Where to Find the Best Leaf Peeping in Colorado

colorado hiking travel Sep 12, 2020

Fall in Colorado is truly a magical time of year. Temperatures are still warm, sunshine is abundant, and there aren’t as many tourists as during the summer because kids are back in school. It’s the perfect season to plan a trip or staycation and this post will give you the best places to leaf peep across Colorado to help you prepare!

While Colorado may lack the variety of tree species and colors that you’ll find in New England or the Mid-West, it boasts one of the most vibrant and iconic trees for breathtaking fall foliage- quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides).

Every fall between mid-September and early October, depending on where in the state you go, groves of aspens across Colorado burst into a sea of gold and light up the mountainsides.

Aspens naturally grow between 6,500-11,500 ft. in elevation in Colorado. While they can survive at lower elevations in places like Denver and Grand Junction, you’re going to want to plan to head to the hills to catch the best fall colors.

UPDATE FOR 2021: Western Colorado has been in a constant state of drought for well over a year, which is one reason why peak colors are expected to arrive early this fall. Fortunately, monsoon moisture over the summer improved the drought condition slightly (although many areas are still in a “severe” or “extreme”state), which should hopefully lead to vibrant foliage, but an early season freeze in August may have further taxed already drought stressed trees. Overall, it’s looking like late September is going to be the peak time for leaf peeping, so start making plans now!

Source: Fox 31 Denver

I’ve spent the past four falls exploring around Colorado on the hunt for the best seasonal colors. There are seemingly endless options out there when it comes to leaf peeping in Colorado, so here are my top picks if you want to go searching for some gold in them hills this fall:

1. Best Scenic Drive: Kebler Pass

Stretching approximately 30 miles from Highway 133 to the small mountain town of Crested Butte, Kebler Pass is the quintessential Colorado drive to catch some of the best foliage the state has to offer.

The well-maintained, 2wd accessible dirt road winds through thick aspen groves that burst into gold around late September. The drive itself typically takes about 60 minutes, but if you’re anything like me you’re going to want to factor in some extra time to stop and take photos!

There’s plenty of hiking, mountain biking, and camping (both dispersed and in developed Forest Service campgrounds) along the road, making Kebler Pass an excellent jumping off point for outdoor adventures.

2. Best Family-Friendly Hike: Kenosha Pass

If you’re looking for a gorgeous fall hike close-ish to Denver, then look no further than Kenosha Pass!

Located along Segment 6 of the Colorado Trail, the hike along Kenosha Pass weaves through golden aspen groves and across scenic meadows providing ample fall photo opps.

Parking for the trail is along Highway 285, four and a half miles West of the tiny town of Jefferson. The Colorado Trail crosses the highway, so you can hike in either direction, but for the best aspen views I recommend heading North. There’s fairly minimal elevation gain along the trail making it a very family-friendly hike, and since it follows the CT you can make it as long or as short as you’d like!

Be aware this is probably one of the most popular hikes in Colorado during peak aspen season so make sure to get an extra early start to find parking and beat the crowds!

3. Best Mountain Town: Aspen

Obviously a town sharing the namesake of Colorado’s most iconic tree is going to be a hot spot for leafpeeping adventures!

The most popular time of year to visit the famed Maroon Bells is while the aspens that frame Maroon Lake are peaking, which typically occurs the last week of September into the first week of October. I’ve visited the Bells twice during the fall, but unfortunately just missed peak conditions both times. A helpful resource for finding up-to-date conditions at Maroon Bells (or anywhere else!) is checking the recently tagged photos on the location’s geotag on Instagram. Captions will typically give you a good idea as to whether the photo was recently taken or not!

Be aware, reservations are required for early morning parking or the shuttle that operates between 8am-5pm if you plan visit Maroon Bells before October 24th this year!

If you’re looking to avoid massive crowds, there are plenty of other hikes in the Aspen area that don’t see quite as much traffic as the Bells (although most trails with aspen views are fairly popular during the fall).

The hike to Cathedral Lake provides expansive views of Castle Creek valley, which is lined with large groves of aspen trees. The drive through the forest to the trailhead is scenic in itself, but heading up above the aspens is where the magic really happens. It’s a moderately strenuous hike at 5.3 miles roundtrip with just over 2,000 ft. of elevation gain, so be sure you’re adequately prepared!

Of course no visit to the Aspen area would be complete without a stop in town. While the cost of living in Aspen is rather exorbitant, the town does a great job of catering to tourists from a variety of economic backgrounds. The Aspen Art Museum is free to the public and a great place to spend an afternoon in town.

If you’re planning on visiting for a few days and lodging in Aspen or Snowmass is out of your budget, try booking a hotel or airbnb in Carbondale or Glenwood Springs, which are 30 and 40 miles away respectively.

4. Best Adventure Destination: San Juan Mountains

From driving along 4x4 roads, to tackling one of two via ferratas, to SUP’ing on an alpine lake, the San Juans are the ultimate Colorado adventure destination.

The best way to get the most aspen bang for your buck in the San Juans is to spend a day driving along one of the many 4x4 roads that weave through the mountains. The Alpine Loop Byway is a roughly 65 mile loop that takes you deep into the heart of the San Juans over both Engineer Pass at 12,640 ft. and Cinnamon Pass at 12,800 ft.

If you don’t own a high-clearance, 4wd vehicle, you can rent a Jeep or side-by-side at a number of outfitters in Ouray or Lake City. Both small mountain towns provide an excellent starting point for a variety of off-road adventures!

If you’re looking to catch the fall colors with a scenic hike, the Jud Weibe Memorial Trail in Telluride will leave you breathless. It’s a 3.1 mile loop with about 1,200 ft. of elevation gain that starts right in town. To maximize the views I recommend parking in Mountain Village and taking the free gondola down before walking to the trailhead!

5. Best Wilderness Area: James Peak Wilderness

Just an hour outside of Boulder, the James Peak Wilderness Area is the perfect place to head when you want to get away from the Front Range and into the mountains fairly quickly.

Located at the end of a rolling, scenic dirt road, the East Portal Trailhead provides ample parking to a number of trails that take you into the Wilderness Area.

Photo taken about 1/2 mile from the East Portal Trailhead.

While most of the trails lead to sub-alpine lakes that take you up & out of the aspens, both the drive to the trailhead and the first couple of miles along the trail provide some gorgeous fall color.

6. Best Kept Secret: The Grand Mesa

Less than an hour from Grand Junction lies one of Colorado’s best kept secrets for leafpeeping- the Grand Mesa!

Take a drive along State Highway 65, which connects I70 to the small town of Cedaredge, and winds through aspen groves as it climbs over the Grand Mesa. It’s a great drive for the whole family and there are plenty of pullouts along the highway to stop and take in the views!

If you’re looking to stretch your legs, take a hike up to Lost Lake or Crag Crest. The former is a short, family-friendly hike that passes multiple lakes before reaching your final destination, while the latter is a longer trek that takes you to one of the highest point on the Mesa with 360° views of the Bookcliffs, Elk Mountains, San Juan Mountains, and La Sal Mountains.

As always, Leave No Trace and stay safe!

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