A great escape from the pandemic – enjoy fall in Colorado

September 24, 2020
A view of golden aspen trees in the foreground with Crystal Reservoir and Pikes Peak in the background | Best places to see fall colors in Colorado
Colorado’s Crystal Reservoir in the fall with Pikes Peak in the background. Photo by Steve W. Krull/Getty Images.

Fall is in the air. Snow is dusting Colorado’s peaks. And the crisp Rocky Mountain mornings and evenings mean that it’s prime season now to see fall colors in Colorado.

Being outdoors is much safer than being indoors during the COVID-19 pandemic, so now is a great time to see slopes painted in gold. You can get out in nature and nourish your soul while staying socially distant from people outside of your family. Plenty of others will be heading out to enjoy fall colors in Colorado too, so brace yourself for traffic and wear a mask on crowded trails and in any indoor areas where you’ll be stopping along the way. Check ahead with the Colorado Department of Transportation to get the latest information on road closures and advisories. And be aware that the Cameron Peak Fire in northern Colorado has closed some roads and hiking trails as it continues to burn.

Also, if you’re heading into Rocky Mountain National Park, remember that you will need reservations even for a day trip through October 12. From October 13 on, reservations will not be required to hike or drive into the park.

Here are some ideas to get you started. Hiking and cycling are great ways to see fall colors in Colorado. You can also ride a horse through a forest full of white bark and yellow leaves. Or you can see aspens from your car window.

Fall colors in northern Colorado

Drive, hike and cycle: The Cache la Poudre River Canyon

The canyon, about 20 minutes northwest of Fort Collins, is a great place to enjoy fall in Colorado whether by car or foot.

Heading up the Poudre Canyon (pronounced pooh-der) you can take Colorado Highway 14 west from U.S. Route 287. Within the first quarter mile, you’ll begin to see the Poudre River, Colorado’s only nationally designated Wild & Scenic river. The highway also is designated as a Colorado Scenic and Historic Byway.

Along with many aspens, the road is also lined with beautiful ponderosa and lodgepole pine trees, sagebrush and mountain mahogany.

Due to the Cameron Peak Fire closing the upper section of the canyon (closures and evacuation areas found here), you most likely won’t be able to venture to the top of Cameron Pass and over to Walden, Colorado, this fall. However, there are several trailheads in the lower canyon where you can see the fall colors on foot or bike. The remnants of the High Park Fire, which struck the canyon in 2012, burning more than 87,000 acres, is seen mostly on the south side of the highway.

The Cache La Poudre River with yellow fall lives on trees and some mountains in the background | Best places to see fall colors in Colorado
About 4 miles up the Poudre Canyon is Gateway Natural Area owned by the City of Fort Collins. The park has picnic and play areas and is a great place to enjoy the fall in Colorado. The wide maintained trail leads you along the river to Seaman Reservoir about a mile back. It’s accessible for strollers and a great walk or bike ride for kids. There is a steep, 100-yard incline up to the reservoir that may be difficult for some. There are also trails off the main trail leading to overlooks. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.

Easy hike:  Gateway Natural Area

A short, mile-long hike with the kids, the stroller, or even your kayak or fishing pole takes you to this beautiful area. It follows a creek lined with changing colors and finishes at Seaman Reservoir. Gateway has picnic area and natural playground, making it a great spot to spend the day. There is a City of Fort Collins use fee.

Loop drive

Head up Highway 14 just past The Mishawaka, a legendary music venue, restaurant and bar, and take a left onto Stove Prairie Road. At the intersection of Stove Prairie Elementary School, take a left onto Rist Canyon Road. This loop will take you back east to the small towns of Bellvue and Laporte, just outside Fort Collins. If you continue on Stove Prairie Road, it will intersect U.S. Hwy 34 west of Loveland, Colorado.

Click here to find more details of the trails on the Poudre Wilderness Volunteers website.

Fall colors in central Colorado:

Hike: Bierstadt Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

Enjoy a beautiful, relatively easy loop hike by starting at Bear Lake, hiking 1.3 miles to Bierstadt Lake, then hiking 1.5 miles down the side of a moraine, a steep hill carved long ago by glaciers. As you hike down switchbacks, you’ll see sweeping views of yellow aspens. In order to do this hike before Oct. 13, you will need reservations. (Click here to book a reservation.) Take the Bear Lake Shuttle Bus. You’ll start at Bear Lake and end at the Bierstadt Lake Trailhead. Click here for bus information and here for a hiking map.

A steep slope with some yellow aspens and green pines with a peak called Mummy Mountain in the background | Best places to see fall colors in Colorado
A view of Mummy Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park with aspens beginning to change colors in the foreground. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Ride a horse:

The YMCA of the Rockies also offers horseback riding at both the Estes Park Center on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park and near Granby at Snow Mountain Ranch.

Drive: Peak to Peak Highway

This stunning 55-mile drive is Colorado’s oldest Scenic and Historic Byway and showcases beautiful aspen trees. The byway includes Colorado Highway 7 on the north and connects with Colorado Highways 72 and 119. Click here for a map.

Drive: Guanella Pass

The 22-mile drive leads from Victorian towns, Georgetown and Silver Plume, up to timberline on the flanks of famous 14-ers, Mount Bierstadt and Mt. Evans. This drive is also another one of the Colorado Scenic and Historic Byways. Click here for a map.

Fall colors in southern Colorado:

Hike, cycle or ride a horse: Rampart Reservoir, Rainbow Gulch Trail

Easy. Great views of aspens with Pikes Peak in the background. This trail is a 2.6-mile roundtrip hike with just 284 feet of elevation gain. Dogs are allowed on leash. To get there, take U.S. Highway 24 west from Colorado Springs 17 miles to Woodland Park. Turn right onto Baldwin Street. Go three miles to Loy Creek Road. Turn right and go 1.5 miles to Rampart Road. Turn right. Go 2.3 miles and you’ll see the parking lot on your left. Click here for more information.

Hike: The Crags

Moderate. Great for families. The trail leads to pinnacle rock formations known as the Crags. From Colorado Springs, take U.S. Highway 24 west through Woodland Park to Divide. Turn south on Colorado Highway 67. Drive 4 miles. Turn left on Forest Service Road #383. The trailhead is nearly 3 miles up the road approximately 1/8 mile before the Crags Campground. Foot, horse, and cross-country ski trail. One-way distance: 2.1 miles. Elevation gain: 800 feet. Click here for more information.

Hike: Mueller State Park – Cheesman Ranch Loop

A view from a hillside of a pine forest speckled with yellow aspen trees | Best places to see fall colors in Colorado
Mueller State Park is a great place to see golden aspen trees in southern Colorado. Photo by Alicia Cohn/ Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Moderate. This 5.4-mile loop weaves in and out of aspen groves and meadows on the north side of the park. Click here for a trail map. Mueller State Park also features cabins and campsites and there are evening walks in the fall to hear elk bugling. To get there from Colorado Springs, take U.S. Highway 24 west to Divide. Turn left on Colorado Highway 67 and go south 3.5 miles.

Drive: Gold Belt Tour

On this drive, you’ll get a double dose of gold: beautiful aspens and a glimpse of historic mining towns that sprang up during Colorado gold rush days back in the 1890s. This 131-mile, 5-hour drive is another one of Colorado’s Historic and Scenic Byways. Start in Florissant and head south into the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. From there, you’ll head to the old mining towns of Cripple Creek and Victor. Look for beautiful views of aspens on the flanks of Pikes Peak near Victor. South of Victor, the roads get rougher and won’t accommodate trailers or RVs. But, with four-wheel drive, a section known as the Shelf Road is an exciting stretch, cut into a canyon, 200 feet above the stream bed below.

Drive: Cripple Creek

For a shorter drive, head west on U.S. Highway 24 from Colorado Springs, then take Colorado Highway 67 through Divide to Cripple Creek. You’ll find spectacular views at the Pikes Peak Heritage Center in Cripple Creek.

Fall colors in northwestern Colorado (Steamboat Springs and Craig):

Stroll: Yampa River Core Trail

The 7.5-mile Core Trail runs along the Yampa River through the heart of Steamboat Springs. It’s a great place to walk your dog, run, bike and even rollerblade if you’re in a retro mood. Henderson said the foliage along the river is beginning to show fall colors. Click here for more information.

Mountain bike: Emerald Mountain

Henderson loves the Lupine Trail. You can pick the distance you want to ride and can log up to 20 miles in this Steamboat Springs park. Click here for a detailed trail map.

Hike: The Devil’s Causeway in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area

(Please note: not for beginners). You can do a 10.5-mile roundtrip hike starting at 10,280 and climbing to 11,820 vertical feet. The hike leads to great views and includes a section that’s only three-feet-wide with steep drop-offs on both sides. This section is the actual “causeway” or a land bridge. If you’re nervous about heights, you can skip this section and head back the way you came. Click here and here for more information.

Bike, hike and picnic: Elkhead Reservoir State Park near Craig

Along with boating, the park offers more than 10 miles of trails. Click here for details.

Drive: Rabbit Ears Pass

You’ll see spectacular aspens along Rabbit Ears, especially near Dumont Lake, 22 miles southeast of Steamboat Springs along U.S. Highway 40. Click here for more information.

Contributors: Kati Blocker, Erin Emery and Lindsey Reznicek

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Coloradan. She attended Colorado College thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summers in college.

Katie is a dedicated storyteller who loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as an award-winning journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and at an online health policy news site before joining UCHealth in 2017.

Katie and her husband, Cyrus — a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer — have three adult children and love spending time in the Colorado mountains and traveling around the world.