40.3428° N, 105.6836° W
LEARN MORE ABOUT 5 AMAZING HIKES IN ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL THAT WILL GIVE YOU THE BEST CHANCE OF SEEING BEAUTIFUL FALL COLORS.
Fall is by far one of the BEST seasons to explore the high country of Colorado; including, the very beautiful Rocky Mountain National Park. With over a hundred miles of trails within the national park, there are plenty of places to adventure and discover. But not all of the trails will guarantee you stunning fall foliage once the leaves start to change color. Luckily, these five trails below will not only give you an up close encounter with golden aspens, but also vibrant colored lichen, bushes, river beds and late summer flowers. Seriously, if you want to have a wonderful fall adventure in Rocky Mountain National Park, then you have to add these five hikes to your travel itinerary.
Read on for everything you need to know about visiting Rocky Mountain National Park in the fall, as well as even more information on the five stunning hiking trails.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK MAP
WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT VISITING ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK IN THE FALL
The two of us grew up with Rocky Mountain National Park in our backyard. And because of that good fortune, we were able to explore the park during every type of season: from cold, winter days spent snowshoeing to alpine lakes to hot, sunny summer days summitting peaks (including Longs Peak, a 14,000+ mountain).
And we can confidently say that the fall season is the best time to explore and adventure within this famous mountain national park. During the fall - which is really between the months of September and October - the crowds are much smaller, the mountains are much moodier, the golden aspens are stunning, and the whole atmosphere is surprisingly cozy.
A couple of other important things to keep in mind when planning a fall adventure in Rocky Mountain National Park are:
| The trees, including the famous aspens, usually start to change colors by mid-September. The exact timing depends on the previous months weather, but for the most part, you can expect golden and auburn leaves the second half of the month.
| Fall is also when the resident elk start to mate (this is known as the "rut"). Bull elk (males) can become quite aggressive during this time so always stay aware of your surroundings (especially if there is a herd of elk nearby). You will likely see some males fighting with their antlers, especially down in the nearby town of Estes Park. Similarly, during your visit you may hear the bulls bugling. This slightly haunting sound is quintessential Rocky Mountain National Park.
| There have been instances where an early season snowstorm hits in the fall, so come prepared with plenty of warm clothes (including hats and gloves). Even if snow doesn't fall, the temperature can still be quite chilly - especially during the early morning and at night.
| The famous Trail Ridge Road - a beautiful drive along one of the highest roads in North America (it is actually the highest continuous paved road on the continent) - is definitely worth exploring during your visit to Rocky Mountain National Park. Just be aware that the top of the road is above tree line and is often quite windy and up to 30° cooler than the lower parts of the park. The scenic road also closes in October, so make sure to check its status before heading out.
TOP 5 HIKES FOR SPOTTING FALL COLORS IN ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
1 | Saint Vrain Mountain Trail
Probably one of the least popular trails in the RMNP area (it actually starts in the national forest before crossing into the national park), the Saint Vrain Mountain Trail is an 8.2-mile hike that gives you some outstanding up-close views of golden and red aspen groves. The trail is an out-and-back, though you can actually add on a bit more mileage to make it a nice loop.
The second half of the hike - which follows a small creek and cuts through thick forests, is teeming with different colors: burgundy, peach, maroon, gold. And not just in the trees, but also in the thick leaves and bushes that line the forest floor. Follow the singletrack trail, making sure to look for some cairns (rock markers) along the way, until it meets up with Forest Road #116.2 (there will be signs). Then head down that until you get back to the road you drove in on. From there it is an easy half-mile trek back to the car.
2 | Bierstadt Lake Trail
This shorter loop hike (3.2 miles total), though there are lots of possibilities to add on mileage, takes you through numerous aspen groves and pine forests - and gives you great views of the surrounding rugged mountains. From the trail, you can also head off towards Bear Lake, Flattop Mountain, and Cub Lake - the last of which is also a great spot to see the changing fall colors.
To make a full day out of it, pack a picnic and spend the rest of the afternoon hanging out at the Sprague Lake picnic area - a short walk across Bear Lake Road. This is a somewhat popular spot to see animals, especially moose.
3 | Sandbeach Lake Trail
A somewhat harder hike than Bierstadt Lake, this Rocky Mountain National Park trail is 8.6 miles round-trip and pretty much a gradual climb the whole way to the lake. But, thanks to it being practically 100% in the trees, you will quickly forget about your tired legs as you take in the multiple shades of the fall colors around you.
A great way to enjoy this trail even more, is to get a permit to camp at one of the four backcountry sites located near Sandbeach Lake. This gives you the opportunity to enjoy the lake at all hours of the day, spot some wildlife (moose are quite common), and explore the area a bit more. Including, if you have the energy, going a bit higher up and conquering nearby Mount Orton, which sits at 11,730 feet. This trail is also a great route up to the top of Chiefs Head Mountain, which sits at 13,521 feet.
4 | Black Lake
Another slightly challenging trail in Rocky Mountain National Park is Black Lake Trail. This 9.1 mile trail is a great spot to get away from the usual crowds that converge on places like Bear Lake and Sky Pond, and also get an amazing view of the national park's many aspen groves (which often turn gold in mid-September).
To get to the lake, you first need to head out on the hiking trail towards Mill’s Lake. Along the way, you will pass Alberta Falls, Mill’s and Jewel Lake before heading up one more steep section to reach Black Lake. Once at the top you can keep exploring the bowl, and check out more, smaller alpine lakes - including Frozen and Blue Lake.
The whole trail up to Black Lake is beautiful, especially the views of the fall colors across the valley. This is another area that you can spend all day checking out, and even get a permit to spend the night out in the woods at the Glacier Gorge backcountry campsite (located just past Jewel Lake).
Also known as the Twin Owls Loop, this roughly 10-mile trail (some say it is 11 miles, but what is one extra mile really?) takes you through various mountain biomes and into the northern backcountry of Rocky Mountain National Park. Start at the Lumpy Ridge Trailhead north of Estes Park and either head west on the Black Canyon Trail or east on the Gem Lake Trail. If you head west you will quickly enter a beautiful aspen grove (which often burns red in fall colors come September) before entering a nice, large mountain meadow. This trail rises steeply through lodgepole forests before reaching a T in the trail. From here turn right onto Dark Mountain Trail and keep going straight on that, through more forest before intersecting the Cow Creek Trail (there is a nice campsite here if you want to make it into a two-day adventure). Keep going on Cow Creek Trail, staying parallel to Cow Creek (and spotting some nice fall colors) before reaching the Gem Lake Trail.
Eventually you will get to the famous Gem Lake, and probably see way more people than you would originally expect (it is a popular park destination). But it is hopping for good reason: a beautiful mountain lake, lots of glowing aspen trees and nice views of the surrounding mountains (including Lumpy Ridge). From here it is a quick, downhill hike back to the parking lot.
These 5 hiking trails are only a couple of the options in the wide array of places to explore in Rocky Mountain National Park. While you are sure to find spectacular fall colors along these hikes (and not just in the form of aspens) in truth, you can’t really go wrong during the fall season. And that goes for the entire Rocky Mountain corridor.
If you are looking to explore the mountains and not just Rocky Mountain National Park and see some spectacular colors, then consider checking out these 6 off-the-beaten-path mountain towns and this stunning high mountain pass.
EXPLORE MORE HIKING ADVENTURES
Find even more fall adventure inspiration by subscribing to Backroad Packers.