Top 20 places to see fall foliage in Colorado
posted by: Amber Johnson
Denver has one of the longest periods of fall colors of any city in the country. That’s because there are five different climate zones within a two-hour drive of downtown Denver. Pick your elevation and you can find yourself at the height of fall colors for more than two months, from mid-September to mid-November.
Our friends at VISITDENVER.com have shared their favorite destinations for leaf peeping and scenic drives just minutes from The Mile High City. If you’re looking to make a weekend of it, check-out these fabulous Colorado Vacation Rentals.
Adjust your Altitude
Aspen trees in Colorado grow from 6,500 to 10,500 feet in elevation. Although many factors make leaves turn color, as a general rule, the higher the elevation, the sooner the leaves turn gold. That means that over a period of time, you can often see a variety of shades of color on one mountainside, with deeper golds on top at 10,000 feet, blending to pale yellow in the 8,000 foot range, while down in the valley or along the plains of Denver, trees might still be green.
There are 1.9 million acres of aspen trees in Colorado – over one billion trees that if placed together would cover an area larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Aspen leaves don’t just turn color in the fall, they positively glow in a luminescent bright yellow, almost as if they had their own light source. The leaves are small, delicate and tissue-thin with an aerodynamic shape that keep them in perpetual motion. Even a slight breeze sends every leaf on the tree shimmering.
Although seasons can vary greatly, there are generally four distinct areas and time periods for fall colors in Denver.
Mid-September to Early Oct. above 9,500 feet
Winter comes early to the high country. There are many roads within a short drive of Denver that climb to elevations of more than two miles above sea level. Some great places to see early fall colors above 9,500 feet include:
- Guanella Pass, located just one hour from Denver, climbs to 11,670 feet and has many high aspen groves on both sides of the pass. An excellent hike is on Abyss Lake Trail (20 miles south of Georgetown) into the Mount Evans Wilderness Area. There are aspen groves at all elevations along the trail, offering a good chance of seeing color somewhere on the mountainsides.
- Rocky Mountain National Park, one hour to one and a half hours from Denver, has many groves of high aspens around Bear Lake. There are also many high aspen groves getting to the park on the scenic Peak to Peak Byway (Colorado Hwy. 72 and 7) from Black Hawk to Estes Park.
Late September to mid-October, from 7,000 to 9,000 feet
Most of Colorado’s resort towns such as Vail, Keystone, Beaver Creek and Winter Park are in this elevation and have ample groves of aspens. Some interesting places to see fall colors include:
- The quaint, old Victorian Mining towns of Georgetown and Silver Plume, located approximately one hour from Denver (40 miles) are surrounded by aspen groves. An interesting way to see the fall colors is by riding the Georgetown Loop Railroad, where a historic steam locomotive pulls passengers up the steep grade between the two towns, at one point crossing over itself on a 100-foot high trestle.
- The area around Lake Dillon, Frisco and Silverthorne is filled with aspen groves and is just a 75 minute drive from Denver. An 18-mile paved bike path circles the pretty lake, offering mountain and fall views in every direction. Bikes can be rented in Frisco or Dillon.
Most of October, from 6,000 to 8,000 feet
At lower elevations in the foothills of the Rockies and in mountain valleys, you can find brilliant fall color throughout October with riverside Cottonwoods and scrub oak trees adding more yellows and browns to the show. Some interesting lower mountain choices include:
- Two old mountain gold mining towns, Central City and Black Hawk (30 minutes from Denver), have legalized gambling with 10,000 slot machines, poker, black jack, craps and roulette. But the real gold can be found on the surrounding hillsides, which are covered with aspen. Several historic old cemeteries near Central City have groves of aspen, and many other trees can be seen on the dirt “Oh My God Road” that runs between Central City and another old mining town, Idaho Springs.
Golden Gate Canyon State Park, located 20 miles west of Denver in the foothills (45 minute drive), has many aspen groves at lower elevations, as well one of the best panoramic views of the Rocky Mountains. By late October, this area may already be covered with early snow at the higher elevations.
Early October to mid-November, 5,280 feet above sea level
Down on the plains, Denver has a completely different climate than the mountains. Some 300 days of annual sunshine keep Denver warm enough to support most hardwood trees, from maples and ash to linden, elm, poplar and oak. There are 73 varieties of trees in Washington Park alone.
More than 850 miles of paved, off-street bike trails are available, criss-crossing Metro Denver. Don’t have your own bike? Hop on a B-cycle, Denver’s bike sharing program with more than 800 bikes available at 84 different stations. Some great places to bike or walk and see fall colors in and around Denver include:
- Selected by USA Today as one of the top 5 bike paths in the country, the Cherry Creek Bike Trail is a paved off-road path that follows the tree-lined creek for more than 40 miles from downtown Denver to Cherry Creek State Park. Most of the path is lined with trees that turn a variety of colors.
- Another 40+ mile bike path, the South Platte River Bike Trail, follows the South Platte River from downtown Denver to Chatfield State Park and Waterton Canyon, where it meets up with the Colorado Trail and continues 400 miles to Durango. In Waterton Canyon you can see herds of Big Horn sheep right along the bike path.
- The Highline Canal meanders through Denver for more than 70 miles, and almost all of it is lined with old Cottonwood trees that turn brilliant yellow in the fall.
- In the fall, many of the small truck farms between Denver and Boulder open up pumpkin patches where you can pick your own pumpkins, take a hay cart ride pulled by an antique steam-powered tractor, or bike or hike on trails over the rolling prairie with mountain vistas in the distance. Some prime pumpkin patches in and near Denver include Four Mile Park, Chatfield Botanic Gardens, Mile High Farms and Berry Patch Farms.
- There are more than 200 parks in Denver city limits, many of them connected by a necklace of bike trails – and all of them will boast beautiful fall colors. Afterwards, there are diverse neighborhoods to stop by for a farmer’s market, outdoor café of craft beer. Some suggestions:
WASHINGTON PARK: Denver’s grand traditional park has two lakes, two flower gardens and a tree-lined, two-mile gravel running path. Afterwards, visit nearby South Gaylord for street-side dining, or South Pearl, which has one-of-a-kind boutiques, breweries and some of the city’s top dining experiences. South Pearl also holds a farmer’s market on Sunday mornings.
SLOAN’S LAKE: Denver’s largest lake offers city and mountain views and an expansive tree-covered park. Afterwards, stop at nearby Highland Square at 32nd and Lowell, one of Denver’s hippest neighborhoods filled with outdoor cafes, shops and galleries.
CITY PARK: Denver’s largest park is home to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, the Denver Zoo, several lakes and the Mile High Trail – a running trail that follows the 5,280-foot contour so that much of the path is exactly one mile high. After a visit, stop in Uptown, yet another of Denver’s hip neighborhoods with breweries, restaurants and cafes.
For more information on daytrips from Denver, go to: visitdenver.com.