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Go for gold: Where to hike, drive to see the best displays of yellow aspens, fall foliage in Colorado

Posted: 5:00 AM, Sep 10, 2021
Updated: 2021-09-28 18:50:49-04
aspens golds eric english 2021
Aspens changing_yellow, red, green_Loch Lomond Sept 16, 2021
Gold aspen leaves_Watrous Gulch Trail and Bard Creek Trail_Sept 7 2021

It's a clear sign that autumn is on its way — splashes of bright yellow aspen leaves painted across Colorado's mountainsides.

The yearly occurrence attracts both Coloradans and out-of-state visitors to walk through enchanted forests bathed in gold. Pair the spectacular show with cooling temperatures and countless trails to explore, and it's no wonder so many people are eager to get outside this fall.

Plus, this year's show is set to start earlier than usual due to earlier moisture in the mountains and current dry conditions, says Denver7 Chief Meteorologist Mike Nelson.

Take a trip through Colorado's golden aspen groves

The best color over the northern mountains should be from Sept. 15-25. The central mountains will be about five days behind, with the southern mountain areas rounding out the last days of the month and the first five days of October. Typically, the best time to see the changing aspens in central and northern Colorado is the last weekend of September, Nelson said.

Populus tremuloides — or the quaking aspen — can be found in all eleven of Colorado's national forests, leading to the question...

...Where will you go to see the fall foliage?

Denver7 has you covered with a list and interactive map of some of the top hikes, drives, and train rides to experience the transition season in all its glory. But we also want to hear from you. Send your recommendations to newstips@thedenverchannel.com, the Denver7 Facebook inbox, or post in our Discover Colorado | Through Your Photos Facebook group and we’ll include it in the “Recommended by Denver7 viewers” section below.

(Click the expand button in the upper right to see the map in full.)


Top 10 hikes 🥾

(Ensure the trail is open and conditions are OK before you leave home.)

Kenosha Pass (Jefferson)
Trailhead: Forest Road 849 off of US Highway 285
Length: Multiple lengths along the Colorado Trail
Drive time from Denver: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Fee: None
Notes: If you can grab a parking spot at Kenosha Pass (go early!), you can spend many miles hiking on the Colorado Trail in the glow of the yellow aspens. This is one of the most popular places to go, as you can spend miles in aspen groves. Bathrooms are available on the southern side of the trail. The trail is split by the highway, so use extra caution when crossing. This area gets very congested on weekends during peak leaf peeping season, so please drive carefully if traveling through or pulling into the parking area.

Kenosha Pass_Manda Martinez-Perea
Photo by Manda Martinez-Perea

Fourth of July Trailhead/Hessie Trailhead (Nederland)
Trailhead: West of Nederland and Eldora
Length: Multiple lengths
Drive time from Denver: 1 hour, 20 min
Fee: None
Notes: While there is limited parking at the Hessie Trailhead, a free shuttle from Nederland High School can bring you to the trail (leashed dogs welcome). From the trailhead, ascend into the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, which is filled with aspens. Keep an eye out or moose.

Sprague Lake Loop (Rocky Mountain National Park)
Trailhead: Sprague Lake Trailhead off Bear Lake Road
Length: About 1/2 mile, with multiple add-ons
Drive time from Denver: 2 hours
Fee: $25 daily fee, unless you have a National Parks pass. Reservations are required through Oct. 11.
Notes: This easy loop offers beautiful views of the mountains dotted in yellow aspens, all reflected on the lake. This trail is wheelchair-friendly.

Booth Creek Falls (Vail)
Trailhead: Northern end of Booth Falls Road
Length: Multiple lengths (to get to the waterfall and back is about 4 miles. Booth Lake is about 10 miles roundtrip)
Drive time from Denver: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Notes: The parking lot is closed at the Booth Creek trailhead. Take the free Town of Vail bus from the Vail Village parking structure to the trailhead. This trail starts climbing immediately, but offers plenty of places to sit and catch your breath, plus shaded areas at the waterfall.

Golden Gate Canyon State Park (Golden)
Trailhead: Multiple entry points
Length: Multiple trails
Drive time from Denver: About 45 minutes
Fee: Daily pass is $10 unless you have a state park pass
Notes: Less than an hour from Denver, this state park offers many different trails — both long and short — for visitors. Enjoy the aspens during the climbs, downhills and open fields.

Golden Gate Canyon State Park_aspen

Spring Creek Road and Trail (Steamboat Springs)
Trailhead: Corner of Amethyst Drive and E. Maple Street
Length: A little more than 10 miles roundtrip (it’s an out-and-back trail, so turn around early if you want to shorten the hike)
Drive time from Denver: About 2 hours, 45 minutes
Fee: None
Notes: This moderate trail starts at the intersection and heads west. It boasts beautiful wild flowers in the summer that leads to the changing aspen colors come autumn. There are some benches along the first section that are shaded if you need a break to enjoy the scenery. Park before you reach the ponds on the left. It starts as a dirt road and leads into a trail.

Ptarmigan Peak Trail (Silverthorne) NOTE: This trail was closed as of late September 2021 due to the Ptarmigan Fire.
Trailhead: In Silverthorne, from Rainbow Drive, turn right onto Tanglewood Lane. Follow Tanglewood to Ptarmigan Trail Road and turn right. Follow this road for 0.8 miles to the trailhead parking on the right side of the road. The trail starts across the road from the parking area.
Length: 12 miles round trip (out-and-back trail, so it can be as long or short as you'd like)
Drive time from Denver
Fee: None
Notes: In the fall this is a stunning place to experience the yellow aspens, but also the Continental Divide, Gore Range, Tenmile Range and Williams Fork Range. Keep an eye on the north ridge for an elk herd. Remember to bring layers — once you're above the trees, it can get windy.

Snodgrass Mountain (Crested Butte)
Trailhead: From town, go north on Gothic Road past the Mount Crested Butte Campground until you hit the Snodgrass Trailhead on the left
Length: 2-4 miles
Drive time from Denver: 4 hours, 50 minutes
Fee: None
Notes: Visitors will be treated to yellow aspens as soon as they start this trail, with tall groves lining the beginning of the trail. This makes this route a perfect choice if you're looking for something short and don't want to summit the mountain.

Argentine Central Railroad Grade (Silver Plume)
Trailhead: Take exit 226 off I-70, look for the hiking sign and turn onto Mountain Street heading east. It ends at the trailhead.
Length: Up to 13 miles one way
Drive time from Denver: 50 minutes
Fee: None
Notes: This trail takes users from Silver Plume toward, but not to, Grays and Torreys Peaks. It’s a long steady uphill, but is an out-and-back trail, so hikers can turn around at any point. The trail runs through many aspen groves. Keep an ear out for the nearby Georgetown Loop Railroad.

Watrous Gulch Trail (Georgetown)
Trailhead: Herman Gulch trailhead off the Bakerville exit of I-70
Length: 5.6 out-and-back trail
Drive time from Denver:
Fee: None
Notes: This trail takes you up through a lush green forest before leading you to aspen groves. After a couple miles, you'll start to leave the forest behind. The top can be quite steep. The aspen leaves had started changing here in early September. This trailhead is shared by hikers headed up Herman Gulch, which is a popular trail year round, so come early to grab a parking spot.


Top 10 drives 🚗

(Note: Check to ensure the road is open before you leave home)

Gold Camp Road
Start and end points: Colorado Springs to Victor
Drive time from Denver: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Notes: Fittingly named, the Gold Camp Road runs from west Colorado Springs to Victor. Beautiful views of the countryside and aspens will fill the curvy drive. There are plenty of places along the way to pull off the road to snap a few pictures. The road starts in Colorado Springs, but you’ll need to drive several miles west before you'll start to see aspens.

Kebler Pass
Start and end points: Crested Butte to Paonia
Drive time from Denver: 4 hours, 20 minutes
Notes: Also called Gunnison County Road 12, this road starts in Crested Butte, heads west, and ends near the south end of Paonia State Park east of Paonia. The high mountain pass takes drivers up to just over 10,000 feet, with stunning views of the landscape on both sides. This is a favorite location for leaf peeping. The pass is not paved.

Kebler Pass aspens 2020_Katie Kushnir

Gunnison County Road 3
Start and end points: South Carbondale to east of Crystal
Drive time from Denver: 4 hours, 50 minutes
Notes: Explore this road — which is a mix of pavement and dirt — by car or bike (or foot!). Also called the Road to Marble, this roadway is about 12 miles long from Evergreen Lane in south Carbondale to the split at Forest Road 317 through Marble and Crystal. Drive slowly here, especially on the rocky terrain and when passing traffic moving in the opposite direction.

Trail Ridge Road
Start and end points: Rocky Mountain National Park
Drive time from Denver: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Notes: The 48-mile Trail Ridge Road will bring you — slowly — around this national park, in full view of the changing trees. There are plenty of places to pull off and explore the wilderness on foot. Even if you choose to stay in the comfort of a car, be sure you’re hydrating because the road climbs about 4,000 feet quickly. You will need a reservation if you plan to enter the park between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. Click here for details on reservations.

Top of the Rockies Scenic Byway
Start and end points: Copper Mountain to Aspen
Drive time from Denver: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Notes: This byway, which hovers around 9,000 feet for several miles, has several spots along the way where you can get out to stretch your legs and explore the foliage. The byway is about 80 miles long in total and takes drivers over Tennessee Pass.

Peak to Peak Scenic and Historic Byway
Start and end points: Boulder to Black Hawk
Drive time from Denver: Varies, depending on point of entry
Notes: This is Colorado’s oldest scenic byway (it was established in 1918!). It winds about 60 miles though national forests along the Front Range. There are multiple spots along the way — including Rocky Mountain National Park and Golden Gate Canyon State Park — where you can get out to see more golden aspens on foot. Important note: Highway 7 between Lyons and the start of the Peak to Peak highway is intermittently closed for repairs and is not a recommended route for leaf-peeping until next fall.

Peak to Peak Highway
Photo of Peak to Peak Highway by Kellbo Keitherson on Sept. 26, 2019

San Juan Skyway
Points along the way: Ouray, Ridgway, Telluride, Rico, Dolores, Durango, Silverton
Drive time from Denver: 5 hours, 40 minutes
Notes: This 230-mile looped byway travels through multiple southwestern towns and the San Juan and Uncompahgre National Forests. Experts recommend spending at least two days soaking in the area and scenery.

Guanella Pass Scenic Byway
Start and end points: Georgetown to Grant
Drive time from Denver: 50 minutes
Notes: If you’re itching to see the changing aspens sooner than later, Guanella Pass is your go-to. The leaves usually start changing here earlier than other places. The new road makes the going easy for this drive — nice and smooth riding. If you want to stretch your legs, you can hop out to walk on the Bierstadt Trail (or go all the way to the summit at 14,065 feet for more breath-taking views). As with all high-elevation spots, weather can change quickly here, so keep an eye on the sky.

Guanella Pass Sept 21 2019_SButzer_changing aspens
Guanella Pass | Sept. 21, 2019

West Elk Loop
Points along the way: Paonia, Gunnison, Crested Butte and Carbondale
Drive time from Denver: 3 hours
Notes: Take a couple days — or one, if you're OK with driving 6-8 hours — and explore this loop, which spans more than 200 miles long. See the Crystal River, Mount Sopris and Black Canyon of the Gunnison. While enjoying the yellow aspens, you can also check out the area's rich mining history.

Cottonwood Pass along County Road 306 between Buena Vista and Taylor Park
Start and end points: Buena Vista to Almont
Drive time from Denver: 2 hours, 45 minutes
Notes: Drive over the Continental Divide and enjoy the changing aspens on the way up and down, while taking in an incredible mountain pass at 12,126 feet in the middle. The pass is paved, so most cars should be able to make it to the top just fine. In fact, Cottonwood Pass is the highest paved mountain route over the Continental Divide. Camping is available in the area. Cyclists often use this county road, so remember to share the road.


All aboard for autumn 🚂

(Prices vary for each ride depending on time of year and type of service)

If you’d rather relax to the max, but enjoy the fall foliage just as much, there are multiple trains that weave their way through the mountains, giving you beautiful views from the comfort of a train car. Some aspects of these train rides may change throughout the season due to COVID-19. Visit each company's website to review guest safety requirements.

Georgetown Loop Railroad
Start and end locations: Georgetown and Silver Plume
Notes: This railroad has two options catered toward leaf peeping: The Fall Colors Train and the Fall Colors Express. Passengers do not need to wear masks in outdoor areas. The railroad is only operating open-air cars through mid-October so face masks are not required here. The November and December trains, which feature heated and enclosed cars, will require masks, per TSA regulations.

Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad
Start and end locations: Leadville and Climax
Notes: Take a trip around the Continental Divide and San Isabel National Forest. Roundtrips are about 2.5 hours long. Fall Specials trips are offered Sept. 11-12, 18-19, and 25-26 departing the depot at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Remember to bring a jacket as temperatures may dip.

Cripple Creek and Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad (season will end Oct. 3)
Start and end locations: Cripple Creek and Victor
Notes: This ride, which is narrated with information on the area, takes visitors four miles in 45 minutes, including stops along the way. It leaves every 70 minutes between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. It is first come, first serve, so no reservations are required. The cars are open rain or shine, so dress for the weather (a jacket is a must).

Durango and Silverton Train
Start and end locations: Silverton and Durango
Notes: Take a ride on this historic train through the mountains and canyons around Durango and Silverton and soak in the fall foliage along the way. You can take the Scenic Round Trip Silverton Train which lasts 3.5 hours each way, plus two hours in Silverton. If you're seeking an experience away from cell service and deep in the rugged wilderness, this train is for you.

Cumbreas & Toltec Scenic Railroad
Start and end locations: Antonito, Colorado to Chama, New Mexico
Notes: This train runs daily until Oct. 24. If you want a train ride specifically catered toward the changing leaves, look into hopping aboard this railroad’s autumn adventures ride. Guests are required to wear masks in public areas including ticket offices, gift shops, restrooms, and train cars that have roofs, windows, and doors with some or all windows closed. Guests do not have to wear masks outdoors, in open-air gondola cars, open platforms between train cars, or in cars that have all windows open.

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RMNP fall colors_Evan Gerstung

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Corona Pass Road_Laurel Kerns-Haehn

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State Forest State Park_Kristin Aguila

Hoosier Pass

Hoosier Pass_Jeff Moinet

Sleeping Indian Ranch, Ridgeway

Aspens at Sleeping Indian Ranch_James Rush

Grand Mesa

Grand Mesa changing leaves_Melania Rontino

Crested Butte

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Powderhorn

Powderhorn aspens_ Teresa Miller