Cover Story / Hiking/Backcountry

COVER: Aspen season best experienced from region’s backcountry trails


Aspen on the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway ©JVS

For a week or two in late September, Colorado’s Front Range is transformed into an arena of shimmering gold aspen leaves. This brilliant backcountry display is best viewed from a trail. In the Peak to Peak region and Clear Creek County to the south, countless trails from easy to challenging wind through our national forests, national park, state park, open spaces and municipal park lands. Whether on foot or horseback, getting into the backcountry in the fall can be an amazing experience and a local trail can be the best way to immerse yourself in the fall foliage.

One of the most popular ways to view the spectacular colors is driving the region’s scenic byway, as can be seen by the crowds and traffic snarls that form at popular viewing spots along the road. For a much more intimate experience, get out of the car and onto a trail, either under your own power, on the back of a horse or even an off-road vehicle, to truly experience the changing seasons in Colorado.

Some of the best leaf peeping in the state can be found along the trails accessed by the Peak to Peak, Trail Ridge Road and Guanella Pass scenic byways. Quaking aspens pop up in surprising places along the entire route. Since leaf colors change daily, the best way to find aspen gold is to simply drive until you find it, or keep a look out for others doing the same. However, there are several places where you can hedge your bets and increase the chances of seeing a colorful stand of aspen.

The color changes start first in the subalpine zone, between 9,000-11,000 feet elevation, in early September. Progressively, changes reach the montane zone at 5,600-9,500 feet by mid-month. Weather can dictate a good or poor year for color, and the fall display can last from days to weeks.

Beginning in the Estes Park area, Trail Ridge Road, North America’s highest paved road, winds from Estes Park to Grand Lake through Rocky Mountain National Park offering unrivaled vantage points. Opportunities to view aspens from both a trail and your car abound all over the park and Estes Valley.

Rocky Mountain National Park alone has 355 miles of hiking trails. They range from flat lakeside strolls to steep mountain peak climbs. Hidden Valley, Bear Lake Road, Fern & Cub Lake Trails, Wild Basin, Kawuneeche Valley and Farview Curve are all popular places to view aspens.

To the south, the trails starting from the Brainard Lake Recreation Area near Ward connect several alpine lakes and wander by a number of impressive aspen stands.

In the national forests and wilderness areas of Larimer, Boulder, Gilpin and Clear Creek counties, hundreds of miles of trails lure aspen seekers from gently sloping foothills and open forest to steep rocky slopes and wind-swept tundra. In the Gold Hill area, The Switzerland Trail railroad bed offers the same panoramas of mountain valleys and snow-covered peaks the rail route made famous in the early 1900s. While open to off-road vehicles, it also makes a great, easy hike.

Near Nederland, visit Caribou Ranch Open Space for a great place to view large stands of golden aspens or head up to the Hessie and the Fourth of July trailheads. Both locations offer various trails that wind past waterfalls, rushing streams, and fields of aspen.

In Gilpin County, the area around the East Portal of the Moffat Tunnel, about eight miles west of Rollinsville, offers several trails with beautiful views of aspen. The drive along South Boulder Creek and Rollins Pass Road, which puts hikers even closer to high alpine lakes and the Continental Divide, is also spectacular.

Golden Gate Canyon State Park, further south on the Peak to Peak, provides a spectacular display of the annual fall gold rush. Twelve easily accessible hiking trails in the park offer 35 miles of hiking and backcountry camping options. Perfect for a quick trip into the backcountry.

The cemeteries, ghost towns and back roads above Central City offer outstanding opportunities to view the changing aspen color on foot as does the Oh My Gawd Road from Central City to Idaho Springs through Russell Gulch and down Virginia Canyon.

In Clear Creek County, the Georgetown Railroad Trail is a one-of-a-kind hike through the clear creek valley, a landscape decorated by the rich history of the Colorado Gold Rush of 1859.

The 23-mile Guanella Pass Scenic Byway is plied with aspen gold. There are numerous trails along the route from Georgetown to Grant including one leading to the top of 14,060-foot Mt. Bierstadt, which offers outstanding views of the entire region’s aspen color.

Fall foliage season is the most colorful time in Colorado, do yourself a favor and get out of your car and on a trail to truly experience aspen gold.

Originally published in the September 2016 MMAC Monthly

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