal ride) to provide passengers extra photo opportunities of the abundant fall foliage.
5. Fall Festivals in Colorado
There’s no better way to celebrate fall in Colorado than to attend an autumn festival. Here are a few classic happenings in the Centennial State.
For two consecutive weekends in September, Denver goes all out to celebrate Oktoberfest with a beer hall, live music, and much more. You can compete in the traditional stein hoisting contest or the less-traditional keg bowling. And don’t forget to break out your lederhosen or dirndls for the costume contest!
Great American Beer Festival
A fall tradition in Denver, the Great American Beer Festival brings together brewers and beer lovers to share and sample the best beers in the country. While the in-person festival was put on hold due to the pandemic, the Great American Beer Festival will make a big comeback in October 2022 to celebrate its 40th anniversary.
The town of Estes Park celebrates its favorite wild four-legged residents at the annual Elk Fest in early October (which also happens to be elk mating season). This festival is fun for the whole family with yummy food, live music, and even bugling contests to say hello to the local elk.
6. Colorado Hot Springs to Soak in During the Fall
As the weather starts to cool down, you can warm up in one of the many lovely hot springs in Colorado.
Orvis Hot Springs
Located in Ridgway, Orvis Hot Springs has both indoor and outdoor areas to soak in the naturally heated lithium water. The clothing-optional resort is situated to showcase views of the San Juan Mountains.
Mount Princeton Hot Springs
Find Mount Princeton Hot Springs between Buena Vista and Salida, and soak in one of the twenty geothermal pools right in Chalk Creek while you gaze at the surrounding mountains and fall foliage.
Strawberry Park Hot Springs
Set in a forest along a creek, Strawberry Park Hot Springs in Steamboat Springs features many natural pools of varying temperatures. For extra relaxation, you can also enjoy a massage in a private hut.
Get to Know the REAL Colorado.
Explore Colorado like a local, not a tourist. Discover all the secret hiking spots and the most incredible Colorado scenery, sans the crowds with my customizable hiking itineraries that will have you uncovering the best Colorado has to offer!
Additional Colorado Travel Resources
Get the local’s list of the best ways to enjoy fall in Colorado with these additional resources:
- Free Camping in Colorado You’ve Got to Check Out
- The Local’s Guide to Visiting Colorado
- Incredible Weekend Getaways in Colorado for Any Season