Where to Fall Leaf Peep in Colorado
Spectacular Aspen Tree Leaf Peeping in Colorado
It’s that time of year, when the temperatures start to fall and the aspen trees blanket the mountain slopes with rich, vivid gold as their leaves change. We won’t lie, it’s been a rough year (for any number of reasons!). Extreme drought conditions, combined with the early freeze that much of the state received at the beginning of the month has put some of the aspens in a tricky spot—if the trees don’t get enough water or temperatures get too cold, aspen leaves turn brown instead of yellow. The show might not be as spectacular this year as it has been other years, but there are still plenty of places where you can find yourself surrounded by aspens this fall season.
When is the Best Time to See Fall Foliage in Colorado?
Generally, Colorado’s aspen trees hit their peak of color for about a five-week period between mid-September and mid-October, depending on the year. Typically a hot, dry summer combined with an early freeze means the aspens will likely turn and drop their leaves sooner rather than later. That would mean the third week of September would be the best time to catch the show in the northern parts of Colorado, with the peak in the central region the week after, and in the southern part of the state the following week. That being said, even if you miss the peak of the colors, the aspens will still be gorgeous for a while after, as it usually takes a few weeks for the leaves to completely blow off.
Where is the Best Place to See the Aspens in Colorado?
There are aspen trees all over the Rocky Mountains, so that means there are plenty of places to get your fall fix. Some of the most popular leaf-peeping spots in Colorado include Kenosha Pass, Kebler Pass, and Independence Pass. If you’re looking to get a head start on leaf-peeping, head to Northern Colorado, where places like Steamboat Springs will be awash with color, and if you can bear to be patient (or if you’re looking for round 2!), check out the central mountains for some of the most vividly bright aspen trees you’ll find anywhere. Crested Butte is generally a great bet for fall foliage, as are the Maroon Bells, but these just scratch the surface. Honestly, we can talk about the best leaf-peeping spots in the state all we want, but the truth is if you get to one of them and it looks too crowded, just keep driving for another ten minutes and you’ll likely come across something equally as gorgeous, if not more so. Colorado is full of aspen groves, so you’d be hard-pressed not to find any this time of year, so the where of it all isn’t actually the most important thing. The first thing you’ll need to decide is how you want to see Colorado’s fall colors.
Leaf Peeping by Foot
When it comes to fall hiking, there are a few places that are extremely well-known for their abundance of aspen trees. The first of these is Kenosha Pass, on 285 along the Colorado Trail. During the fall, you’ll find the parking lots full and cars parked up and down the side of the road, full of people looking to catch a glimpse of the yellow and orange groves of aspens. It’s a particularly great trail for families, since you can catch some great foliage without a strenuous hike, and more ambitious hikers will find that the overwhelming crowds usually thin out about a mile into the trail. Still, if you’re planning on hitting up a popular spot like this, consider going on a weekday or at off-peak hours.
Some other fabulous fall hikes in Colorado include the Sprague Lake Loop in Rocky Mountain National Park (only ½ mile), Flash of Gold in Steamboat Springs (11.5 miles one way), and the 401 Trail near Crested Butte (~12 miles). And of course, one of the best places to hike for fall aspens is in and around Aspen. The Maroon Bells are an extremely popular (and beautiful) spot for fall hiking, but you’ll need a permit to see them this year, so plan ahead!
Leaf Peeping By Air, Road, or Rail
If hiking isn’t your jam, or if you’re looking for a more accessible way to enjoy the fall colors, you’re in luck. Taking the scenic route is especially pretty during the fall, when the mountains are bathed in warm golden hues and the temperatures outside the window aren’t quite so stiflingly hot. There are a number of drives in Colorado where you’ll find beautiful golden aspens right out your windows, and plenty of pull-offs along the road where you can stop to get out and gawk or take pictures. The Million Dollar Highway in southwestern Colorado was originally named for the gold ore found in the region, but in the fall it shines gold in a completely different way. Similar drives that will offer a great view include Independence Pass, Guanella Pass, and Kebler Pass, but you’ll find beautiful aspens all over the state if you keep your eyes peeled (as a passenger, of course! If you’re driving, we 100% recommend you keep those eyes on the road, please!)
But there are other ways to spectate, and they are equally, if not more fun (and don’t require you to concentrate on the road!). Scenic train rides pass through some of the most gorgeous parts of Colorado, and if you take a ride on the Georgetown Loop Railroad you’ll find all the beauty of Guanella Pass just outside the open-air cars. Similarly, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad will take you through gorgeous Cascade Canyon on a scenic, unforgettable ride. But maybe a train ride isn’t enough? Maybe you want to see those beautiful gold aspens from a bird’s eye view? Try a helicopter tour like Royal Gorge Helitours or Zephyr Helicopter Company in Steamboat Springs, which will allow you to see sweeping vistas from above. You could also take a hot air balloon ride for a more tranquil, but equally as thrilling experience.
Colorado Leaf Peeping Etiquette
As always when exploring nature in Colorado, make sure to leave no trace. Stay on the trail at all times, even when it’s hard and that perfect selfie spot is within view, and be respectful of others around you, making sure to maintain social distancing practices for everyone’s safety. As tempting as it might be to take some leaves home for your scrapbook or crafting projects, leave nature where it is so everyone has a chance to enjoy the stunning beauty of Colorado in the fall.
By Emily Krempholtz