Colorado in the fall is like living in a painting. Warm hues paint the landscapes. Groves of aspen trees ignite the mountains with yellow, orange, and red. The scenery of piercing mountains, vast lakes, unassuming meadows, and winding rivers is a glowing masterpiece from September to October in Colorado.
2023 Fall Foliage In Colorado
The best time to see fall foliage in Colorado is from late September to mid-October depending on moisture and weather patterns. “Fall colors are arriving a bit later than usual in Colorado, but leaves have started changing,” according to Colorado’s Fox 31 and its Pinpoint Weather map.
The 2023 map predicts that Northern Colorado, like Steamboat Springs and Rocky Mountain National Park, will peak from September 22 to October 7. Central Colorado will peak from September 24 to October 10, while Southern Colorado aspens will change from September 27 to October 15.
Remember: “So many factors can make a leaf-peeping adventure tough to schedule,” according to the Colorado State Forest Service. “Your favorite spot one year can turn out to be a disappointment the next. Be flexible, adventurous and stick to the easier-to-predict leaf factors — such as elevation, latitude and stand health — when planning an outing.”
Did anyone say Colorado leaf-peeping road trip?
Best Time To See Fall Foliage In Colorado
If you want to plan a road trip to Colorado for fall foliage, the best rule of thumb is work your way from north to south. Although the vibrancy and frequency of colors change year-to-year depending on several factors. The three most influential indicators on autumn leaf color are leaf pigments, length of night, and weather, according to the USDA. If you want to follow peak fall foliage season in Colorado, the best time to road trip Colorado is typically mid-September to mid-October.
Ultimate Colorado Road Trip
Although catching leaf-peeping peaks is an imperfect science, these dates are based on Colorado yearly averages from the Colorado State Forest Service.
September 15 – September 22: Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park, Steamboat Springs
September 22 – September 30: Glenwood Springs, Grand Junction, Gunnison, Crested Butte
September 30 – October 7: Ouray, Ridgway, Silverton, Telluride
October 7 – October 14: Pueblo, Durango, Cortez, Mesa Verde National Park, Alamosa
Here is another helpful tool to predict fall colors in the United States.
Best Places To See Fall Colors In Colorado
In this section, we highlight only a few areas as we aren’t going to give away any secret spots. These are well known common areas where if you ask anyone, or do a Google search, these will come up.
These are by no means the only locations, and if you want to avoid crowds, then these probably are not the best places to go.
Looking for areas away from others is easy in Colorado, and we highly recommend doing a little bit of investigation on your own!
Rocky Mountain National Park
4.5 million people visit Rocky Mountain National Park every year. The park sees the highest traffic during the summer, but from mid-September to early-October Rocky Mountain National Park is at its most extraordinary.
Aspens are the dominant tree species in Rocky Mountain National Park. Like the wind moving through the trees, the gradual change from green to yellow begins at the highest elevations in early September until the entire park system is awash in color through the beginning of October.
Another draw to Rocky Mountain National Park during the autumnal season is elk rut. The elk rut occurs when elk leave higher elevations to mate in the plains and valleys. Listen for the male elk bugle to impress the female elk as the falling leaves rustle in the wind of fall.
The best places in Rocky Mountain National Park for leaf-peeping and elk mating are Hidden Valley, Kawuneeche Valley, and Fairview Curve. Please do not interact with or harm the wildlife, or you may just become a headline for Cowboy State Daily.
San Juan National Forest
The San Juan National Forest is a beautiful expanse of wilderness in southwest Colorado. Although this area is well known for skiing in the winter and peak-bagging in the summer, the San Juans are electric in the autumn, especially with a slight dusting of snow on the peaks overlooking the golden yellow quaking aspens.
You will find the towns of Silverton, Durango, Ouray, and Telluride near and around the San Juan Mountain Range. San Juan National Forest is also one of the last parts of Colorado to peak during fall foliage season. If you’re roadtripping, you can tack on San Juan National Forest to your itinerary and continue south the places like Santa Fe, New Mexico that peak later in October.
The best places to watch the leaves change in the San Juan National Forest are Dallas Divide, the Million Dollar Highway, Last Dollar Road, the free gondola in Telluride, Coal Bank and Molas Pass, and plenty of other stops along the way!
Grand Mesa is an understated area of central Colorado, especially during the change of seasons. Although it’s more of a trek from Denver, it’s less crowded, an hour’s drive from Grand Junction, and rife with peak leaf-peeping.
Grand Mesa is home to over 300 lakes that reflect yellow, orange, and red Aspens during peak fall foliage season. Its landscape also features one of the largest, flat-top mountains that dawns a golden halo during early October. The mesa rises from 6,000 to 10,000 feet with several viewpoints to capture Grand Mesa’s magic, including Skyway Point, Lands End Overlook, and Land O Lakes Overlook.
The best way to experience Grand Mesa in the fall is by driving the Grand Mesa Scenic Byway or camping in the Grand Mesa National Forest and fishing in one of the many lakes shaded by the changing Aspens.
Best Fall Hikes In Colorado
Maroon Bells Trail, Aspen
Elevation Gain: 160 feet (49 meters)
Distance: 1.9 miles (3.1 kilometers)
Duration: 45 minutes
Trailhead: Maroon Lake Trailhead
Whether you’ve been to Aspen or nearby Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness or not, you’ve seen the iconic photo of the towering Maroon Bells blending into the reflection of crystal clear Maroon Lake. But when the Aspens leaves begin to change, the landscape turns from a green caterpillar into a large, magnificent monarch butterfly with wings cloaked in warm colors ignited under the waning sun.
Dramatics aside, the two-mile hike to Maroon Lake is best during peak fall foliage. During golden hour, venture 1.5 miles further along the Maroon Lake Trail to Crater Lake for a beautiful show with fewer people. Don’t forget to make a reservation ahead of time!
Upper Piney River Falls, Vail
Elevation Gain: 688 feet (208 meters)
Distance: 5.9 miles (9.5 kilometers)
Duration: 2.5 hours
Type: Out & Back
Trailhead: Upper Piney Lake Trail
Upper Piney River Falls is a meandering low-elevation hike. The trail winds along waterfalls, river crossings, and views of the Gore Range. Although, the draw of this trail in autumn is the groves of Aspen trees that shroud the landscape in that fall foliage glow.
Upper Piney River Falls is quintessential Colorado in the fall. Just prepare for the 40-minute drive down a dirt road to get to the trailhead.
Jud Wiebe Memorial Trail, Telluride
Elevation Gain: 1,213 feet (370 meters)
Distance: 3.1 miles (5.0 kilometers)
Duration: 2 hours
The Jud Wiebe gets down to business regardless of whether you start it from Aspen Street or Tomboy Road. You will experience the bulk of elevation gain in the first mile, and then you will be rewarded with Aspen groves.
The seemingly endless Aspens illuminate the trail with yellow leaves everywhere. They cover the trail, dance in the wind, and trace the expanse of the tallest Aspens. This isn’t even the best part of the Jud. Eventually, the trees give way to a scenic outlook where hikers, bikers, and runners can marvel at the Box Canyon spreading out before them. To the east, mountains are painted in yellow. To the south, the ski resort traces the landscape, and to the west, the valley spreads into endless beauty.
Trailhead: Jud Wiebe Memorial Trail
Best Fall Drives in Colorado
Are you located on the Front Range or flying through Denver International Airport? Guanella Pass is the ideal location to start your fall foliage adventure in Colorado. The Pass is a 22-mile scenic byway that ends or begins in Georgetown and winds through Arapho and Pike National Forests. It climbs to 11,670 feet through alpine tundra and eventually gives way to groves of aspens. As you’re driving, the landscape will give way to brilliant yellows and views of Mount Bierstadt and Mount Evans.
Directions – Google Maps Link
If you’re coming from Denver, hop on 285 heading west towards Grant then turn right on Park County Route 62, and drive 13.5 miles. If you’re coming from Georgetown, follow signs for the historic byway through historic Georgetown to Rose Street.
Buffalo Pass, Steamboat Springs
Buffalo Pass is a 15-mile stretch of dirt road in Routt National Forest outside Steamboat Springs. The route follows spruce-fir, lodgepole pine, and quaking aspen up to 10,000 feet. During the fall equinox, the aspens turn Buffalo Pass into a golden tunnel leading to views of the Yampa and North Park valleys and the Mount Zirkel Wilderness. Along the way, there are campgrounds, dispersed camping, hiking trails, and alpine lakes.
Directions – Google Maps Link
From downtown Steamboat Springs take Park Avenue to Strawberry Park Road, then follow County Road 38 until you come to a right-hand turn for Buffalo Pass. Be prepared for changing weather conditions at higher elevations. You will also need high clearance 4WD for the top of the pass.
Kebler Pass, Crested Butte
Kebler Pass is one of, if not, the best fall drive in Colorado. It’s a high mountain pass that reaches 10,007 feet and spans 30 miles between Crested Butte and Paonia. The mountain road is only open from May to November. It is most popular in the fall when the landscape turns into a perpetual golden hour from mid-September to early October. Plus, dispersed camping abounds!
Directions – Google Maps Link
If you are coming from Crested Butte, drive County Road 12 which turns into Highway 135. Then follow signs for Kebler Pass to Paonia Reservoir and Highway 133. Are you coming from Paonia? Follow Highway 133 north for about 15 miles, then make a right on County Road 12 towards Crested Butte.
San Juan Skyway, Southwest Colorado
The San Juan Skyway is the ultimate southwest Colorado road trip. The mountain road was “designated by the U.S Secretary of Transportation as an All-American Road, the highest level of designation,” according to the Colorado Department of Transportation. It spans 236 miles and is connected by various highways that intersect with mountain towns like Durango, Silverton, and Ouray. Mesa Verde National Park is another highlight.
During the fall equinox, the San Juan Mountains are mesmerizing. The quaking aspens ignite the landscape with washes of burnt sienna, gold, amber, auburn, and citrine. As the leaves change and fall, venture on hikes, soak in hot springs, and find forgotten mine history in one of the most beautiful expanses of the Western slope.
Throw in a train ride and catch the fall foliage from the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
Directions – Google Maps Link
The San Juan Skyway is a 236-mile loop in southwestern Colorado accessed from Colorado Highway 184, 145, 62, 550, and 160.
Fall Packing List For Colorado
Colorado weather is unpredictable, and constantly changing. It’s important to be prepared for anything, especially when driving high mountain passes or hiking in the backcountry. You should pack layers and supplies for a variety of conditions.
Here is a fall packing list for Colorado:
- Waterproof/windproof jacket
- Down jacket
- Wool base layers
- Wool socks
- Sun protection
- Gloves or glove liners
- Hiking boots or shoes
- Sleeping bag
- Emergency roadside kit
- Extra water
Madeleine is a freelance writer and social media manager in the outdoor, gear, and travel space. She loves being buried in the snow, running single-track, and eating gummies next to high alpine lakes. When she’s not writing or traveling, you can find Madeleine in Telluride, Colorado romping around in the San Juans.