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—Courtesy of Jason J. Hatfield

Gilded Trails

Fall in Colorado’s wilderness—a brilliant display of varied yellow and hues—is best viewed from the trail. Get outside this autumn with one (or more!) of 15 hikes, from the Front to Vail to Ouray—all of which will put you in middle of the splendor.

By |

The Colorado Trail

Segment 24, Stony Pass to Molas Pass | Near Silverton | San Juan National Forest

The Million Dollar Highway (U.S. 550) between Durango and Silverton may be ideal leaf-peeping terrain—but it’s also a surefire way to spend a bunch of time staring at taillights. Our solution? Turn off the road near the Molas Lake Campground—which stays open through September—park your vehicle there, and hike east on the unmarked path around the campground (you’ll go about 0.8 miles before catching up with the Colorado Trail) and there it is: silence. This section of the 500-mile Denver-to-Durango thoroughfare is about 20 miles (one way), but we recommend heading east for 3.5 miles to the Animas River. The trek starts out around 10,600 feet, but you’ll quickly drop down about 300 feet into brilliant aspen stands. Continue on for a stroll along a ridge that supplies you with ample views of the jagged San Juan Mountains. Just when you start to think this hike is easy, you’ll start descending—switchback after switchback—to the Animas River, which nestles into its woodsy environs at around 8,918 feet. Save energy on the (steep) return trip by resting frequently and snapping photos of the fall color—visible in nearly every direction. —Natasha Gardner


West Maroon Trail

To Crater Lake | Maroon Bells–Snowmass Wilderness | Aspen

The starting point for this hike—Maroon Lake—is the most photographed outdoor vignette in Colorado. The pristine lake acts as a mirror, reflecting the striated Maroon Bells, which tower 14,000 feet over the aspen-lined valley floor. On a clear fall day, even a kid with an iPhone could shoot a John Fielder–caliber photo. Most people snap a few shots and leave. Instead, landscape lovers should check out Crater Lake, the less visited but nearly as beautiful kid sister to Maroon Lake. The relatively flat trail follows the north side of Maroon Lake before veering off into the densely forested Maroon Bells–Snowmass Wilderness. From this point, expect a fairly steep grade for about a mile. Look for breaks in the fir, spruce, and aspen trees to catch glimpses of splashy West Maroon Creek dancing along the valley floor. The trail mellows and the trees thin out at a boulder field, which was formed by the same rockslide that damned the valley and created Crater Lake millions of years ago. Once you’re back in the trees, stay left to descend to the grassy meadow along the edge of snowmelt-fed Crater Lake. The views of North Maroon Peak rival those at the start of the hike, making for a picture-perfect picnic spot. —Jayme Moye


Bears Ears Trail #1144

Routt National Forest | Near Steamboat Springs

This remote hike explores some of Colorado’s densest aspen groves and promises solitude among yellow leaves. In fact, herds of elk are this region’s only crowds, and hunters outnumber hikers in the fall (you’d be wise to wear orange in September). The route begins in California Park, where, with a keen eye, you might spot 100-year-old aspen carvings on trees bordering grassy meadows. Here, sheepherders in the late 1800s passed the time by carving their names (and pictures of nude women). After scouting for arborglyphs, hike west and cross three creeks in quick succession. Traverse open fields before entering the aspens at the two-mile mark, where the trail alternates between forest and meadows punctuated by beaver ponds. Continue west for two more miles—you’ll cross Stukey Creek—for views of Sugar Loaf Mountain, a flat-topped volcanic formation surrounded by sheer cliffs. Reverse course at Forest Road 116. —Kelly Bastone


Following Convention

The shortest distance by car between Aspen and Crested Butte is a 100-mile drive that takes about three hours. Sure, it’s a pretty trip…but the 11-mile hike from one of Colorado’s most famous ski towns to one of its most overlooked is a rite of passage for many Coloradans. In fact, the journey along West Maroon Trail often becomes an annual tradition—as it has in my circle of friends. After all, few hikes, even in the nature-blessed Centennial State, offer such pristine mountain views, challenging summits, cooling creek crossings, and beautiful early fall foliage.
I wake at sunrise and stuff a daypack with snacks, water, and rain gear and await my ride: A friend’s husband has done my hiking group of six the favor of dropping us at the Maroon Bells, where our trek begins. By 8 a.m. we are at the trailhead—and it’s downright cold. Fortunately I’m dressed in moisture-wicking shirts and fuzzy fleeces, most of which I will be shedding as soon as our feet meet the trail.

We set out on the 1.8-mile route to Crater Lake. From the lakeshore, we can see that the tops of the Maroon Bells have received an early season dusting, a reminder that precipitation—liquid or frozen—is always a possibility on this hike no matter the month. Our plan is to summit the 12,500-foot West Maroon Pass by midday to avoid afternoon thunderstorms. Still along the edge of Crater Lake, we shed layers, readjust our packs, and have a quick snack as we prepare for the next several hours of steady elevation gain. Leaving behind a few early risers at Crater, we continue on West Maroon Trail, pushing through willow thickets and negotiating a pair of stream crossings that are still high in September. Fortunately, this isn’t my first Aspen to Crested Butte rodeo: I’ve packed a second pair of shoes for the trip.
Along the route, we meet a few other groups, but in autumn the hike is much quieter than during peak wildflower season in July. The approach to the top of West Maroon Pass is steep with loose rocks, and my eyes are trained on my next footfall until I see a man standing beside the trail. The effects of physical exertion and altitude are apparent on his face. I share an electrolyte chew, and he’s soon able to ascend the final switchback to where our friends are waiting.

From our vantage point, looking out over the Elk Mountains dotted with yellow aspens and green pines and frosted with early snow, it’s apparent to all of us that winter is near. My friends are eager to continue, so after a PB&J, we take off on the four-mile, rolling descent toward Crested Butte. The easy-to-follow trail takes us through dense brush that has begun its autumn transformation, and we revel in the sight of canary yellow, copper, and red ochre. My legs are tired from the push to the top of the pass, but the downhill grade here is not intense and makes for a pleasant descent. Lost in conversation, I soon find we are strolling back into the pines, where cool air and the scent of a nearby stream tell me the end of our jaunt is near.

Although we could have called a taxi to take us to Crested Butte, a friend is waiting at Schofield Park with a car and a cooler of beer. Down at this elevation, the afternoon sun is strong, so I remove my shoes, crack open a brew, and drink it all in. —Amiee White Beazley

—Photo by Judith Nelson

Booth Creek Trail

Vail | Eagles Nest Wilderness

Even if hiking uphill isn’t your thing, you’ll want to make an exception in the case of Booth Creek Trail—especially during the fall color change. From the moment hikers venture forth from the Booth Creek trailhead, located just minutes from downtown Vail and I-70, the well-worn path delivers beautiful Rocky Mountain scenery. Yes, the hike is pretty much up, up, up from the start, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t take your time and stop often to enjoy the grassy hillsides that melt into a verdant valley edged by rocky red cliffs. After the first mile, the trail flattens for a bit—and sweeps through colorful groves of mature aspen. Be on the lookout for late-season wild strawberries here. As the path continues and nears the base of Booth Falls, the terrain gets decidedly more challenging. If you can manage the elevation gain (there is a lower spur trail to the bottom of the falls, but footing is dangerous; we suggest going on up), you’ll be treated to views of a 60-foot gusher careening through a rocky chute. Take a breather, snap some photos, and make this your turnaround point—unless you’re game for the strenuous 2.5-mile journey on up to Booth Lake. —LBK


Local Color

Three Front Range hikes for spectacular fall foliage.

The route: Staunton Ranch Trail to Bugling Elk Trail to Lion’s Back Trail
Where: Staunton State Park, cpw.state.co.us
Distance: 5.4 miles one way
Why: This moderately difficult but lengthy path takes hikers through a beautiful landscape teeming with aspen and colorful sagebrush before ultimately delivering them to the Elk Falls Overlook, where they can spy the nearly 100-foot spout.
The drive: Without traffic, the drive from Denver on U.S. 285 should take about 45 minutes.


The route: Horseshoe Trail to Frazer Meadow
Where: Golden Gate Canyon State Park, cpw.state.co.us
Distance: 1.8 miles one way
Why: With a measured uphill ascent alongside a babbling creek, Horseshoe Trail—which begins from the Frazer Meadows trailhead—leads outdoors lovers through aspen-lined meadows to an old homestead in a lush field. Pull up a patch of grass and enjoy the view.
The drive: It’s less than 30 miles from the Mile High City to this stunning playground.


The route: Segment 6—Kenosha Pass to Goldhill trailhead
Where: The Colorado Trail, coloradotrail.org
Distance: 6 miles one way
Why: Any trail leaving from Kenosha Pass offers perfect leaf-peeping opportunities—aspens set this pass aglow in the fall—but following a small part of Segment 6 of the Colorado Trail gives hikers the opportunity for a nice long trek out without having to walk back: Parking a second car on Jefferson Lake Road near where the trail crosses it means you don’t have to do 12 miles in one day.
The drive: The 64-mile journey on U.S. 285 from Denver to the Kenosha Pass Campground (where you’ll pick up the trail) is one of the prettier drives out of Denver. Park on the west side of 285, instead of at the campground, to avoid paying a fee.


Lou Creek Trail

Near Montrose | | Uncompahgre National Forest

Aspens dominate the shoreline surrounding Silver Jack Reservoir, an idyllic mountain-ringed lake that begs for a hammock strung amid the sun-filtering leaves. Make that your post-hike reward. First, follow the lakeside trail west for 0.3 miles to the junction with Trail #244 (which leads south) and Lou Creek Trail (#222), which you’ll follow on its northwesterly course through the clusters of skunk cabbage surrounding turquoise Cowboy Lake. Next, climb hillsides covered in aspens as you ascend to Lou Creek Pass, a low notch in snaggly Cimarron Ridge, which extends to the north and south like a parapet. Gaze down over the bands of yellow aspens framing Silver Jack’s mirrored waters, admire the ragged San Juan mountains jutting above seas of gold, and then retrace your steps to Silver Jack’s shores. —KB


It’s The Journey That Counts

I’m a goal-oriented person. I like checklists and deadlines. Those things help me stay focused, keep my eye, as they say, on the prize. I tell myself there’s nothing wrong with my need for motivation. Still, it can be tough for me when there’s an activity that’s supposed to be fluid, with no goals or destinations in mind. A hike, for example, can be my worst nightmare—unless, of course, it’s the Cub Lake–Fern Lake circuit, which has five major landmarks that serve as incentives to keep going.

The Cub Lake trailhead is one of the closest such departure points to Rocky Mountain National Park’s Beaver Meadows Entrance Station, yet on a late-summer weekday there are still plenty of parking spots. At 9 a.m., the air feels as if there is no temperature at all. I throw on my small daypack filled with water, trail mix, a smartphone, matches, and a long-sleeve shirt. I rarely hike by myself, but today I have no companion. I make friends, instead, with the chipmunks and mule deer I see in the flat first mile of the hike, which skirts the meadows of Moraine Park. As the trail begins to stretch vertically at 1.25 miles in, the flora changes: Green ferns layer the ground in between the trunks of mature aspens. Their golden leaves line the trail for the next half mile, which gradually ascends before flattening out near the route’s first destination: Cub Lake.

Surrounded by terrain charred by the 2012 Fern Lake Fire, Cub Lake’s succulent lily pads and blue water stand in contrast to a thirsty landscape. It is, somehow, still beautiful. But after a few minutes sitting at the lake’s edge, I think about what’s to come and mosey on. The trail remains horizontal alongside Cub Lake and then begins a descent to the Big Thompson River.
At 3.3 miles in, I reach an aspen-lined valley floor that delivers me to the Pool, the junction of Fern Creek and the Big Thompson River. I consider dipping my feet in the water but instead decide to take a hard left for the one-mile climb to Fern Falls.

Unlike the gentle ascent from the trailhead to Cub Lake, the path here is steep. It’s not unmanageable, but only the gushing of 50-foot Fern Falls drowns out the sound of my pounding heart. The mist coming off the spout cools me down enough to make the 1.1-mile push to Fern Lake—the fourth and most beautiful of my objectives—seem almost enticing.

I’m a sucker for alpine lakes. There’s something so pure and dramatic about them—and Fern Lake does nothing to change my devotion as its clear snowmelt sparkles in the midday sun. Although I purposefully traveled light, I regret not bringing my fly rod when I see trout rising to sip at the surface.

After soaking up the scene, I decide to try to outhustle the gray clouds building in the distance. I retrace my steps 2.2 miles back to the Pool and then follow the sign pointing me to the Fern Lake trailhead, 1.7 miles away. Although storm clouds provide an unexpected sense of urgency, I’m still looking forward to my final landmark. It’s not difficult to discern Arch Rocks, house-size boulders that cracked apart and created rocky porticos I marvel at as I walk through them.

From there, the trail weaves to its end at the Fern Lake trailhead parking lot. To complete the loop, I walk 0.8 miles to the Fern Lake shuttle stop, where I board a bus for the 0.3-mile ride back to my vehicle at the Cub Lake trailhead. As I unlock my car, I revel in a sense of accomplishment. I checked every box on my list—and enjoyed doing so immensely. —LBK


Perimeter Trail

Ouray | Uncompahgre National Forest

Hikers are always looking for value—the most beautiful scenery in the shortest distance—and in that category, it’s difficult to beat Ouray’s Perimeter Trail. Not only are hikers surrounded by fall color, but they’ll also see old mine shafts, waterfalls, remnants of a defunct mining tram, an abandoned reservoir, and the Uncompahgre River. The pathway leaves from near the visitor center, circles the tiny mountain enclave, and ends in a neighborhood in the southwestern part of town (the final mile is still under construction).

The first two miles of the route wind up and around Cascade Cliff, past Cascade Falls, and into open meadows. Hikers will cross Highway 550 about halfway through the trek before the last two miles take them down through the Uncompahgre River gorge and over the river via a wooden footbridge to the Ouray Ice Park. A huge aspen grove winds through this section, but hikers should also look for a crystal-clear lake—which is actually an abandoned reservoir. Once hikers emerge from the aspen forest, the white noise of rushing water will become audible. The trail becomes a suspended bridge over Canyon Creek. The gorge is the ideal spot for a photo shoot, and kids will love scampering through an underground passageway on the other side of the bridge. The final section of the trail is still being built; at the end of the completed path, head east, take a left on Main Street, and follow signs through Ouray’s charming downtown back to the visitor center.  —Davina van Buren


If You Must Drive, Drive Here

Bum ankle? New baby? Flatlanders in town? If you can’t get out on the trails this fall, these six road trips will get you close (enough) to the gold treasure.

Kebler Pass: This 30-mile dirt-road excursion from Crested Butte to Paonia (the road dead-ends into Highway 133, just 15 miles from town) winds through one of the largest aspen groves in the United States. Living off of one root system, this single organism is, in many experts’ opinions, the largest living entity in the state of Colorado. What that means for you: unparalleled fall color. Plus, this stretch of path motors you between two of Colorado’s most charming enclaves—definitely leave time to explore downtown Crested Butte and the orchards and vineyards around Paonia.

Guanella Pass: Whether you begin from the tiny hamlet of Grant off U.S. 285 or Georgetown off I-70, the 23-mile Guanella Pass Scenic and Historic Byway (10 miles is paved, the rest is not) is plied with pots of aspen gold. And, if anyone in your party is up for a hike, there’s no better way to view fall color than from the top of 14,060-foot Mt. Bierstadt, the trailhead for which is atop the pass.

Last Dollar Road: The scenery between the southwestern Colorado towns of Ridgway and Telluride is spectacular year-round, but this old dirt road gives you a different perspective than the typical view from the highway, especially during autumn. Not only does the road wind through tunnels of lemon-hued leaves, it also brings sightseers by grazing horses, weatherworn fences, crumbling log cabins, and views of the rugged San Juans. It’s Colorado perfection.

Mt. Evans Scenic Byway: If it’s still open—there are plans for construction in mid-September—a trip up this Front Range fourteener offers photo ops that can easily turn into wall hangings. Two lakes dot the route that leaves from Idaho Springs—Echo Lake is below treeline and offers some swaths of canary yellow among the pines; Summit Lake is above treeline but features gorgeous views. Both are worth a stop.

McClure Pass: The 8,755-foot McClure Pass, which connects Carbondale with Paonia on Highway 133, is rife with swatches of fall color, including less-common strokes of peachy orange. Two other things to look for in the surrounding area: Slow Groovin BBQ in Marble (slowgroovinbbq.com) and the nearby, enormously photogenic Crystal Mill.

Poudre Canyon Highway: Besides getting to enjoy the tumbling waters of the Cache la Poudre River, rubberneckers can take in a palette of color from winding Highway 14. The fall foliage extends all the way up to the top of Cameron Pass, through State Forest State Park. Don’t stop there though: Drive into Walden in the North Park area to spot moose, which make the area home.


Aspen Alley Trail

Breckenridge | White River National Forest

Walking along Aspen Alley Trail is a first for many hikers—not because fall hiking is all that unusual but because this adventure starts by trekking downhill. From the trailhead, located a few dozen feet past the winter gate on Boreas Pass (there’s no sign marking the trail’s start, but you’ll see it on the right side of the road), the narrow dirt singletrack—yes, you may encounter mountain bikers—follows a gentle slope into the woods. Enjoy the view as the aptly named path snakes through aspen grove after aspen grove, with trees, from knee-high saplings to towering golden umbrellas, providing shade almost the entire way down the 0.75-mile trail. About 15 minutes into your amble—the trail gets a bit steeper here—you’ll pass an old mine dump with a burnt red compressor. (Be forewarned: There are open mine shafts in the area; stay on the trail and watch your dogs.) The hike eventually ends near Wakefield Ranch, a stunning private home visible from the trail; you’ll turn around here and make your way back up. Remember to snap a few photos along the way—you’ll have plenty of opportunity while you’re catching your breath—and you’ll leave with a camera full of gold. —Daliah Singer


Hunter Creek Valley Loop

Aspen | White River National Forest

With meadows, creek crossings, and entrée to an endless network of trails in the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness, the Hunter Creek Valley Loop has it all, including trailhead access from downtown Aspen. Approachable for almost every level of hiker, the well-maintained loop begins with a 700-foot climb paralleling Hunter Creek to Benedict Bridge, which crosses the rushing water. After traversing the span, the trail winds up a rock-strewn path to the Hunter Creek Valley. From there the hike continues through glades of aspen and spruce. Stay right until the route curls left to cross Hunter Creek via a wooden bridge, which delivers you into the Hunter Creek Meadow, a valley floor of alpine grasses and numerous spur trails. The trail continues through the pasture for another mile before hikers take a left and cross Hunter Creek again at the 10th Mountain Bridge. Here, leaf-peepers will amble through the woods, down a gnarled path, and along babbling Hunter Creek back
to town. —AWB


Harvard Lakes

Near Buena Vista | San Isabel National Forest

For those who haven’t experienced the awe-inspiring Collegiate Peaks, this hike is a great introduction. Just a short drive from the charming town of Buena Vista, the well-maintained trail to Harvard Lakes snakes its way up the side of Mt. Columbia in a mostly moderate fashion—except for the first half-mile, which is a breath-stealing uphill haul. After the path levels off, hikers can enjoy views east to the fertile Arkansas Valley below and intermittent stands of yellowing aspen. Around mile two, the main trail crosses two creeks—dogs, who are welcome on this trail, will love the chance to cool off—before hikers reach Lower Harvard Lake, the deeper of the two bodies of water and the best place to pitch a tent as there are several large campsites within sight of the lake. It’s also the best spot to cast for eight- to 10-inch cutthroats and cutbows (bring waders; there’s little room for shore casting). But don’t miss ambling just a few more minutes up the trail: Upper Harvard Lake is shallower, but 14,071-foot Mt. Columbia rises high above the gin-clear snowmelt and aspens tuck into the side of the fourteener and its adjacent peaks. —LBK


Taste Of Fall

After hiking through Colorado’s most striking fall foliage, cool off with an equally exquisite seasonal treat—a glass of hard cider.

The brew: Ol’ Stumpy
From: Denver-based Colorado Cider Company, coloradocider.com
Why we love it: Made with bittersweet apples, this earthy, oaky 6.95 ABV cider is a refreshing libation, particularly after a workout.
Where to find it: Argonaut Wine & Liquor in Denver

The brew: Summit Series
From: Blown Spoke Hard Cider Co., blownspokecider.com
Why we love it: With light notes of pear, peach, and apple, this medium-bodied alcoholic beverage embodies the rich flavors of late summer and early fall.
Where to find it: The source—Blown Spoke Hard Cider Co. in Loveland

The brew: Orchard Original Hard Cider
From: Big B’s Hard Cider in Hotchkiss, bigbjuices.com
Why we love it: It’s dry, delicious, and made with all organic, Colorado-grown fruit.
Where to find it: Whole Foods

The brew: Caramel Apple
From: Gore Range Brewery in Edwards, gorerangebrewery.com
Why we love it: If you caught a chill in the woods, this mix of Angry Orchard hard cider and Pinnacle salted caramel vodka will warm you right up.
Where to find it: The brewery, which serves pub fare and pairs it with adult beverages, including this house concoction

The brew: Sour Apple Saison
From: Utah-based Epic Brewing Company, epicbrewing.com
Why we love it: This brew is spiced with cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon.
Where to find it: Epic’s Denver taproom


East Lake Creek Trail

Edwards | White River National Forest

Located in the Holy Cross Wilderness near Edwards, this trail may be Colorado’s holy grail of mature aspen trees. In September and October, millions upon millions of tiny golden leaves tremble and shimmer for the first two miles of the uphill hike, and at certain points along the way, it feels as if you’re standing inside the sun. The supple dirt trail is narrow but well maintained, and layers of fallen aspen leaves make the trail even softer underfoot. Two and a half miles in from the East Lake Creek trailhead, you’ll cross a wooden bridge at the trail’s babbling namesake—a good picnic spot or a turnaround point for those looking for a half-day hike.
If the mountains call you higher, continue upward on the creek’s east side. The trail skirts several 13,000-foot mountains, tiny Boot Lake, and an old mining site complete with ruins and rusting machinery. You’ll pass a series of beaver ponds and a few swampy places that will make you glad you wore those waterproof hiking boots. The trail meanders through alpine meadows toward the end of the route before its conclusion at Upper Camp Lake. Motorized vehicles aren’t allowed in the Holy Cross Wilderness, and the trail doesn’t connect to others with a closer parking area to leave a car—so if you plan to go the full 12.5 miles, camp at the lake for the night and head back the way you came in the morning. —DVB

—Photography courtesy of Jason J. Hatfield, Aurora Photos, Noelee Leavitt Riley, Todd Caudle, Judith Nelson, Brendan Bombaci, Protrails, Jack Brauer, Liam Doran, Lindsey B. Koehler, Andrew Wilz, Mike Thomas, Jeff Clark

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