The terminology for the time-honored tradition of “leaf peeping” was born in New England, but when a town is named after a tree itself, it’s a clue that the popular autumn pastime is just as good — dare we say better than anywhere else.
No longer a well-kept “secret season,” droves of visitors descend upon Aspen to catch the fall colors, which peak here in late September until the leaves fall for good by mid-October. Amid a jam-packed fall festival schedule, be sure to make plenty of time for the main event by heading out into the White River National Forest to immerse yourself in the gorgeous golden glow.
Whether you want to take the family out for the afternoon or dedicate a full day to a challenging ascent, here are four classic fall hikes in Aspen, Snowmass and Ashcroft in between to explore this season.
No longer a well-kept “secret season,” droves of visitors descend upon Aspen to catch the fall colors, which peak here in late September until the leaves fall for good by mid-October.
Photo: Tamara Susa
Hike length: 3.4 miles (round-trip) – Map
More Sunday stroll than uphill lung-buster, this trail is a local favorite for morning or evening dog walks (strictly enforced leash law). Aptly named for following an old irrigation ditch, a flat start cuts across the Campground ski area on Snowmass mountain. And then continuing under the chair lift, the trail leads to a bench that marks the spot for taking in hued views of Mount Daly. The trail continues with a gentle climb up to the West Government Trail and then descends to the East Snowmass Trail, ending at a convergence of trailheads that’s a popular gateway deeper into the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. It’s a short and sweet out-and-back that fits into any itinerary that’s about a 20-minute drive from downtown Aspen.
Hike length: 5.6 miles (round-trip) – Map
Just past Ashcroft Ghost Town and before Pine Creek Cookhouse, make a right at a small sign and continue on a gravel road for 0.5 miles to reach the trailhead. Plan to arrive early, as it’s a favorite day trip for fall hikers, and parking gets tight. Beginning at an elevation of 9,880 feet, the first 0.75 miles is a gradual ascent through a gorgeous aspen grove, which opens up to the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness following the cascading Pine Creek up through the canyon alongside the trail. After leveling off for a much-welcomed break, the path continues through spruce forests and past rockslides, where the steepest section awaits. After reaching the top of eight short but strenuous switchbacks, it’s about a 15-minute trek and one bridge crossing to the summit — a solid feat with a humble-brag worthy gain of about 2,000 feet. Here, Cathedral Lake is nestled at 11,866 feet at the base of the towering Cathedral Peak — a perfect perch for a moment of solitude this season.
Photo: Jordan Curet
Hike length: 6.4 miles (round-trip) – Map
Also outside of town along Castle Creek Road lies a trailhead in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness that leads to one of the area’s most terrain-diverse day hikes. It begins at an elevation of 9,400 feet into a dense aspen grove, which follows a steep set of switchbacks for about 1.5 miles, then mellows out for a short stretch through a shady pine forest. From there, the trail opens up into two open grassy meadows leading back into the woods. After a moderate ascent and with about half a mile to go to the alpine lake at 11,365 feet, the trail continues to a pair of scree fields with sweeping views. The second-best reward to seeing an endless sea of gold leaves aglow along the way? Lunch on the rocky shore of American Lake, its vivid turquoise water so clear you can watch or catch a cache of cutthroats swimming about (fishing here is fair game).
Hike length: 3.6 miles (round-trip) – Map
Leaf-peepers from around the world make their way to the Maroon Bells all season long to cross “the most photographed place in Colorado” off their bucket lists. Yes, it’s crowded. But if you plan accordingly, it’s so breathtaking that passing a few other fellow foliage enthusiasts along the way can’t ruin the experience. Until Oct. 17, visitors can only reach the Maroon Bells parking area via Roaring Fork Transit Authority’s free public shuttle (8 a.m. – 5 p.m. departing from the base of Aspen Highlands; reservations required). Pre-purchased parking passes are already sold out, but late-season reservations are available from Oct. 18 – 31, 2021. The heavily-trafficked, rocky path traverses through an aspen grove with a likely chance for moose sightings in the early morning hours. A steady incline transitions into a sprawling scree field before dropping down into Crater Lake, which lies at 10,076 feet and where the Maroon Bells look even closer and more magnificent from where the trail starts.