Fall is by far one of the BEST times to explore the high country of Colorado, and one of the best places to do that is in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). With over a hundred miles of trail within the park, there are plenty of places to discover. But not all of the trails will guarantee you stunning fall foliage. Luckily, these five trails, each dispersed around the park, will not only give you an up close encounter with golden aspens, but also vibrant colored lichen, bushes, river beds and late summer flowers.
So if you are looking for an awesome fall adventure in RMNP, make sure to add these five hikes to your itinerary:
Probably one of the least known trails in RMNP area (it actually starts in the national forest before crossing into the park), this is definitely a trail to check out when looking for a quiet, aspen-rich hiking spot that is even dog friendly*. While Alltrails says it is 8.2 miles round trip, and an out & back, you can actually add on a bit more mileage (maybe a mile) and make a nice loop.
The second half - 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 cairns 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 .5 mile trek to the car.
GOOD TO KNOW: this trail starts in the national forest but near the top of St. Vrain Mountain it heads into RMNP, which does not allow dogs.
2 | Bierstadt Lake
A shorter hike, with lots of possibilities to add on mileage, this loop trail takes you through aspen groves and pine forests - and gives you great views of the surrounding 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 colors.
To make a full day out of it, pack a picnic and spend the rest of the afternoon hanging out at 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
A somewhat harder hike than Bierstadt Lake, this 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 and colors of fall.
A great way to really enjoy the lake 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 Mount Orton - which sits at 11,730 feet (and will be completely empty). This is also a great route up to Chiefs Head Mountain, which sits at 13,521 feet.
4 | Black Lake
Another, slightly challenging trail in the park, Black Lake is a great spot to get away from the usual crowds that converge on places like Bear Lake and Sky Pond. To get to the lake you head out on the 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 changing 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 RMNP. 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 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 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 trails are only a couple 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 cute mountain towns and this stunning high mountain pass.