While we have a variety of different types of foliage, it’s our golden aspens that shine the brightest in Colorado during the fall. There’s something about the contrast between the bright yellow leaves, the dark green evergreen trees, and the brilliant blue sky that takes our breath away year after year. To get up close and personal with these brilliant yellow leaves, we’re sharing some of the best scenic drives and hikes throughout Northern Colorado for viewing aspens.
Aspens typically change colors between mid-September and mid-October, with an optimal week-long period within that time. There are several factors that contribute to the timing for peak viewing, including temperature, moisture, sunlight and altitude — and each year is different!
So grab your Pumpkin Spice Latte and hiking boots and hit the trail — or the road — for a spectacular fall adventure amongst the aspen groves.
Pennock Pass offers arguably the best collection of aspens in Northern Colorado. Reaching an elevation of 9,163 feet, this short drive in the Roosevelt National Forest runs east to west for 17.9 miles, going from Pingree Park Road to Stove Prairie Road. Stay vigilant, as this dirt/gravel road has some pretty tight curves!
Trail Ridge Road was constructed in Rocky Mountain National Park in 1931. At the time, Director of National Parks Horace Albright said, “It is hard to describe what a sensation this new road is going to make. You will have the whole sweep of the Rockies before you in all directions.” Not much has changed in the last 90+ years, which makes this the perfect spot to view aspen trees during the fall. The driving trail covers the 48 miles through the park between Estes Park and Grand Lake. With 11 miles of the drive above the treeline, you can see the whole aspen-covered landscape for miles! Keep an eye out for Fairview Curve, which sits at an elevation of 10,000 feet and offers incredible views of the Mummy Range to the north.
Extending from Rocky Mountain National Park to Central City, Peak to Peak Highway offers stunning mountain views and plenty of charming towns along the way. You’ll pass by Lily Lake and other natural wonders, like the Indian Peaks Wilderness in Nederland, which offers plenty of hiking in the warm months and cross-country skiing in the cold months. And during the in-between time in the fall, you’ll see acres and acres of aspen stands along the way. The ending point is Central City, an adorable town tucked away in the mountains, with colorful historic buildings, including the Victorian-era Central City Opera House. The 55-mile route takes about 2 hours to complete, and is worth every minute!
Extending east to west for 237 miles, Colorado Highway 14 is considered one of the most scenic highways in the region. A portion of the highway travels along the Poudre River, providing glimpses of this powerful river all year long. And during the fall, you’ll see beautiful aspen groves, especially once you pass Colorado Road 63E about 45 miles up the Poudre Canyon. For the best aspen viewing opportunities, we recommend taking Rist Canyon Road to reach Stove Prairie Road, then take Colorado 14.
If you are already on Colorado Highway 14, travel 51 miles west from Fort Collins to reach Laramie River Road. Here, you’ll turn right and start heading north along a well-maintained dirt county road. Aspens dot the mountainside on both sides of this scenic road!
Also situated in Rocky Mountain National Park, Bear Lake Road runs parallel to Glacier Creek for 10.5 miles. Along the way, you can admire the abundance of golden quaking aspens, but keep in mind there are very few turnouts, so you may need to stop at one of the many parking lots instead. You might make your way to the parking lot for Bear Lake Trailhead, which is the starting point for a variety of aspen-filled hikes, including the short loop around Bear Lake, the roundtrip hike to Emerald Lake (which also passes Nymph and Dream Lakes), and the roundtrip to Alberta Falls, which is dotted with aspen groves.
Hidden Valley is anything but hidden. This area in Rocky Mountain National Park is well-known amongst photographers and wildlife viewers, as it is a popular place to see elk surrounded by stunning aspens — creating the most “Colorado” scene we can possibly imagine. There are a number of optimal viewing areas along US-34, with aspens dotting the southeast-facing hillside. Keep an eye out for elk and get your camera ready!
This moderate 12.9-mile out-and-back trail near Bellvue takes you through forests, aspen groves, meadows, rock formations, a river and more — what else could you ask for? Many hike Little Beaver Creek Trail from Jack’s Gulch, making a loop to Old Flowers Road, which takes you back to the trail, creating a more reasonable 7-mile adventure. There’s so much to see on this scenic trail — but of course, this time of year, the aspens really stand out!
While this one doesn’t have aspens due to its low elevation, Gateway Natural Area is worth mentioning for its stunning foliage of other varieties — not to mention, its proximity to Fort Collins! Situated just 15 minutes from the city, Gateway Natural Area is a beautiful area with a few hiking trails, a designated launch area for kayaks and canoes, fishing, picnic tables, a natural playground and more. The mile-long hike to Seaman Reservoir is the perfect easy hike for families, consisting of a flat dirt road with a short climb at the end. Along the way, you’ll follow a creek lined with stunning fall colors, and a few steep trails off the main trail leading to overlooks, if you’re up for the challenge! Keep in mind there is a daily use fee at Gateway Natural Area.
Loch Vale, also known as The Loch, is a stunning subalpine lake in Rocky Mountain National Park surrounded by towering mountain peaks, including Taylor Peak, Thatchtop Mountain, The Sharkstooth, and Powell Peak. Visitors may access The Loch via the 5.4-mile Glacier Gorge Trail. Less than a mile in, you’ll reach Alberta Falls, one of the most popular hiking destinations in the park. Keep going to reach The Loch and take in unbeatable views — especially in the fall, as the area has some of the park’s best aspen stands! This trail has a tendency to have a lot of foot traffic, but the crowds ease up after the falls.
Situated in the Rawah Wilderness, this 12.9-mile out-and-back trail is a moderately challenging route, taking an average of 6.5 hours to complete. Plus, you’ll get your aspen fix early on, as there are thick aspen groves in the first few miles of the trail. You’ll cross a small stream about 3.25 miles in, pass by beautiful lakes, and enjoy a variety of different views along the way. Keep this trail in mind for the summer as well, as it is known to have plenty of colorful wildflowers!
Red Feather Lakes is one of the most scenic areas in Northern Colorado — especially during the fall, when aspens put on quite the show. You can explore this outdoor haven in a variety of ways, but one of our favorites is on the 5.3-mile Lady Moon Trail, which takes you through groves of quaking aspens and offers plenty of mountain views. This simple out-and-back trail takes almost 3 hours to complete, so it’s the perfect quick adventure for your Saturday — and it won’t have as many crowds as other more popular hikes in the area!
If you’re up for more of a challenge, consider Twin Sisters Peak Trail, a difficult 7.5-mile out-and-back hike located just outside the boundaries of Rocky Mountain National Park. Throughout the first few miles, you’ll pass through a thick aspen forest bursting with color during the fall. And near the end of the hike, you’ll do a little bit of scrambling and climbing before reaching the summit. But the views from the top are completely worth it! Make sure you pack plenty of water, as this hike is not for the faint of heart, and you’ll be exposed to the sun in several sections.
In Routt National Forest near Steamboat Springs, Buffalo Pass is a 15-mile dirt road across the top of the Park Range of the Rockies. From 6,700 feet of elevation in Steamboat to 10,400 at Summit Lake Campground, you’ll pass numerous hiking trails, campgrounds and alpine lakes before arriving above tree line. For more aspen viewing, hike along the short 2.8-mile out-and-back Buffalo Pass Trail, which offers excellent views of the area’s many aspen groves.
What aspen drives and hikes are we missing out on? Let us know in the comments below! And if you’re headed to Rocky Mountain National Park, check out these hikes for more fall foliage.