Affiliate Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links. This means if you click a link and make a purchase, Kate Outdoors will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Having affiliate links on the site allows Kate Outdoors to provide you with valuable, free content.

Where to Find the Best Fall Colors in Colorado

Fall in Colorado is a magical time of year. Temperatures are still warm, sunshine is abundant, and there aren’t as many tourists as during the summer because kids are back in school. It’s the perfect season to plan a trip or staycation and this post will give you the best places to find fall colors across Colorado to help you prepare!

While Colorado may lack the variety of tree species and colors that you’ll find in New England or the Mid-West, it boasts one of the most vibrant and iconic trees for breathtaking fall foliage- quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides).

Yellow aspens during fall in Colorado.

Every fall between mid-September and early October, depending on where in the state you go, groves of aspens across Colorado burst into a sea of gold and light up the mountainsides.

Aspens naturally grow between 6,500-11,500 ft. in elevation in Colorado. While they can survive at lower elevations in places like Denver and Grand Junction, you’re going to want to plan to head to the hills to catch the best fall colors in Colorado.

*When to See Fall Colors in Colorado: Update for 2023*

Northern Mountains: The Northern Mountains (around Steamboat Springs and Estes Park) usually peak earliest around mid-September. The aspens in this area experienced solid rainfall this summer, and combined with a wet winter, they may end up peaking a little later than usual. The amount of moisture the area gets in early September will likely have a big effect on the timing and duration of peak conditions.

Central Mountains: The Central Mountains in Colorado (around Breckenridge, Vail, Aspen, and Crested Butte) typically peak in late-September. Locations on the Western Slope of the Continental Divide experienced drier conditions than other areas this summer and may peak a little earlier.

San Juan Mountains: Located in Southwestern Colorado, the San Juan mountains (around Telluride, Ouray, and Silverton) typically see aspen trees peaking in early-October. After a dry summer, aspens in the San Juans are already started to change as of August 27, 2023, so I predict that peak colors may happen a little early (late-September) and may not last as long as usual.

Map of the average dates of aspen peak color in Colorado.
Source: 9News

I’ve spent the past five falls exploring Colorado on the hunt for the best seasonal colors. There are seemingly endless options out there when it comes to leaf peeping in Colorado, so here are my top picks if you want to go searching for some gold in them hills this fall:

1. Best Scenic Drive for Fall Colors in Colorado: Kebler Pass

Home to the largest aspen grove in Colorado and stretching approximately 30 miles from Highway 133 to the small mountain town of Crested Butte, Kebler Pass is the quintessential Colorado drive to catch some of the best foliage the state has to offer.

Woman wearing a long black dress stands in a forest of yellow aspens along Kebler Pass near Crested Butte, Colorado.
Fall colors along Kebler Pass.

The well-maintained, 2wd accessible dirt road winds through thick aspen groves that burst into gold around late September. The drive itself typically takes about 60 minutes from start to finish, but if you’re anything like me you’re going to want to factor in some extra time to stop and take photos!

There’s plenty of hiking, mountain biking, and camping (both dispersed and in developed Forest Service campgrounds) along the road, making Kebler Pass an excellent jumping off point for outdoor adventures. One of my favorite fall hikes in Colorado, the Dark Canyon, Irwin, Dyke Trail Loop begins right off of Kebler Pass and takes you deep into an aspen forest before opening up to sweeping views of the mountains.

Woman wearing a sports bra, leggings, and wide-brimmed black hat stands looking over a sea of golden aspens in Crested Butte, Colorado.
Looking over the fall colors in the Raggeds Wilderness.

2. Best Family-Friendly Hike for Fall Colors in Colorado: Kenosha Pass

If you’re looking for a gorgeous fall hike close-ish to Denver, then look no further than Kenosha Pass!

Hiking along Kenosha Pass for the best fall colors in Colorado.
Hiking along Kenosha Pass.

Located along Segment 6 of the Colorado Trail, the hike along Kenosha Pass weaves through golden aspen groves and across scenic meadows providing ample fall photo opps.

Parking for the trail is along Highway 285, four and a half miles West of the tiny town of Jefferson. The Colorado Trail crosses the highway, so you can hike in either direction, but for the best aspen views I recommend heading North. There’s fairly minimal elevation gain along the trail making it a very family-friendly hike, and since it follows the CT you can make it as long or as short as you’d like!

Be aware this is probably one of the most popular hikes in Colorado during peak aspen season so make sure to get an extra early start to find parking and beat the crowds!

3. Best Mountain Town for Fall Colors in Colorado: Aspen

Obviously a town sharing the namesake of Colorado’s most iconic tree is going to be a hot spot for leaf peeping adventures!

Maroon Bells in the fall.

The most popular time of year to visit the famed Maroon Bells is while the aspens that frame Maroon Lake are peaking, which typically occurs the last week of September into the first week of October. I’ve visited the Bells twice during the fall, but unfortunately just missed peak conditions both times. A helpful resource for finding up-to-date conditions at Maroon Bells (or anywhere else!) is checking the recently tagged photos on the location’s geotag on Instagram. Captions will typically give you a good idea as to whether the photo was recently taken or not!

Be aware, reservations are required for early morning parking or the shuttle that operates between 8am-5pm if you plan visit Maroon Bells before October 24th this year. Advance permits are also required for backpacking in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

If you’re looking to avoid massive crowds, there are plenty of other hikes in the Aspen area that don’t see quite as much traffic as the Bells (although most trails with aspen views are fairly popular during the fall).

The hike to Cathedral Lake is one of the best dog-friendly hikes in Colorado and provides expansive views of Castle Creek valley, which is lined with large groves of aspen trees. The drive through the forest to the trailhead is scenic in itself, but heading up above the aspens is where the magic really happens. It’s a moderately strenuous hike at 5.3 miles roundtrip with just over 2,000 ft. of elevation gain, so be sure you’re adequately prepared!

Stands of golden aspens on the hike up to Cathedral Lake in Aspen, Colorado.
The view while hiking up to Cathedral Lake.

Of course no visit to the Aspen area would be complete without a stop in town. While the cost of living in Aspen is rather exorbitant, the town does a great job of catering to tourists from a variety of economic backgrounds. The Aspen Art Museum is free to the public and a great place to spend an afternoon in town.

If you’re planning on visiting for a few days and lodging in Aspen or Snowmass is out of your budget, try booking a hotel or airbnb in Carbondale or Glenwood Springs, which are 30 and 40 miles away respectively.

4. Best Adventure Destination for Fall Colors in Colorado: San Juan Mountains

From driving along 4×4 roads, to tackling one of two via ferratas, to SUP’ing on an alpine lake, the San Juans are the ultimate Colorado adventure destination.

Fall colors next to the Ice Lakes Trailhead in the San Juan mountains of Colorado.
Fall colors next to the Ice Lakes Trailhead.

The best way to get the most aspen bang for your buck in the San Juans is to spend a day driving along one of the many 4×4 roads that weave through the mountains. The Alpine Loop Byway is a roughly 65 mile loop that takes you deep into the heart of the San Juans over both Engineer Pass at 12,640 ft. and Cinnamon Pass at 12,800 ft. Be aware, these roads can be dangerous and should only be driven by experienced drivers in a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle.

If you don’t own a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle, you can rent a Jeep or side-by-side at a number of outfitters in Ouray or Lake City. Both small mountain towns provide an excellent starting point for a variety of off-road adventures!

Woman wearing a red flannel stands in front of a wooden fence overlooking fall colors and the Dallas Divide.
Fall colors along the Dallas Divide.

Telluride in the fall provides breathtaking fall colors. If you’re looking to catch the fall colors with a scenic hike, the Jud Weibe Memorial Trail will leave you breathless (literally!). It’s a moderately difficult 3 mile loop with about 1,200 ft. of elevation gain that starts right in town. To maximize the views I recommend parking in Mountain Village and taking the free gondola down before walking to the trailhead!

The view of the mountains and aspens from the Telluride gondola during peak fall colors in Colorado.
The view from the Telluride Gondola during peak fall colors.

5. Best Wilderness Area for Fall Colors in Colorado: James Peak Wilderness

Just an hour outside of Boulder, the James Peak Wilderness Area is the perfect place to head when you want to get away from the Front Range and into the mountains fairly quickly.

Located at the end of a rolling, scenic dirt road, the East Portal Trailhead provides ample parking to a number of trails that take you into the Wilderness Area. I recommend hiking up to Crater Lakes, which eventually takes you out of the aspens into a sub-alpine environment with gorgeous views.

While most of the trails lead to sub-alpine lakes that take you up & out of the aspens, both the drive to the trailhead and the first couple of miles along the trail provide some gorgeous fall color.

6. Best Kept Secret for Fall Colors in Colorado: The Grand Mesa

Less than an hour from Grand Junction lies one of Colorado’s best kept secrets for leaf peeping- the Grand Mesa!

A woman wearing an orange dress and brown suede boots, and a man in a denim shirt and brown slacks standing smiling in a golden grove of aspens on the Grand Mesa in Colorado.
Enjoying the fall colors on the Mesa.

Take a drive along State Highway 65, which connects I-70 to the small town of Cedaredge, winding through aspen groves as it climbs over the Grand Mesa. It’s a great drive for the whole family and there are plenty of pullouts along the highway to stop and take in the views!

Black dog stands in a golden forest of aspen trees on the Grand Mesa in Colorado.

If you’re looking to stretch your legs, take a hike up to Lost Lake or Crag Crest. The former is a short, family-friendly hike that passes multiple lakes before reaching a gorgeous turquoise lake, while the latter is a longer trek that takes you to one of the highest point on the Mesa with 360° views of the Bookcliffs, Elk Mountains, San Juan Mountains, and La Sal Mountains.

As always, Leave No Trace and stay safe!

Colorado Activities You May Enjoy:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

FREE guide:
the top 5 resources for finding epic hikes

Download your free backpacking gear packing list

Get the Packing List

sign up for the newsletter

thank you for subscribing!

Affiliate Disclaimer: As an Amazon Influencer, I earn from qualifying purchases made from affiliate links that I share. This means that Kate Outdoors will earn a small commission from any purchase that you make through an affiliate link at no additional cost to you.

Hiking Disclaimer: Hiking and other outdoor activities are inherently dangerous and can result in serious injury and/or death. The information provided on this Website is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for additional research, proper training, experience, and judgment.
You may encounter certain risks and hazards when hiking or engaging in other outdoor activities. These risks and hazards include, but are not limited to, falling, injury, wildlife, dangerous terrain, inclement weather, falling rocks or debris, hypothermia, heatstroke, dehydration, and getting lost. 
Trail conditions are constantly changing. This Website is not liable for any errors, omissions, or inaccuracies in the information provided. All users of this Website should be aware of the risks involved with hiking and other outdoor activities and should exercise caution at all times.
By using the information contained on this Website, you agree to assume all risks associated with hiking and other outdoor activities and release Kate Outdoors LLC from any liability for any harms, claims, injuries, losses, and/or damages that may occur. Always use your own judgment and discretion when hiking or participating in other outdoor activities, be prepared, and take responsibility for your own safety. 

Privacy Policy

Terms & Conditions

 © 2020-2024 Kate Outdoors LLC