Colorado has far more evergreen pines than deciduous tree species. But the Centennial State is home to a handful of trees that change color during fall. And for most, fall in Colorado is about one of them: the slender, white-barked aspen. While there are enough aspen trees in Denver to give residents a taste of their autumnal beauty without journeying into the mountains, aspens’ fall colors tend to be more dramatic and are usually best admired in environments where the tree thrives naturally.
Here are twelve hiking trails within two hours’ drive of Denver where you can revel in the yellow, gold, orange and red of aspen trees this fall. But be quick about it. Peak colors last for an average of just one week, and for most aspen meadows that week falls in late September or early October. Projections for this year put peak season between September 21 and 30 in most parts of the Rockies.
Arapaho National Forest
The Butler Gulch Trailhead is only an hour’s drive from Denver, but it offers total mountain immersion. The trail, located near Jones Pass between Georgetown and Winter Park, is a moderately difficult 4.8-mile out-and-back. Non-aspen highlights include jaw-dropping mountain views and a waterfall. Dogs are permitted off-leash on the trail, which is open year-round. There’s a parking lot for hikers just past Henderson Mine. If you want a spot during aspen season, leave your apartment before sunrise.
Pike National Forest
Between the drive from your Denver apartment to the Devil’s Head Firetower trailhead and the hike itself, you’ll get a serious dose of aspens. This 2.7-mile out-and-back hike is moderately difficult and generally not too crowded. As with most hikes on this list, expect more trail traffic during peak season. The sunrise over the Rampart Range is a majestic experience anyway. In light traffic, the trailhead is just over an hour’s drive from Denver.
Indian Peaks Wilderness
Known for its especially vibrant wildflowers in summer, this beautiful alpine lake hike really delivers for aspen lovers in the fall. Along the moderate, 5.7-mile loop, hikers also pass a waterfall and a decommissioned mine. Several of Colorado’s highest mountain peaks can be seen from the trail, with the views from the lake being especially memorable. Leashed dogs are permitted on the trail. If you want to see the aspens changing at Diamond Lake and cannot swing a weekday hiking trip, get a very early start. Otherwise, you’ll be trekking with the masses. The Fourth of July trailhead is just over an hour from AMLI Arista and another half-hour drive from Denver.
The majority of this moderate, four-mile out-and-back hiking trail winds through an aspen forest. Time your hike right, and you’ll struggle to see dirt on the trail. The ground gets completely covered in aspen leaves. Leashed dogs are welcome on East Lake Creek Trail. The trailhead, 20 miles east of Vail, is a two-hour drive from AMLI Park Avenue.
Staunton State Park
Conveniently located less than an hour’s drive from downtown Denver, the Elk Falls Overlook trail is an absolute gem as far as aspen views are concerned. But the 10-mile roundtrip hike, difficult at times, is not for the unseasoned hiker. Thankfully for those not properly conditioned, Staunton State Park is home to shorter and less difficult hikes with aspen views. Leashed dogs are welcome.
If your ideal hiking scenery could be described as “aspens on aspens, mountains on mountains,” Kenosha Pass is an ideal hiking destination. Even if you walk only a fraction of the trail, you’re bound to see some breathtaking fall colors if you time your hike right. Complete 7-mile Kenosha Pass North loop, and you’ll be rewarded with inspiring views of the South Park basin and Ten-Mile Range. At just 75 minutes’ drive from AMLI Riverfront Park, you’d be hard-pressed to find better aspen viewing grounds any closer to Denver.
White River National Forest
The 2.4-mile loop around Lower Cataract Lake is easy-to-moderate, with good views aplenty and, yes, aspens. Hikers can glimpse a cascading, high-mountain waterfall on this trail. But the real highlight of this popular fall trail is the reflection of golden aspen trees in the lake. The best time of day to catch that reflection is between early- and mid-morning. The Lower Cataract Lake Loop trailhead is a two-hour drive from AMLI’s Denver apartments.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Creeks and cascades abound on this moderate, 5.2-mile out-and-back hike, which culminates at the wondrous 40-foot Ouzel Falls. If you haven’t gotten your fill of aspens by the time you finish, tack on a drive along the 48-mile Trail Ridge Road. An 11-mile stretch of the road is entirely above the tree line, affording unobstructed views of aspen-painted landscape. The trailhead for this pleasant, superbly scenic hike is less than 90 minutes’ drive from AMLI’s Denver and Broomfield apartments. The Ouzel Falls trail is horse-friendly, but dogs are not permitted.
Piney River Ranch, near Vail
Often compared to the world-famous Maroon Bells near Aspen, this is a hike that sticks with you. When you’re not hiking through aspen trees, you’re looking at them. And should you tire of looking at them, cascading falls and dramatic views of the Gore Range will keep your eyes impressed. The Upper Piney River Falls Trailhead, a few miles east of Vail on the I-70, is less than two hours from Denver. The easy-to-moderate trail is six miles, out-and-back. Leashed dogs are permitted.
Golden Gate Canyon
Raccoon Loop is an easy, three-mile roundtrip hike just 40 minutes’ drive from AMLI’s LoHi apartment rentals. The highlight of this trek are the views from Panorama Point Scenic Overlook. On a clear day, you can see 100 miles of aspen trees lining the Continental Divide. Leashed dogs are welcome.
One of the Rocky Mountains’ deepest reservoirs, Sandbeach Lake is another place to chase the dazzling reflection of aspen leaves in transition. The nine-mile, out-and-back hike is fairly challenging, with an elevation gain of nearly 2,200 feet. The Allenspark trailhead is 90 minutes’ drive from downtown Denver. Dogs are not permitted.
Rocky Mountain National Park
The Sprague Lake Loop is a short, saccharinely sweet hike for aspen admirers. Hit the trail during peak season, and the 360-degree views of red and gold may make you think you’ve died and gone to aspen heaven. This half-mile loop is probably the easiest trail on this list. The drive from Denver to Sprague Lake in Estes Park takes less than two hours. Dogs are not permitted on the trail.
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