New England might be the reigning queen of fall colors, but with its abundance of aspen trees set against the dramatic Rocky Mountains, the leaf peeping in Colorado is nothing to scoff at. The best fall hikes in Colorado guide you through resplendent groves of golden leaves that appear to set the high alpine mountainsides aflame.
Fall in Colorado offers the most breathtaking views of the year, so much so that John Denver christened it "Aspenglow". There’s little that compares to the crunch of dry leaves underfoot, the comfortably cool temperatures and magical effect of the colors as they transform the already beautiful landscape. Foliage season in Colorado tends to be brief, lasting only a couple of short weeks, and can be shorter if a strong gale blows all the dry leaves off the trees early, so lace up your hiking boots and get going. Peak season can occur any time in September or early October and happens earlier in the northern part of the state then works its way southwards.
Our guide to the best fall hikes in Colorado covers destinations across the state, so no matter where you find yourself you can enjoy the colors.
Best fall hike in Rocky Mountain National Park: Fern Lake Trail
Distance: 7.4 miles
The Fern Lake trail was largely constructed in the early 1900s and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. Though it’s in popular Rocky Mountain National Park, the Fern Lake trail is relatively uncrowded and in addition to being a top-class leaf peeping hike, it takes in house-sized boulders, the 60ft plunge of Fern Falls and a beautiful alpine lake with views of Notchtop and Little Matterhorn mountains.
Coming from Bear Lake Road, follow Moraine Park Road for a half mile to an unmarked junction just before the Moraine Park Campground. Turn left and drive roughly two miles to the Fern Lake Trailhead then follow the signs for this well-marked trail.
Best fall hike near Denver: Black Bear/Horse Shoe Loop
Distance: 6 miles
Just 30 miles west of Denver lies Golden Gate Canyon State Park which is transformed into golden hues each fall. This fairly technical single track hike tends to be quieter than other hikes close to Denver and offers big mountain views as well as foliage.
Start from the Ralston Roost trailhead in the park and follow the Black Bear trail to start. The hike begins with some easy scrambling – follow the cairns to stay on the trail. Join the Mule Deer Trail to connect to the Horseshoe Trail to complete the loop.
Best fall hike in Boulder: Royal Arch Trail
Distance: 3.5 miles
Difficulty: Moderate - Challenging
The Royal Arch trail in Boulder is hugely popular due to its sensational sandstone rock arches. In the fall it also treats you to a burst of gold that, with the added bonus of the Flatirons in the background, make a hard-to-beat photo op.
The trail begins from the Chautauqua Park trailhead and you’ll want to start early to beat the crowds on the stair-stepper climb up to Royal Arch which is neatly hidden in the shadow of the Flatirons. This imposing, naturally formed sandstone arch beautifully frames Boulder in the background for a quintessential Colorado photo op, and if it’s clear enough you’ll be able to see Denver in the background too.
Best fall hike near Breckenridge: Boreas Pass
Distance: Up to 20 miles
Difficulty: Moderate - Challenging
Boreas Pass is a dirt road that follows the old railroad route from Breckenridge to Como taking you over the Continental Divide which of course offers breathtaking views of the entire area. You don’t have to hike all 20 miles of it, however, as any amount in the fall will be a sight for sore eyes.
From Highway 9 at the south end of Breckenridge, take Boreas Pass Road until the pavement ends and park, then continue on the dirt road on foot for as long as you like.
Best fall hike near Vail: The Overlook Trail
Distance: 6 miles
Though Vail itself possesses plenty of stunning hikes, the Overlook Trail in Beaver Creek, just a 10-minute drive to the West, offers the best of the fall colors. This steep hike switchbacks up Beaver Creek mountain from the bottom of the gondola to the top, taking you through Aspen groves, pine forest and pretty meadows.
Park at Beaver Creek Village and start out at the bottom of the gondola. The village is a couple of miles drive from I-70, so you quickly get the feeling of being away from traffic and immersed in nature quickly on this hike. During the summer months, you can have lunch at the restaurant at the top and hitch a free ride down on the gondola, but come fall you’ll need to return the way you came, or if you’re feeling adventurous, link up to the Royal Elk trail to Beaver Lake and return via the Beaver Lake trail for a 9 mile hike.
Best fall hike near Aspen: Cathedral Lake
Distance: 5.4 miles
Cathedral Lake glitters like a rare alpine gem at the base of rugged Cathedral Peak and the hike there takes you through pine forests, meadows and groves of aspen trees that are transformed in the fall. This day hike sees a lot of foot traffic, so set out early.
Take Highway 15 south from Aspen and turn right onto Cathedral Lake Road to find the trailhead.
Best fall hike in Telluride: Bear Creek Canyon
Distance: 5 miles
As if it wasn’t already beautiful enough, the mountains surrounding Telluride are aflame with color in the fall and there are lots of great hikes to soak it all up. Our pick is Bear Creek Canyon which starts from downtown and follows a 325-acre rugged mountain canyon that has been preserved by the Telluride Land Trust. This unforgettable hike offers striking scenery and ends at the cascading Break Creek Falls.
Find the trailhead at the end of South Pine street and follow it all the way to the falls.
Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Adventure.com. She is an author, mountain enthusiast and yoga teacher who loves heading uphill on foot, ski, bike and belay. She recently returned to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland after 20 years living in the USA, 11 of which were spent in the rocky mountains of Vail, Colorado where she owned a boutique yoga studio and explored the west's famous peaks and rivers. She is a champion for enjoying the outdoors sustainably as well as maintaining balance through rest and meditation, which she explores in her book Restorative Yoga for Beginners, a beginner's path to healing with deep relaxation. She enjoys writing about the outdoors, yoga, wellness and travel. In her previous lives, she has also been a radio presenter, music promoter, university teacher and winemaker.
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