Fall Colors overlooking Boulder. Photo by Ann Duncan

Changing of the Aspens and How to Experience Them


Fall in Colorado is one of the greatest shows on Earth. The state is home to more than one billion aspen trees covering enough space to completely blanket the states of Rhode Island and Delaware. Needless to say, when the aspens fade to gold in the fall, the mountains look like they’re on fire in beauty.

The changing of the trees is one of the most scenic attractions in the state. Many travelers schedule their vacations around the aspens’ schedule. The trick: You can’t exactly determine when the trees will start to transition. Higher elevation trees tend to change earlier in the season, but the prime time is usually mid- to late-September, even into mid-October. The weather can change this on a dime, though. A sudden snowstorm or windy day can affect everything.

In addition, the increasingly warm temps affect the color, especially in lower altitudes, like Boulder. The golds are expected to be less brilliant and may not last as long.

The best bet for planning a leaf-viewing trip is to come when you can and then go where the gold is. This may take a bit of exploration. Sort of like panning for gold, in a different way. Aspens usually grow at elevations between 7,500 and 10,500 feet above sea level. Boulder is around 5,400 feet, so it’s not an aspen hotspot, although you will find them in town.

If you happen to be in the Boulder area in the fall, there are a handful of nearby routes that are well-known leafing pilgrimages. Here’s where to go to see the leaves changing.

third flatiron
The Third Flatiron in Fall. Photo by Ann Duncan

Where to Go

The First and Second Flatiron Trail: Not only is this a fun hiking trail in Boulder, but it leads to some spectacular views. There won’t be many aspens on the front side of the hike, but keep going until you make it through the notch between the Flatirons and beyond. At the top, you will find a panoramic view of the Rockies, all the way to the Continental Divide. If you time it right, the color spread will be jaw-dropping.

South Boulder Creek Trail: Aspens aren’t the only trees and plants that change colors, of course. Every fall near the Bobolink trailhead, you’ll find grasslands with brilliant fall hues.

Fowler Trail: This trail in Eldorado Springs, at about 5,700 feet elevation, is still a bit low for big aspen colonies, but it does have other brightly colored plant life in the fall. They’re not classic gold aspens, but they come with a lot less traffic. (In the spring, this trail is known for its wildflowers.) This trail is four miles long, all levels and dog-friendly. In Eldo, check out the Walker Ranch area; the short hike on the Ethel Harrold Trail can be lovely in the fall.

Peak to Peak Highway
Peak to Peak Highway in the Fall. Photo by Jacob Helleckson.

Peak to Peak Scenic and Historic Byway: This is the most popular aspen-viewing route closest to Boulder. This highway starts in Boulder and winds up between Central City and Estes Park. As you cruise toward Estes on Colorado’s oldest byway, you’ll be greeted by plenty of aspen families. Stop in the Rocky Mountain National Park, the Golden Gate Canyon State Park or one of the multiple national forests along the way. Along the way, you will also get sweeping views of the Continental Divide. This highway is not long, at less than 60 miles, but it packs a bright punch. Thusly, it also tends to get congested by other leafers. Plan on taking your time.

Brainard Lake: Find this recreation area less than an hour from Boulder, at more than 10,000 feet above sea level. If you can score a spot at the Pawnee Campground, you can fully immerse yourself in Colorado’s fall colors. Explore the many trails to the west, headed toward Indian Peaks Wilderness.

Caribou Ranch: This is the best place in Boulder County for leaf-peeping. This park north of Nederland, at around 8,200 feet, boasts colorful cottonwoods, willows and grassland areas. Explore on foot — straight through aspen groves — by taking DeLonde Trail and Bluebird Loop for about 4.2 miles round trip. No pooches on this path.

Hessie Trailhead: This trailhead on the southwest side of Nederland, just outside of Eldora, is a fun fall hike. It includes a creek, waterfalls, national forest land and connects you to other destinations, like Lost Lake and the Indian Peaks Wilderness. At 9,000 elevation, you can bet there will be some impressive leaf colors here.

Rocky Mountain National Park: It’s just over an hour from Boulder, but worth the drive. There are so many amazing places to view the leaves in Rocky Mountain National Park. Try Hidden Valley, where you can expect to see wildlife along with the leaves. For an intermediate hike renowned for its aspens, consider the Glacier Gorge Trail. The highest continuous paved road in North America, Trail Ridge Road, is another impressive destination. Topping at 12,183 feet, you will drive through aspens and then past tree line, where it’s too high for any trees to grow. But the views from the top provide a rainbow panorama.

Leafing Tips

Along the best leaf-viewing routes, traffic can be obnoxious. Tree-gazing traffic jams is an oh-so-Colorado problem. Here are some tips to make your experience less painful:

  • Get up early. Way early. Grab a coffee and admire the aspens at sunrise. There’s less traffic early in the day.
  • Go on a weekday. Weekends are the busiest. That means Fridays, too.
  • Go on a leafing hike or bike tour instead of drive.
  • Avoid Interstate 70 if possible. Stick to the routes closer to Boulder. Even Rocky Mountain National Park can be a nightmare this time of year.
  • Take a free shuttle into the national park, rather than hunting for limited parking.

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