Colorado's fall colors near their peak

September 21, 2012
photo - Pikes Peak, seen from the Victor area, last week Photo by Christian Murdock, The Gazette
Pikes Peak, seen from the Victor area, last week Photo by Christian Murdock, The Gazette 

It’s late September and the hills of Colorado are ablaze.

The changing of the aspens is nearing its peak, and the leaves soon will drop as cold weather descends on the high country. For leaf peepers, now is the time to get to the mountains.

“I don’t expect the leaves will be on the trees for very long. The dry winter and the really dry spring really put stress on the aspens,” said Larry Long, district forester in Woodland Park for the Colorado State Forest Service.

See a photo gallery of fall colors from across Colorado!

Aspens make up about 20 percent of Colorado’s forests, and usually are found between 6,900 and 10,500 feet in elevation. The slopes of the Pikes Peak massif are full of them. Set against dramatic Rocky Mountain peaks, their annual golden show is a symbol of Colorado.

Don’t just see the spectacle from a car window at 35 mph. Get out. Take your hiking boots, bike or tent. Sure it’ll be nippy at night, but that’s a small price to immerse yourself in such beauty.

Take a hike
Trails with pretty views in summer can be stunning in autumn. And there’s no shortage of such hikes in the Pikes Peak region.

Pancake Rocks: This 5.5-mile in-and-out hike on the west side of the peak runs through many aspen groves, and the reward is Pancake Rocks, an overlook with splendid views of the autumn colors of Teller County.

Take U.S. Highway 24 west to Divide and turn south on Colorado Highway 67. After you pass the closed Little Ike Tunnel, look for a parking area on your left. The trail begins at the parking area. Turn right at an intersection .75 miles in.

Dome Rock: South of Mueller State Park, this 9.6-mile loop hike around picturesque Dome Rock offers plenty of aspens and views of the Sangre de Cristos. Don’t want to do the entire loop? Hike the trail clockwise and take the creek crossing for the hike back to your car.

Head west on U.S. Highway 24 to Divide, then go south on Colorado Highway 67. Pass Mueller State Park and turn right on Four Mine Road. After two miles, turn right into the parking lot.

Cheyenne Mountain: You can’t see it from town, but atop Cheyenne Mountain is a massive, rarely visited meadow and aspen grove that could be an amazing destination if you time it right. It’s a 6.5-mile hike that climbs 800 feet. Follow the gentle McNeil Trail as it contours along the backside of the mountain for 2.2 miles then turn right on the unmarked Swisher Trail.

Drive up Old Stage Road 5.7 miles to a sign for the Broadmoor Stables, just over the crest of a hill. Park in a pull-off on the right, or on the side road to the left.

Greenhorn Mountain: This peak near Colorado City is the high point of the Wet Mountains, and the only part of the range to rise above timberline. A hike to the top would be a long day — 7.8 miles one way, with 3,800 feet of elevation gain — but take a shorter walk through the lower stretches, which runs through endless aspen groves.

Take I-25 south 65 miles to Colorado City and turn west on Colorado Highway 165. Drive 8 miles to the town of Rye. Go toward the mountains for 0.6 mile on Main Street to Cuerno Verde Road. Follow Cuerno Verde Road for 1.5 miles to the Greenhorn Trail parking area.

Brookside-McCurdy Trail from Twin Eagles Campground: This trail on the western edge of Lost Creek Wilderness features a stand of some of the tallest aspen you’ll see in the area, with cool rocks and some great campsites for those willing to lug a pack.

Take U.S. Highway 24 west to Lake George; turn right on Tarryall Road and watch for the campground sign. Park outside the campground, cross the creek and walk through the campground.

Mueller State Park: Just about any trail in this park south of Divide makes an amazing fall hike if you hit it at the right time. The Cheesman and Buffalo Rock trails offer views of the trees on Pikes Peak and head straight through pretty aspen groves. Call or check online for fall color updates (687-6867 or; the leaves were just beginning to turn over the weekend.

Rocky Mountain National Park
This park has so many great fall hikes, it deserves its own category. Park rangers suggest these trails:

Hidden Valley: Aspens dominate the southeast facing hillside on Highway 34 (7 miles from park headquarters), just west of the Beaver Ponds Boardwalk.

Bear Lake Road: This is a popular location for viewing color; Alberta Falls is a 1.2-mile round-trip hike abounding with fall sights and scents.

Fern and Cub Lake trails: These trails in Moraine Park off the Bear Lake Road provide easy hiking and aspen viewing.

Twin Sisters: See the “butterfly burn” on the west slope of the peak, 7 miles south of Estes Park on Colorado Highway 7.

Longs Peak: Travel south 8 miles on Colorado Highway 7 to see fall colors on its lower flanks.

Wild Basin: Drive to the Finch Lake trailhead and hike 1.5 miles into an aspen forest.

East Inlet Trail: This moderate 6-mile roundtrip hike provides spectacular fall color.

Kawuneeche Valley: Drive through more than 10 miles of prime aspen country along Trail Ridge Road from Grand Lake, where there are plenty of trailheads and spots worthy of a picnic.

Farview Curve: The overlook at 10,000 feet provides picture-perfect views of Kawuneeche Valley and the Never Summer range.

Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison Nationals Forests
There are endless trails to hike and bike amid the autumn colors here, said forest spokeswoman Anne Janik.

“Anywhere near Lizard Head is going to be spectacular,” Janik said. “Take the Lizard Head Trail from the rest stop on Lizard Head Pass into Wilson Meadows, (about 6 miles roundtrip) or head to Woods Lake where there’s a great campground with short hikes. It’s a great picnic area, off Fall Creek Road, just beyond Placerville. It’s a pretty hike around the lake.”

Janik also recommends:

• Cross Mountain Trail from Forest Road 424. This 3.1-mile trail connects with Forest Trail 409, the Lizard Head Trail.

• Owl Creek Pass. “This is an all-time favorite,” Janik said.

• Alpine Trail. This trail between Silver Jack Reservoir and the Alpine Guard Station is great for hiking, biking, horseriding and dirt biking.

• Just about any trail around Crested Butte is going to be amazing this time of year, Janik said, suggesting Oh Be Joyful and Copper Creek.

• Check out detailed suggestions on the recently updated fall color hikes webpage.

Camp among the aspens
Many national forest campgrounds close after Labor Day, but here are some that don’t and offer a chance to sleep in aspen groves.

Mueller State Park: This state park has 132 campsites. Don’t want to rough it? Rent a cabin in the park.

Cathedral Campground: Near South Fork, this free campground is nestled among aspens with massive cliffs overhead. Take a day hike on the Embargo Creek Trail to be wowed.

Purgatoire Campground: In Spanish Peaks country, this is a good destination for late September, when the aspen display in northern Colorado has ended; $14 nightly fee.

Lost Lake Campground: Near Crested Butte, this recently renovated campground is a great launching point for aspen hikes, or you can marvel at the aspens and views of the Ruby Range mountains from your campsite; $18 nightly fee.

Lake Irwin Campground: You can camp near this pretty lake, also near Crested Butte, and hike Mount Owen, a thirteener, for a bit of a challenge and fantastic views of the Crested Butte area, the North Fork Valley and the Raggeds Wilderness Area.

Golden bike rides
• Boreas Pass, Breckenridge. This is a road that’s well-traveled in fall, but it’s also a popular moderate mountain bike ride. If you don’t mind eating a little dust, ride through this tunnel of gold.

Take U.S. Highway 24 west to Hartsel; turn north onto Colorado Highway 9 and drive over Hoosier Pass into Breckenridge. Boreas Pass is on the south side of town. Turn right and follow to a parking area and begin your ride there.

• Colorado Trail at Kenosha Pass. Sometimes the density of an aspen grove can make it a favorite. The start of this trail features dense, ramrod-straight stands of aspens.

Take U.S. Highway 285 to the top of Kenosha Pass. Park outside the campground and begin riding north/northeast.

• Horsethief Park: This is a mostly easy ride that offers glorious stands of aspen opening to a broad meadow that glows in fall.

See driving directions for Pancake Rocks, above.

Follow the trail from the parking lot and watch for a place to cross the stream on your left and enter the meadow. Here, the trail becomes a doubletrack that meanders past cabin ruins and an old beaver pond.

Leaf-peeping and elk bugling

Guided Hikes

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
Take water, a snack and protection from sun and rain, and dress in warm layers. Reservations are required (748-3253; ask for Jeff at ext. 161). Park entry is $3 ages 16 and older; an annual pass is $15 (good for cardholder and three other adults).

These walks, unlike most in the park, are not suitable for young children.

• Elk Bugling Hikes

5-7:30 p.m. Sept. 21, 23, 28, 29 and 30

2 miles, easy.

Mueller State Park
Take water, a snack and protection from sun and rain, and dress in warm layers. There is no charge for the hikes, but you must pay the park entry of $7 for the day for each vehicle, or $70 for an annual pass.

Weather updates and information: 687-2366.

• Aspen Viewing Hike with naturalists Paul and Gretchen Darlington

Sept. 15 at 9:30 a.m.

Elk Meadow Trailhead, 2 miles, moderate.

• Aspen Viewing Hike with naturalist Norma Elliott

Sept. 20 at 10 a.m.

School Pond Trailhead, 3.5 miles, moderate-plus (short but steep hills)

• Aspen Viewing Hike with naturalist Nancy Remmler

Sept. 22 at 10 a.m.

Grouse Mountain Trailhead, 2.5 miles, moderate.

• Aspen Viewing Hike with naturalist Charlene Barnes

Sept. 23 at 4 p.m.

Grouse Mountain Trailhead, 3 miles, moderate.

• Elk Bugling Hike with naturalist Mike Storey

Sept. 23 at 5:30 p.m.

Grouse Mountain Trailhead, 3 miles, moderate; ages 10 and older

Space is limited; register at the visitor center or by calling 687-2366.

• Aspen Viewing Hike with naturalist Rose Banzhaf

Sept. 24 at 9:30 a.m.

Elk Meadow Trailhead, 2 miles, moderate.

• Aspen Viewing Hike with naturalist Nancy Remmler

Sept. 28 at 10 a.m.

School Pond Trailhead, 3 miles, moderate

• Elk Bugling Hike with naturalist Russ Frisinger

Sept. 28 at 5:45 p.m.

Grouse Mountain Trailhead, 3 miles, moderate; ages 10 and older

Space is limited; register at the visitor center or by calling 687-2366.

• Aspen Viewing Hike with naturalist Penny Edyvean

Sept. 29 at 10:30 a.m.

School Pond Trailhead, 2 miles, moderate

• Elk Bugling Hike with naturalist Mike Storey

Sept. 30 at 5:30 p.m.

Grouse Mountain Trailhead, 3 miles, moderate; ages 10 and older

Space is limited; register at the visitor center or by calling 687-2366.

Castlewood Canyon State Park

• Photograph Fall Colors in the Canyon with naturalist and photographer Derald Hoffmann

Sept. 22 from 9 a.m. to noon

Visitor Center, 4 miles, moderate.

Reservations: 303-688-5242.

Out There editor Dena Rosenberry
contributed to this report.

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