Outdoors

Get Outside: Ten Best Leaf-Peeping Hikes in Colorado

Views on the Colorado Trail near Kenosha Pass.
Views on the Colorado Trail near Kenosha Pass. Abigail Bliss
Cool mornings, checkered flannels and pumpkin-flavored everything all signal the return of Colorado's favorite hiking season. Though prime leaf peeping is still several weeks away, keep refreshing this fall foliage map. Steamboat Springs and the I-70 corridor will be the first to turn, with the color chase continuing into late October.

Put these ten colorful hikes on your calendars:

Herman Gulch
Silver Plume
Moderate, 7.2 miles out and back

As one of the best wildflower trails and alpine lake hikes, Herman Gulch is an all-around favorite, and fall foliage is yet another thing that makes a visit here memorable. The trail begins in an aspen forest, then moves into an open valley blanketed by reds and golds. Following the mountain stream and ascending above tree line, you’ll reach Herman Lake. In the background, Pettingell Peak adds to the dramatic scenery.

Rabbit Ears Peak
Steamboat Springs
Moderate, 5.5 miles out and back

Share the trail with moose and mule deer when hiking this Steamboat Springs classic. The gradual ascent up Rabbit Ears Peak is a year-round stunner, but given the trail’s exposure, it’s especially ideal during cooler autumn temperatures. Through the expansive valley, native grasses and thickets turn vibrant shades. Aspens are found near the top of the rabbit ear-shaped outcropping, where you’ll also witness incredible panoramic views.

Mt. Elbert
Twin Lakes
Hard, 10.4 miles out and back

Some visit Twin Lakes to enjoy one of Colorado’s best mountain beaches and most peaceful places to paddleboard. Others come for a more challenging experience, aiming to peak-bag Mt. Elbert, the state’s tallest mountain. Though the 4,500-foot elevation gain is daunting, as far as fourteeners go, the Class 1 climb is actually quite approachable. Switchbacks through evergreen forests lead above tree line, and at the summit, golden aspens paint the mountainsides below.
click to enlarge
The author at Herman Gulch with one of her favorite hiking buddies.
Abigail Bliss
Kenosha Pass North
Jefferson
Moderate, 11.5 miles out and back

Kenosha Pass is famous for being one of Colorado’s best leaf-peeping spots. Each year, dozens of parked cars line this short stretch of Highway 285 between Grant and Jefferson. Note that many visitors are here just for a quick photo. Few may go for a short walk along the trails, but a couple of miles in, the crowds thin significantly. Kenosha Pass North, a portion of the Colorado Trail Segment 6, heads west. Across the road, Segment 5 leads east and offers equally beautiful fall colors.

Gem Lake
Estes Park
Moderate, 3.1 miles out and back

Gem Lake is true to its name, perhaps even more so in the autumn season. Aspens, pines and panoramic scenery make the trek rank as one of the premier hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park. For the best views, climb to the top of the rock outcropping and admire Estes Park from high above. Though parking is generally plentiful along Devil’s Gulch Road, be sure to plan ahead, as a timed entry permit is required through October 10, 2022.

Lizard Head
Telluride
Hard, 12-mile loop

This scenic, strenuous trail begins with a steady ascent through yellow aspens and tall pines. The forest dissipates around 11,700 feet, and from here, far-reaching views are absolutely breathtaking. Mt. Wilson, one of Colorado’s fourteeners, stands prominent, as does Lizard Head, the trail’s namesake. You’ll come near its peak before hiking a saddle to the summit of Black Face. Turn around here, or complete the epic loop by following Highway 145 for two miles southwest.

Horseshoe Trail to Frazer Meadow
Golden
Moderate, 3.8-mile loop

From backpacking routes to campsites near Denver, you’ll find an abundance of outdoor recreation at Golden Gate Canyon State Park. Fall hikes are no exception, with Horseshoe Trail to Frazer Meadow being one of the best picks. Beginning to end, this lollipop loop showcases wide swaths of golden aspens. Arrive early to beat the crowds, and remember to dress in layers. Because the trail is set at 9,000 feet above sea level, temperatures here are often surprisingly cooler than in the nearby city.
Fall foliage surrounding the Maroon Bells.
Unsplash / David Rupert
Crater Lake
Aspen
Moderate, 3.5 miles out and back

Found at the base of the iconic Maroon Bells, Crater Lake makes for a stunning fall hike. But to Colorado locals, this isn’t any secret. Due to the area’s popularity, reservations are required through October 31, 2022. Availability may be limited, especially on weekends, but here’s an expert tip: Consider an evening parking permit. These reservations are less competitive, and at dusk, you’ll very likely spot wildlife along Maroon Lake and/or Crater Lake. Backdropped by fall foliage, the scenery is truly surreal.

Upper Piney River Falls
Vail
Moderate, 5.9 miles out and back

If you’re someone who frequents waterfall hikes near Denver, Piney River Falls is a trail you won’t want to miss this season. Here, aspen groves and creek crossings lead to a beautiful, cascading waterfall. Consider making this trip into the Eagles Nest Wilderness a weekend getaway, as Piney River Ranch rests at the trailhead. Glamping tents and cabins are available for booking, and activities like canoeing and horseback riding can be enjoyed on site.

Horse Ranch Park Loop
Crested Butte
Moderate, 5.9-mile loop

Break away from the crowds on this remote and scenic trail set just west of Crested Butte. The Dark Canyon, Irwin and Dyke Trail Loop, also known as Horse Ranch Park Loop, showcases dense aspen forests. Hike through and high above these towering trees, marveling at one view more amazing than the next. Following the trek, additional fall scenery awaits, as the drive along Kebler Pass is equally stunning.
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