If you’ve never experienced firsthand the beauty of the fall foliage in Colorado, add it to your autumn bucket list. There are multiple hikes near Denver that give you a front-row seat to the changing aspens. You’ll be greeted with oranges, reds, yellows, and even golden hues — particularly in the 3rd and 4th weeks of September through the beginning of October. Keep in mind, the colors begin to change earlier in the mountains than they do near the city.
1. Lost Lake
Beginning at the Hessie Trailhead, the Lost Lake trail is a 4.0-mile out-and-back hike that’s located near the quaint town of Nederland, Colorado. Hikers will be taken on a steady climb, with just over 800 feet in total elevation gain. There are several small waterfalls along the path, ending at the scenic Lost Lake with striking mountain vistas. Those looking to add mileage can connect to other longer, and more challenging, hikes in the area. There’s a lake loop, as well as an adjacent mountainside with the remains of historic mining operations.
On busy weekends when the fall foliage is at its prime, don’t be surprised to find a bustling trailhead. Hikers can also park at the nearby school and hop aboard the free shuttle. Anybody looking to turn their hike into an overnight trip will be happy to find several rustic campsites located near the lake. Dogs are allowed on the trail but due to the hike’s popularity, they must stay on a lead.
PRO Tip: Lost Lake is ideally hiked through the summer into late fall. During the winter, snowshoes are necessary and the hike can become more precarious in certain places.
Where? Pike National Forest
This unique Colorado hike is enjoyable year-round, though hikers will be treated to the changing colors of aspens and pines during the autumn. The majority of the hike is well-shaded, making it pleasant during the summer as well. With just over 860 feet of elevation gain, the hike is rated as moderately difficult. At the end of the trail, there are a set of 143 stairs that lead to the fire lookout. From the top, hikers will soak in a view of up to hundreds of miles away in all directions on a clear day.
Just under 3 miles out and back, this hike is a great weekday option for those with a couple of hours to spare. The fire lookout is the only one in Colorado that is staffed by the National Forest Service. Dogs are welcome to accompany their owners but are asked to remain leashed. There are several benches in shaded areas that make for a great resting point and snack break.
PRO Tip: Parking can be limited at the trailhead, so plan to arrive early on weekends and carpool when possible. The best times to hike the trail are between April and November.
Where? Golden Gate Canyon State Park
Located in Golden Gate Canyon State Park, Raccoon Trail explores the northwestern region of the extensive park. Nearby residents head to the recreational area for hiking, mountain biking, camping, and wildlife spotting. Each of the park’s 11 trails are thoughtfully named after wildlife creatures native to the region and the kiddos will love seeing the animal’s footprints as the signature for the trail. The 3.5-mile path is conveniently shaped in a loop and takes hikers through a range of terrains.
Raccoon Trail is the ideal family-friendly stroll, taking hikers through a vibrantly colored forest during the fall months. Near the beginning of the hike, you’ll come across a large grove of aspen trees. This creates the perfect photo opportunity or even just enjoying a silent moment to soak in the magnificent golden colors. With only moderate elevation gain, even the kiddos can tackle the hike with confidence. There’s an outhouse at the trailhead and pups are welcome, so long as they’re on a leash.
PRO Tip: Golden Gate Canyon State Park charges recreational users a $9 fee to enter. There are multiple self-serve pay stations around the park. Exact change only.
The Peaks to Plains Trail is an easy 7.7 mile out and back trail located in Golden’s Clear Creek Canyon Park. The path is open throughout the year, though it’s especially gorgeous during the fall months when the trees are changing color. The Peaks to Plains Trail is only one segment of a larger project that will span over 20 miles. The project has received significant funding that is intended to provide Golden residents and visitors alike with convenient access to the canyon.
Hikers are welcome to bring their dogs, though they must be leashed. The path has been thoughtfully designed and includes multiple resting spots and three bridges. You’ll likely cross paths with other recreational enthusiasts, including rock climbers, rafters, and potentially even people panning for gold. The quiet stroll along the gurgling creek is the ideal way to take in the views and photograph the fall colors.
PRO Tip: The wide path is paved as well, allowing for a fully accessible experience. There are several designated parking spaces in the paved parking lot at the eastern section of the trail.
This 5.1-mile loop is generally considered an easy hike and can be completed with younger kids, inexperienced hikers, or simply those who want to walk at a leisurely pace while watching for wildlife and enjoying the autumnal leaf showing. There are various pine and aspen forests throughout the varied terrain, which make for a vividly yellow and gold backdrop to this hike. During the springtime, the meadows are abundant with wildflowers.
There is mild elevation gain throughout the hike, combined with long flat periods. The trail itself is well-maintained and clearly marked. Snack breaks are key on any hike and there are thoughtfully spaced benches in shaded areas that invite hikers to sit and rest for a while. The Elk Meadow Park Loop is ideal for those who aren’t acclimated to the altitude yet or for families with young kids who aren’t comfortable trekking deep into the mountains. Dogs must be leashed to ensure everyone’s safety.
PRO Tip: During the warmer summer months, it’s recommended to begin the hike from the right (counterclockwise). This cuts down on the length of time that hikers are left exposed to the sunlight.
This is one of the most popular trailheads in the Breckenridge area, so check in with your group about the possibility of carpooling. Parking can be limited and may fill up early in the morning on weekends. The main trail is 8.4 miles out-and-back, though there is a separate trailhead that cuts down on the distance but is only accessible with a 4WD vehicle. There are over 1,700 feet of elevation gain, which increases the difficulty level of the trail.
During September and October, the fall foliage is vibrant and majestic. In the higher altitude of the mountains, trees change earlier in the season than they do in Denver. This trail is worth the drive to get an early preview of what’s to come along the Front Range. Hikers will trek past spruce, pine, aspen, and fir trees. Two miles in, Mayflower Lakes makes for a prime first resting point to catch your breath.
PRO Tip: It’s not uncommon to encounter people who are unprepared for a hike with this much elevation gain. Pack plenty of water, a hat, and any snacks that will fuel you as you make your way to the lake.
Where? Golden Gate Canyon State Park
It’s not hard to see where the golden in Golden Gate Canyon State Park comes from when you hike during the fall. The aspen groves are colored in vivid autumnal hues, greeting hikers with breathtaking natural beauty. The trail is roughly 3.8 miles roundtrip and will take hikers across bridges and through multiple terrain types. This is a hiking-only trail, so there won’t be any bicyclists whizzing by.
There is some moderate elevation gain, which adds to the challenge of the trail. This is one of the park’s more popular trails, as it follows multiple streams which adds a peaceful ambiance to the hike. Parking can be limited and it’s recommended that Horseshoe Trail hikers try to park at Frazer Meadows. There are restrooms at the trailhead that are maintained by park staff.
PRO Tip: Cell coverage can be limited in the park, so prepare accordingly. Pack plenty of water, snacks, and a map. All vehicles entering the park are required to display a valid park pass, which can be purchased at the visitor center.
Where? Mount Evans Wilderness
This is one of the more difficult trails on the list of the best fall hikes, though there are options to cut down on the mileage and make for a more beginner-friendly jaunt into the great outdoors. Located about an hour and a half outside of Denver, the drive is part of the fun. Making your way up to Guanella Pass is breathtaking while the aspens are showing off their fall colors.
Hikers can opt for the 7.2-mile length of the Mt. Bierstadt Trail or take a shorter stroll through the high country, finding plenty of photo opportunities along the way. If you’re extra adventurous and have experience with hiking fourteeners, go for the summit of the mountain. After completing the hike, consider making the drive to Kenosha Pass — which is arguably one of the best places to view the autumnal colors near Denver.
PRO Tip: Dogs are welcome but must be kept on a leash. Consider your pup’s limitations before taking them the length of the trail or up the mountain. These options can be strenuous and it may be best to leave your furry friend at home.
Where? Boulder Valley Ranch
Left Hand Trail is part of Boulder Valley Ranch’s system of trails. This 4.1 out-and-back hike is rated as easy, as it has under 300 feet of elevation gain. Dogs are permitted but they must be leashed in accordance with local regulations. During the fall months, there are a multitude of trees with changing leaves, though during the summer months, the path can be fairly exposed to the sun. Those looking to extend the hike can link this trail with several other Boulder Valley Ranch paths.
This trail can be reached in under an hour from Denver, making it the perfect weekday excursion. Hikers should expect to skirt around a private reservoir throughout the hike. Those hiking with dogs should be aware that there are likely to be many prairie dogs chirping at them as they walk past the prairie terrain. The trail is popular with horseback riders, mountain bikers, and trail runners.
PRO Tip: Parking for Left Hand Trail can be found down Neva Road, on the right. The lot is unlikely to be full, as this hike doesn’t see as much traffic as other, more popular Boulder trails. This is perfect for those seeking more solitude and a peaceful excursion into nature.
Don’t be alarmed when you see that this trail is located near a major highway. The 400 acres of open space help keep the noise at bay and transport hikers into a peaceful getaway. The 5-mile perimeter loop is perfect for families, as the trails remain mellow throughout. The park has dense pockets of aspen groves, which almost seem to be glowing gold during the peak of the fall season.
Parking is easy at Meyer Ranch Park, so you won’t have to get up before sunrise to ensure you find a spot. During the summer, the trail is well shaded and during the wintertime, it’s a popular cross-country ski spot. Dogs are welcome but are required to be leashed to ensure the safety of other recreational users and the surrounding environment.
PRO Tip: Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife. It’s not uncommon to spot deer, woodpeckers, and even elk in the area.