Colorado’s fall foliage delivers you a dazzling show. Mountainsides are painted in firey reds and oranges as the aspens glitter in the sunlight while Denver puts on a color display filled with oak and maple leaves. So when do the leaves change in Colorado?
The answer largely depends on a few factors. First, the state of draught in Colorado and second, the temperature.
Timing leaf-peeping season in Colorado can yield some spectacular results. Nearly every year you can enjoy activities from scenic drives, to epic fall hikes in Colorado, to a fall camping trip.
We will dive into all the juicy details about fall foilage in Colorado and answer the ultimate question of when do the leaves change in Colorado.
I’ve spent the better part of 12 years watching and waiting for the peak fall colors in Colorado. In fact, I planned my wedding around fall foliage and totally nailed it (just see the pics in this post!).
So if you’re looking for local, accurate advice about when the leaves change in Colorado, then you’re in the right place.
About the Guide to When the Leaves Change in Colorado
Inside this guide to peak fall colors in Colorado you’ll uncover:
- Why the aspens leaves change in Colorado
- Peak Colorado fall Colors in 2021
- When do the leaves change in Colorado?
- The best time to view Colorado fall foliage in the mountains
- Fall colors in Denver and the Front Range
- The best places to view fall colors in Colorado
- Amazing activities for leaf-peeping in Colorado
Colorado Fall Colors in 2021
This – like most years – is another interesting year in Colorado. Despite a rather wet May month, June produced epic heat waves and little moisture. The regular monsoon season was slow to start and despite having a relatively regular snowpack, many of the mountain areas are experiencing a Moderate Drought.
So when do the fall leaves change in Colorado this year? This will largely depend on where you plan to leaf peep in Colorado, but expect peak colors to show up four to 8 days earlier than a normal rainfall year.
When Do the Aspens Change In Colorado?
Typically, Aspens are some of the first trees to drop their leaves. They are actually one mega-tree, which is pretty rad. The aspen groves in Colorado are some of the largest organisms in the world.
These trees work in tandem to change rather quickly, and when they change it takes around 8 days for them to display their brilliant Colorado fall foliage and then go dormant for winter.
In higher elevations (think above 10,000 feet), the Aspens change in Colorado third week of September – especially along the I-70 and HWY 285 corridor.
Front Range aspens change in Colorado during the first week of October. Think popular areas like Golden Gate Canyon State Park and Boulder.
The Best Time to View Fall Foilage in the Mountains (10,000+ feet)
Consistently, year over year, fall colors in Colorado start in the high country – or at elevations above 10,000 feet. The displays will work their way from north to south ranging in dates from the first week of September through Mid-October. Here’s a look at when each area experiences peak colors.
Local Tip: If you’re planning on hitting up one of the best fall hikes in Colorado – then be sure to hit the trailhead the third weekend of September for amazing displays!
Northern Colorado (Meeker, Steamboat Springs, Flattops): First week of September through the third week of September. Expect peak fall colors in the second week of September.
I-70 corridor (Frisco, Dillon, Breckenridge, Vail, Edwards, Glenwood Springs): Mid-September – typically peaking in the third week of September.
South of I-70.HWY 285 (Kenosha Pass, Buena Vista, Aspen, Salida, Crested Butte): Typically mid-September through early October. Peak colors almost consistently during the third week of September.
The San Juans and Sangre de Cristos (Ouray, Telluride, Ridgway, Great Sand Dunes, Gunnison): Mid September through the first week of October. Peak colors may lag 5 to 8 days behind the I-70 corridor.
Local Tip: The leaves change quickly – especially at higher elevations. During my wedding, we watched the hillside go from green and yellow to fiery oranges and yellows in just 5 days. Budget 8 days for peak colors.
When Do the Leaves Change Color in Colorado at Lower Elevations?
Across areas from Grand Junction to Denver, you can still find groves of aspens nestled in the foothills. One popular Colorado leaf peeping destination is along the Front Range – or eastern side of the mountains.
Typically peak colors will happen during the ladder part of September – think during the last week of September. If you’re looking to visit Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, Boulder, or Golden, this is the best week for leaf peeping.
However if your plans take you further south to areas such as Pueblo and Trinidade, then expect peak leaf peeping season to happen the first week of October.
Pagosa Springs and the surrounding areas see the best fall colors in Colorado during the second week of October.
Peak Fall Colors in Colorado for Denver
Denver is a unique place to experience fall colors in Colorado. Since aspens aren’t as common as they are in the mountains, you’ll get a wide range of colors from towering maple, oak, and cottonwood trees.
This often means that the peak fall colors in Denver actually happen between mid-October through the first week or so in November. So if you happen to miss the mountain display, head to one of Denver’s awesome parks to scope out the warm color display in October.
The Best Places to View Fall Foliage in Colorado
When it comes to leaf peeping in Colorado, you’ll literally be spoiled for choice. With so many incredible locations to scope out nature’s glory, you can spend a lifetime enjoying fall in Colorado.
A few of my favorite places for fall colors in Colorado include:
Cottonwood Pass: Slightly less crowded than some of the other hotspots. Excellent scenic driving, camping, hiking, and 14er summit opportunties.
Vail and Edwards. More of a local hotspot that challenges hikers, Vail and nearby Edwards put on epic fall displays. Avid hikers need to check out the rugged Kneeknocker Pass or one of the other nearby Vail hikes.
Kenosha Pass. The start of Segment 6 of the Colorado Trail is an absolute classic spot for fall colors. Just be aware that there are MEGA crowds here and traffic delays can last hours.
Guanella Pass. Another huge hit for some of the best fall foliage in Colorado right outside of Denver, this fall hot spot gets just as many crowds as Kenosha. But if you get an early start you can hit both in a day and avoid the throngs of people.
Aspen. Yes, it’s really that gorgeous here in fall. Just be sure that if you plan on viewing the Maroon Bells for fall, you plan accordingly as parking is limited and a fee is required.
Crested Butte. If mountain biking amongst the aspens is your thing, then definitely make the trip out to Crested Butte to enjoy fall.
Telluride and Ouray. From viewing the aspens from the Telluride Via Feratta to enjoying the displays along the Million Dollar Highway, you may want at least a weekend soaking up fall in Telluride and Ouray.
Rocky Mountain National Park. Trail Ridge Road is EPIC this time of year, but so is the line into the park! If you want to enjoy fall in Rocky Mountain National Park, get there before dawn. Timed entries are required for 2021. If you plan to hike the iconic Emerald Lake trail or another trail in the Bear Lake Corridor, get there before 5 am if you want a chance at parking.
Activities for Leap Peeping in Colorado
Anything you opt to do for leaf peeping in Colorado, always follow this local tip: start EARLY. Think sunrise fall hikes. Early morning scenic drives, and book any activities well in advance.
If you think the mountain traffic is bad during the summer, then you’ve never experienced leaf peeping season in Colorado!
Now that you know how to beat the crowds for leaf peeping in Colorado, here are a few amazing activities to enjoy:
Soak in one (or three) of Colorado’s best hot springs. Princeton Hot Springs, Orvis Hot Springs, and Strawberry Park Springs are great fall spots
Plan a fall camping trip. Some of the best free camping in Colorado makes for excellent leaf-peeping right from your tent door! Kebler Pass, Half Moon Campground area, and Guanella Pass are all popular choices.
See the fall colors in Colorado from the summit of a 14er. Hike your way to the top of one of Colorado’s easiest 14ers or challenge yourself on a beautiful 14er in Colorado. Greys and Torreys Peak, Long’s Peak, Quandary Peak, and Mt Sneffels are excellent choices for fall.
What Causes the Leaves to Change in Colorado?
To get the colors of the leaves to change you actually have to think about what makes leaves green – Chlorophyll. Taking it back to your elementary school science class, Chlorophyll is the substance that gives trees food. It’s actually unique to all plant life and it’s an essential part of the plant.
Leaves change their color in Colorado and across the world when the foliage stops producing Chlorophyll for the year. The production stops because the plant is going into a “hybernation” of sorts for the rough winter ahead.
The resulting colors are the result of different chemicals no longer being overpowerd by mighty Chlorophyll. Here’s what the different colors mean in the trees.
The rarest color for the aspens to change colors in Colorado is red. This is from anthocyanins or sugar-producing compounds. Some aspens in Colorado have high amounts and others do not. It’s rare because anthocyanins only really show up with a combo of genetics and a warm fall.
Orange is the most popular color of changing aspens in Colorado. This fiery hue comes from Carotenniods which block harmful radiation from the sun during photosynthesis. In Colorado, there’s a lot of mountain sun in thin, un-protected air, hence the Carotenoids.
Lastly yellows are another popular hue found in the fall colors of Colorado. Also partially due to Carotenniods fading from the plant and photosynthesis stopping, aspens turn yellow because they are no longer taking up iron from the soil. This marks the end of the leaf peeping in Colorado, as afterwards the leaves turn brown and shed.
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 Adventure Resources
Want to get to know the real Colorado? Well you’re in the right place. With local advice aimed to get you to travel like a local, not a tourist, you can experience the best Colorado adventures right here.
- Visiting Colorado Like a Local
- The Complete Guide to Hiking in Colorado
- Jaw-Dropping Alpine Lake Hikes in Colorado You Can’t Miss