Why we like it: Besides the stunning yellow aspen leaves, we get a break from paying the entrance fee for Rocky Mountain National Park. (The trail enters RMNP, but the trailhead is located just outside park boundaries.)

When to go: Now! Catch the remaining fall color before winter as the trail winds through multiple aspen groves.

As a newcomer to Colorado, this fall was my first opportunity to witness a change of seasons in the Rocky Mountains, and I was determined to leaf peep with the best of them. I decided on Gem Lake Trail, located just outside downtown Estes Park, a well-marked and well-traveled route. Plan accordingly: As we set out on our hike around 7:30 a.m., a handful of cars were already in the parking lot. By the time we finished around noon, the lot was full and cars were overflowing to the area along Devils Gulch Road.

Located 1.65 miles from Lumpy Ridge Trailhead, Gem Lake is a short and steep path. Be prepared for a leg workout—hikers gain more than 900 feet of elevation in a little over a mile. The trail winds up through pines and aspen groves. At the peak of fall color, the aspens create a golden, glowing canopy of leaves that drape overhead as you walk. Be sure to stop, take a breather, and turn around during the ascent; your break will include expansive views of the surrounding mountain ranges.

The trail levels out upon reaching Gem Lake. On the day we arrived, around 8:30 a.m., the water was a sheet of glass and the lake was shaded by the surrounding rock, which created a great perch for a morning picnic of Goldfish crackers and a granola bar before we began our descent away from the solitude and back to our regular lives.

?Tip: People looking for a longer trek can access other paths beyond Gem Lake, including the lengthy Twin Owls Loop.

Getting there: Drive on I-25 north toward Longmont. Take exit 243 for CO-66 W/CO Rd. 30. Turn left onto CO-66/CO Rd. 30 and continue for 14.4 miles at which point you’ll follow US-36 west. After 20.5 miles, turn right onto US-36 W/5th Ave. Follow this for 20.2 miles. When you reach downtown Estes Park, turn right onto East Wonderview Avenue. In 0.5 miles, turn right onto MacGregor Avenue, which turns into Devils Gulch Road after crossing over US-34. Continue on Devils Gulch Road past MacGregor Ranch. The Lumpy Ridge Trailhead is less than a mile ahead on the left, marked by a sign.

Sarah Banks
Sarah Banks
Sarah produces, photographs and researches the photography in the print edition of 5280. In addition, she photographs and writes for 5280.com.