I know that everyone says New England has the best Fall colors. Vermont, Massachusetts, and New York hillsides become a carpet of vivid colors, thanks to abundant hardwoods like oak and maple trees. But I’ll throw out a stiff competitor for the #FallColorCrown: Colorado!
“Colorful Colorado” isn’t just a nickname, as the Fall is absolutely brilliant. First off, the Colorado High Country is covered with quaking aspen trees, which turn turn vivid shades of orange, yellow, and red, brilliantly showing against a backdrop of our abundant evergreens.
Secondly, forget those cloudy, overcast days to dull the brilliant colors. Colorado has only two kinds of weather in the fall: brilliantly sunny or snowing. The state is blessed with over 300 days of sunshine a year, so the statistics lean towards sunny days!
Then, there’s the fact that Colorado’s mountains are big, dramatic, and provide a pretty stunning backdrop for our fall colors. While we don’t have all the Covered Bridges of Madison County, we do have the Maroon Bells!
Now, the downside to all this Rocky-Mountain awesomeness, is that Fall is SHORT. It’s here and gone, pretty much within the month of September. Colorado traditionally has some of the first ski resorts to open in the nation because winter comes so early. If you wait until October, all the leaves will be on their way out and it might even be snowing!
So load up the kids, and get outside and see it while you can!
BEST DRIVE-UP LEAF PEEPING
Sometimes with little kids, meltdowns happen, diapers blow out, and parents are straight-up exhausted. A hike isn’t always in the cards. But if you still want to appreciate the outdoors, go for a drive. Hop out of the car and catch a break once in a while, take some pictures, and hopefully see some wildlife! But… be prepared to battle the crowds and sit in traffic on weekends.
This drive is blessed with several big aspen groves, but the best view looks back, across Breckenridge, to the Ten Mile Range. Drive from Breckenridge to the historic rail station at the top of the pass and explore the old rail cars. Continue down to Como to do a bigger loop, or take a shortcut back to Denver.
The road is dirt, but any standard passenger car will make it without problems. If you want to be more adventurous, hook up your bike trailer and ride your mountain bike up from the parking area where the pavement ends. Just be prepared for dust and lots of traffic on the weekends after 10am.
Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park:
This is THE classic Fall drive in Colorado. Just keep an eye on the weather forecast, and be prepared with tire chains or 4×4, as the road goes over 12,000 ft and it can snow pretty much any time in the Fall.
You’re likely to see as many elk, moose, bighorn sheep, marmot, and mountain goats as you’ll see aspen groves, so pack a camera!
Also, pack a lunch, snacks and extra water, because it’s an all-day drive and there’s not much for services after you leave Estes Park or Granby.
Fall is the best time to see color, dodge the summer crowds, and get a close look at the animals. Just don’t get too close, because elk, moose, and sheep are in the rut this time of year and can be aggressive without warning.
This is the most popular scenic drive for seeing fall aspens, due to its proximity to Denver…. which means be prepared to share the view with a few hundred other drivers on weekends!
Still, there’s usually a few bighorn sheep hanging around Georgetown, the peaks are dramatic and the colors are brilliant on this steep drive! If you don’t want to drive with the masses, take the Georgetown Loop railroad instead.
Your kids will go wild for the historic train, and you can kick back and enjoy the brilliant view of the valley and surrounding aspens and peaks.
BEST HIKES FOR YOUNG KIDS
These are great options for kids from toddlers, all the way up to strong hikers with shorter attention-spans. Also do-able for parents with a little one in a carrier!
This is a little-known trail, north of Silverthorne, that is a virtual carpet of aspen trees and opens up to spectacular views of the Gore Range. Be sure to wear orange or bright colors, as this area is popular with hunters in the Fall.
The first half-mile of the trail is quite flat, until you reach a bridge crossing a bubbling Acorn Creek. The trail will continue gently uphill for the next half-mile, with views becoming better and better, as you go higher.
Turn around when the trail ducks back in the trees, or when your toddler gets tired. If you want a serious challenge, you can also continue another 3 miles and 3,000 ft up to the ridgeline. The trail gets steeper the higher it goes, but you are rewarded with more aspen groves and the view keeps getting better, the higher you go!
This fun art installation was originally located up French Gulch, before it was overrun with “troll-lovers” and the city removed it. With the help of the original artist, the Troll was moved to a permanent spot, away from neighborhoods, up Indiana Creek this summer.
You have to ride public transit or ride a bike from Breckenridge to reach the trailhead, but your extra effort will be rewarded with beautiful pops of golden aspens and a friend at the end!
This short hike is a little bit off the beaten path, north of Silverthorne. It’s a pretty drive around the Green Mountain Reservoir, and then a short 2-mile hike around Cataract Lake to the lower end of a multi-tiered cascade.
The lakeshore is lined with brilliant aspens, which are reflected in the surface on calm mornings. Keep an eye out for the resident beavers at the head of the lake, as well as moose, which are often bedded down along the lakeshore.
I recommend taking the trail to the left, along the south side of the lake and turn around at the bridge at the head of the lake. The north-side trail is much more difficult, harder to follow, has some big rocks to scramble over, and much more elevation gain and loss, which might be too frustrating for your little ones.
The view is better on the south-shore trail anyways!
Summit County, Colorado, has put together an absolutely amazing network of over 50 miles of paved bike/walking paths, referred to as “the Rec Path.”
The Rec Path provides access to some of the best fall colors in the county! Ride your bikes from Frisco to Copper and then coast back, or ride from Frisco to Breckenridge and catch a bus back whenever you get tired.
Or just stroll along the path, through brilliant orange and yellow aspens, just behind Frisco’s Main Street. You can’t go wrong. Just keep a sharp eye out for moose, as they love nibbling on the willows along the side of the trail in this area.
BEST HIKES FOR OLDER KIDS
These are longer, tougher hikes, that will take a half or full-day, but are also more rewarding with extra sweat and spectacular vistas.
Mayflower Gulch to Boston Mine:
This trail takes off from Highway 91, between Copper and Leadville, which in itself is a beautiful drive in the Fall.
It is a 4-mile round-trip hike up an old 4×4 road to the abandoned Boston Mine. You can still drive most of the way up, if you have a high-clearance 4×4 vehicle, but most folks just park at the lower lot and hike.
The trail up is a gradual climb through a mix of evergreens and aspen trees, passing some mining ruins along the way. As with all great trails, it saves the best for last: the end of the trail opens up into a spectacular alpine bowl.
There are old mining buildings scattered around the head of the valley, which you can peek into.
This hike is a great way to tackle a 14er and see some brilliant fall colors in the process. The drive to the trailhead takes you up the previously mentioned Guanella Pass.
There aren’t trees on the mountain, but the lower slopes are covered with willow and heather, which turn a brilliant red in the fall. And of course, you can see the mosaic of surrounding aspen from miles away!
This is often considered the “easiest” 14er, but nothing about climbing a 14er is ever easy, so don’t go if your kids are not already strong hikers. That said, it’s not a technical climb, just a trail with minor scrambling at the very top.
Get an early (really early) start, pack extra food/water/10-essentials, be prepared for any kind of weather and make a plan to turn around if the weather turns. Know the signs and symptoms of altitude sickness, and discuss what to do with your kids if they are feeling bad.
Finally, be prepared with a victory sign and special treat for the summit!
Ginny Galbreth: Ginny has spent her career focused on getting people outside; working with the Park Service, Forest Service, Student Conservation Association and Keystone Science School, as well as spending a decade in the outdoor retail industry. She practices what she preaches, so can usually be found outside: downhill and cross-country skiing in the winter and hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, riding her dual-sport motorcycle, running, and SUPing in the summer. She has lived in Washington, Colorado, and currently lives in Montana with her husband, 2-year old son, and awesome trail dog.
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