We all love fall in Colorado, that blissful four-ish-week window where the aspens put on their best display. And one of the best ways to see all those sunshiny yellows, soft oranges, and bold reds is on two wheels. Here are the trails experts from around the Centennial State recommend for a leaf-peeping adventure on every type of bike, from road to mountain riding, as well as where to eat and stay afterward.
On a Road Bike
Route: Maroon Bells Trailhead via Maroon Creek Road
Best peeping period: Third week of September through mid-October
Aspen’s iconic Maroon Bells are two of the most photographed mountains in North America, and there’s no better time to wow your Instagram followers than in the fall, when the area’s golden-hued hillsides are at their prime. This 20-ish-mile (round-trip) road ride features a reasonable 1,700-foot elevation gain. “It’s aspen forests all the way up,” says Anthony Sears, assistant manager at Basalt Bike and Ski’s Aspen location. “It’s absolutely spectacular.”
Route finding: Saddle up and head east out of Aspen along West Hopkins Street until it runs into Seventh Street. Go left, and ride briefly on Seventh until you see the bike path on your right, just before Saw Mill Ct. Ride the path northeast toward the Holden Marolt Mining & Ranching Museum. Take the first right, then the left turn before you hit Highway 82. This path winds east toward Maroon Creek Road. Turn left onto the road, and settle in for your ascent up to the Maroon Bells Trailhead.
Continue up Maroon Creek Road, and keep an eye out for bare patches on the surrounding hillsides, which are scars left by the unprecedented avalanche activity from three years ago. Up at the top, lock your bikes and hike the 500-ish feet over to Maroon Lake for that perfect photo. You’ve earned it.
Eat: Grab lunch at the rustic chic French Alpine Bistro. We love their Bœuf Bourguignon and Kaiser-Schnitzel, but, of course, you can never go wrong with the cheese fondue.
Stay: Spare no expense with a night at Hotel Jerome.
On a Mountain Bike
Route: Loop to the Dyke Trail
Location: Crested Butte
Best peeping period: Third week of September through the first week of October
When it comes to prime peeping aboard your full-suspension mountain bike, there’s only one option worth considering: “The Dyke Trail is the quintessential aspen ride,” says Lisa Cramton, secretary of the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association and co-owner of Chopwood Mercantile. The route takes intermediate riders up and over Kebler Pass toward one of the world’s largest living organisms: an aspen forest. (Though, the exact aspen grove that claims the title is up for debate.) If you make the trail a loop, you’ll be in for about 11 miles and more than 2,000 feet of elevation gain, but watching your tires crunch over the fallen leaves and smelling the freshness of autumn makes that painful pedaling all worth it.
Route finding: If you’re feeling fit, go ahead and ride up CR 12 from town. Otherwise, park at the junction between CR 12 and Forest Service Road 826/Lake Irwin Road. Set out toward the Lake Irwin Campground and continue bearing left until you see the sign marking the Dyke Trail. You’ll start in the aspens, cross a couple creeks, and tackle a few technical areas. Keep your eyes peeled for old carvings in the bark made more than 100 years ago by Basque sheepherders. Then, it’s time to climb as the trail rises up and over the Dyke. Don’t worry: The lung-busting ascent is worth the golden vistas out to the Upper Dyke and the Ruby Range, not to mention the ripping descent below a canopy of aspens. You can then follow Horse Ranch Park over to CR 12, which will take you back to your car.
Eat: Dig into a hand-made patty and some beer-battered fries from Slap Burger.
Stay: Post up at the historic Elk Mountain Lodge for the night. Owners Mike and Amy Nolan are both avid riders who will happily share favorite spots, if you’re up for ride number two.
On a Gravel Bike
Route: Boulder to Fourmile Canyon to Gold Hill and down Sunshine Canyon
Location: Boulder area
Best peeping period: Last week of September through first week of October
Finding a great gravel loop often requires some serious cartography skills mixed with a small dose of creativity. Thankfully, gravel god and Nederland resident Nicholas Legan, author of Gravel Cycling: The Complete Guide to Gravel Racing and Adventure Bikepacking, hooked us up with one of his favorite fall routes. Just make sure to give your legs a pep talk for the roughly 3,000 feet of elevation gain on this 20-ish mile ride (depending on where you start and end in Boulder).
Route finding: Start by heading up the gentle incline along the Boulder Canyon Trail until you turn north onto Fourmile Canyon Drive. You’ll pedal on pavement until hitting the former mining town of Salina, where you’ll turn right onto gravel at Gold Run Road. “It’s really pretty back there, but you’re earning it,” Legan says. Ride hard (and uphill) for four miles until you reach the quirky town of Gold Hill. Reward yourself with a quiche or pastry from the Gold Hill Store, but don’t overdo it. There’s more climbing.
Head northeast toward Sunshine Canyon up Horsfall Street, which turns into Sunshine Canyon Drive. Top out at about 8,400 feet and then enjoy some much-deserved downhill. “It’s worth stopping on the descent because the views down into Boulder and across the valley are incredible,” Legan says. “Just do be careful because you’re descending on dirt and gravel.”
Eat: Back in Boulder, try the potstickers or vegan dumplings at Zoe Ma Ma, and snag a goji berry and raisin rice cake for the road.
Stay: If you snag one of the 201 newly renovated guest rooms at the St. Julien, you’ll be walking distance from Boulder’s pedestrian-only Pearl Street Mall.
On an Electric Bike
Route: Tenmile Recpath and Ten Mile Canyon National Recreation Trail to Vail Pass
Location: Frisco to Vail
Best peeping period: Third and fourth weeks in September
E-bikes make even the sometimes-steep paved path up to Vail Pass accessible for riders of all ability levels. Just “be conservative with that battery at the beginning and pay attention to how fast it’s depleting,” says Bob Hufnagel, manager at Rebel Sports on Frisco’s Main Street, which offers e-bike rentals. You’ll pedal nearly 12 miles with almost 1,500 feet of elevation gain, but the last 1.5 miles up to the top are the steepest (read: Don’t waste the e-bike’s juice on the more relaxed uphills at the outset).
Route finding: Veer off of I-70 at Exit 203 and leave your car at the Kayak Overnight Parking Lot. Catch the connector path over to Tenmile Recpath, where you’ll begin with a gentle grade as you pedal through autumn’s stunning display. A little over three miles in, just past the stone bathroom, take the service road under the highway over to Officers Gulch. This is a great spot to snag a pic of your e-bike with the changing trees and Officers Gulch Pond in the background. Return to the Recpath and continue south until you hit the trail junction; head west where you’ll stop at the traffic light, cross Highway 91, and take Copper Road toward the ski resort at Copper Mountain. Just before Copper Mountain Chapel, pick up the Ten Mile Canyon National Recreation Trail, and wind your way through Copper Village. After crossing Copper Road, take a look at your e-bike’s power level, and get ready for a serious ascent.
From here, the trail roughly follows I-70 for just about five miles on your way to the top of Vail Pass. With the sunset hues across the tall grasses and aspens, though, you’ll hardly notice. Use your electric boost when you need it (and you will for brief sections of the 10 percent grade), but then savor your accomplishment—and the incredible view down over the valley—once you hit the top of Vail Pass before your descent.
Eat: Truffled tater tots, warm beet salad, and wood-grilled lamb chop, oh my! After that ride, it’s time to devour the best Tavern West has to offer.
Stay: Settle in at Frisco Inn on Galena, a boutique bed & breakfast just off Main Street featuring cozy rooms and a complimentary gourmet breakfast.