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The best time catch the Colorado aspens glowing in vivid yellow is usually in the last two weeks of September and first week of October. Drive along the Peak-to-Peak Highway or the Brainard Lake area—or to catch bright oranges and reds, stroll on Mapleton Hill. (photo by Thomas Barrat)

A Guide to Crisp-Weather Excursions this Fall

By Haley Gray

As the seasons change, so should your outdoor adventures. To help you choose from Colorado’s countless crisp-weather excursions, we’ve put together this handy guide. Whether you’re an avid adventurer, wheelchair-bound wanderer or mama bear with cubs in tow, we’ve got a mountain outing here for you.

Eldorado Canyon State Park

If a break from the norm justifies a jaunt down Highway 93 to Eldorado Springs, try Eldorado Canyon State Park this fall. In addition to jaw-dropping canyon views, you’ll find a democratic system of trails with something for climbers, mountain bikers and even horseback riders—not to mention hikers of all levels. We’ve called out our favorites below. Find directions and more at www.cpw.state.co.us.

Walker Ranch Loop 
Immerse yourself in fall’s changing colors by strolling through the lush creekside trees and shrubs that flank the Walker Ranch Loop. Novice hikers can access the easy trail off Gross Dam Road or Flagstaff Drive, and calf-busting fitness junkies can save the colorful stroll for a treat after conquering the steep 3.5-mile climb up Eldorado Canyon Trail, which tops out at an access point to the loop.

Fowler Trail
offers the lengthiest stretch of wheelchair-accessible terrain (0.5 miles) and the most breathtaking canyon views in the park, but we especially like the self-guided nature tour available here. The canyon’s riparian area, and the steep slopes it’s tucked between, contribute to the park’s abundant biodiversity–meaning there’s all manner of flora and fauna for you to feast your eyes on. Pick up a brochure at the trailhead and trek to the corresponding signage for an informative, peaceful amble around this rich ecosystem. Fall is the best time to spot snakes, which come out to sunbathe in mild weather. Be careful—there have been reports of prairie rattlesnakes in the canyon.

Climb On:
Eldorado Canyon is full of climbable rock faces for adventurers of all levels, though climbers do need to know how to safely place their own removable protection, and professional instruction is recommended. That said, Supremacy Rock is an easy route beginners might like, and for rookies seeking to try lead climbing, West Crack on Whales Tail Rock is an ideal spot. Intermediate and advanced climbers will enjoy routes like The Wind Ridge, Ruper, Outer Space and The Naked Edge.

Rocky Mountain National Park

There are 415 square miles of sure-to-please mountain environment at Rocky Mountain National Park, but fall is the time to take advantage of changing colors and chances to spot bugling elk. It’s the third most visited national park in the union, and fall happens to be peak tourist season. Enjoy quiet(er) trails on these choice fall hikes by visiting on weekdays. Park maps and more information can be found at www.nps.gov/romo.

Hike Happy
For the best experience of autumn hues, we suggest trekking the Mills Lake, Deer Mountain and Estes Cone trails.

Meet the Locals: Every year, elk draw autumn visitors in droves hoping to glimpse their theatrical mating practices like bugling and occasional fighting. The best times of day to spot elk are dawn and dusk, and the park is far less crowded at dawn. Head to Moraine Park, Horseshoe Park and Upper Beaver Meadows for your best chance at spotting them.

Bighorn sheep (photo by Brenda Carson)
Bighorn sheep (photo by KPG)

Until it closes for the winter (usually in mid-October) Trail Ridge Road is the place to go for your best bet at spotting regal bighorn sheep, adorable pikas and bushy-tailed marmots. Drive through Kawuneeche Valley for your best bet at spotting a moose in the marshy area along the road. Bird-watchers should try their luck at Cub Lake trail, a ranger favorite for bird walks, and Upper Beaver Meadow (call ahead to check for elk-related meadow closures). Some of our favorite winged creatures to keep an eye out for are gray jays and red-tailed hawks.

Gone (Fall) Fishin’
For the most accessible and scenic spots to catch brook, rainbow, brown and even cutthroat trout, anglers should head to Fall River in Horseshoe Park, Big Thompson River in Moraine Park, and the Colorado River. Access to some of these sites may be impacted by meadow closures in place to protect elk, so call the visitor’s center at 970-586-1363 before making your trip.

We’ll Have Aspens, Hold the Hike

Whether or not you can hike up to 14,000 feet, you can drink in the boundless mountain views, in all their aspen-covered gold and crimson glory, that come with that kind of altitude. Clear Creek County is laced with scenic drives offering dramatic views of the Continental Divide and regal patches of golden aspens. Here are our top three colorful cruises (find directions and more information at www.cdot.gov/travel):

Mount Evans (photo by Paul Higley)
Mount Evans (photo by Paul Higley)

Mount Evans Scenic and Historic Byway Beginning at Idaho Springs and winding deep into the mountains before ending a stone’s throw from Mount Evans’ summit, this 28-mile stretch is the nation’s highest auto road. Several breathtaking overlooks can be glimpsed without leaving the car (perfect for newcomers or anyone not able to exert themselves at this high altitude), and seasoned hikers will love stretching their legs on adjoining trails to several mountain lakes.
Driving time for the route: 2 hours

Guanella Pass Scenic Byway
You’ll start climbing this steep mountain road at historic Georgetown off I-70. Weaving through green forests of spruce, fir and pine, you’ll see aspens tucked between the evergreen trees before you rise through high alpine meadows and then above tree line.
Driving time for the route: 1 hour
Fall River Road to St. Mary’s Glacier Not to be confused with Old Fall River Road (the oldest alpine road in Rocky Mountain National Park), Fall River Road climbs along Fall River and then Silver Creek, winds past the historic town of Alice and, most importantly, cruises by stunning waterfalls, aspen groves and dense willows changing their hues with the season.
Driving time for the route: 25 minutes

Behind Boulder, Back in Time

Caribou Ranch Trail Two miles north of Nederland off County Road 126, this trail skirts two camera-worthy historical sites. The DeLonde Homestead, a fire-engine-red ranch house with matching barn, is striking against the rolling landscape and accented by the season’s changing hues. Look to the surrounding wetlands to glimpse picturesque willows, afire this time of year in gold and crimson. Elk and moose are known to frequent the area, and while they are beautiful, they can be dangerous. Keep as much distance as possible and leave the area immediately if you spot one, lest it feels threatened and charges.

You’ll also pass the Blue Bird Mine complex, where you can still discern the old silver mine’s entrance (it’s not safe to enter) and a restored miners’ bunkhouse and foreman’s house, the porch of which is a lovely spot for a picnic. If you’re hungry for more, hop on the connecting Tungsten Loop and follow signs to circle Mud Lake for a stroll that offers double the color—in the tree-covered hills and their reflection in the water. More information at www.bouldercounty.org/os/parks.

No Altitude, No Problem

Bird watching (photo by Liveromg)
Bird watching (photo by Liveromg)

If narrow paths and steep slopes aren’t an option for you, you can still hit the trails to take in Boulder County’s fall hues. The flat Coal Creek Trail is wide enough for two, and has many access points along its 14 miles from Superior to Erie.  You’ll catch plenty of color-changing tree cover and shrubbery all along the way. For more information, head to www.bouldercounty.org/os/parks/pages/coalcreek.aspx. An interactive map helps you pin your perfect access point.
Just outside of Boulder proper, the Walden Ponds Trails, tucked into the open space at 75th Street and Valmont Road, offer an accessible reprieve from the city. Winding around five ponds and wildlife-rich wetlands, these trails are shaded by peachleaf willows and cottonwoods shedding amber leaves. Print a checklist of fall birds to spot, like Cooper’s hawks and violet-green swallows at www.bouldercounty.org.

In With the New: Staunton State Park

Staunton, the latest addition to the Colorado State Parks family, is about 50 miles south of Boulder. Its 3,828 acres are speckled with aspen groves and crossed by off-the-beaten-path trails. Here’s how to get the most out of your autumn visit.

Hikes With a View
The lower section of the Elk Falls Trail is an easy path that offers, for the first time, a bottom-up viewpoint of the thunderous falls. The trail was just hand-laid with natural granite slabs from the park and opened to the public this fall, so be among the first of your friends to check it out.

Aspen chasers should seek out the Mason Creek or Staunton Ranch trails. At 9.5 miles round-trip, Mason Creek is no small commitment, but the moderately strenuous journey takes hikers through expansive, high-alpine aspen meadows. Staunton Ranch Trail, at 6.6 miles round-trip, winds through ponderosa growths before spilling into an aspen-filled meadow.

Anglers, don’t forget to bring your rod. Colorado Parks and Wildlife stocks Davis Ponds four to six times per year, making any season the right one for fishing (yes, ice fishing is an option, too).  The ponds are accessible via the Davis Ponds Loop Trail trailhead at the main parking lot. Climbers can download a free guidebook to Staunton State Park’s diverse sport and traditional climbing routes at www.fixedpin.com.