There may be no better way to experience the first week of fall than to take a drive or hike into a Rocky Mountain rainbow of rich red willows, lush evergreens and glowing golden aspen.
In Northern Colorado there are several drives and hikes that can be explored within a day or weekend to give you a view of nature’s fall palate.
Rocky Mountain National Park offers the most diverse fall experience. To get up to RMNP the best drive is U.S. Highway 34 through the Big Thompson Canyon west of Loveland. The canyon offers a curvy and challenging, but enjoyable drive. In the higher elevations of the park, the highway becomes known as the world-famous Trail Ridge Road. While at these elevations there aren’t many opportunities to see fall foliage (or trees at all once you get into the tundra) the drive is still a must-see for any Colorado resident.
There are several trails in the park that give the opportunity for an exhilarating hike, wildlife spotting and fall foliage viewing.
The Bear Lake trails off U.S. Highway 36 are some of the most popular. You can follow the largest trail around Bear Lake or uphill to Nymph, Dream and Emerald Lakes. This trail can take most of the day if you take it all the way to Emerald Lake so pack a lunch and prepare to get a workout.
From Bear Lake you can also take a different trail to Alberta Falls, a really cool looking waterfall that is not difficult to get to, or to the crystal clear Mills Lake a bit further uphill and more difficult.
If you want to get away from the hordes of hiking tourists there are other trails less traveled by in the park. The Lily Lake trail, in the south portion of the park off Colorado Highway 7, sits at the foot of Long’s Peak behind the Twin Sisters Peaks and makes for a wondrous walk especially early in the day as the purple morning sun shines on the cliffs around you.
If you are even more adventurous, go further south on Colorado 7 until you get to the Wild Basin Entrance. A drive west on a dirt road gets you to a trailhead where you can hike up to a trio of waterfalls, Copeland Falls, Callypso Cascades and the spectacular Ouzel Falls. There should be plenty of aspen casting shiny yellow reflections off St. Vrain Creek on this trail.
The best aspen viewing this week in RMNP will be in the lower elevations such as the Moraine Park area. At this time of year the bugling of elk can be heard in the valley of Moraine Park and is an added bonus and a tourist favorite. It is mating season for elk and the peculiar bugle is the sound the males make to try to attract a harem of female mates. Be sure to take your camera because the elk will likely be frolicking in the lower elevation grasslands near the park gates looking for food.
Admission to RMNP is $10 for a weeklong pass or a $30 for a yearlong pass.
If you don’t feel like paying an entrance fee or even getting out of your car, one of the most picturesque routes to drive and see aspen and other fall foliage awaits you just outside of RMNP. From Estes Park drive south through Colorado Highway 7, take Colorado Highway 72 south and then continue on Colorado Highway 119 toward the casino town of Black Hawk. This route is nicknamed the Peak-to-Peak Highway. In Black Hawk and nearby Central City you can stay all night and gamble to relax from hours of driving, but odds are this drive past quaint mountain towns, abandoned barns and glacier-cut valleys will leave you relaxed already.
If you want to stay near to Fort Collins, the Poudre Canyon offers some great opportunities to get a peek of vivid fall hues. To get to the canyon take U.S. Highway 287 north to LaPorte and drive west on Colorado Highway 14. Watch for turnoffs near the river bottom to explore colorful groves of aspen, willows and a spectrum of other deciduous trees.
The canyon is flanked by two state parks. The closest is Lory due west of Fort Collins and south of the canyon. About an hour’s drive away is State Forest on the north side of the canyon. If you continue west on Colorado 14 you will reach the town of Walden, which is famous for its sand dunes just outside the city limits. You’ll definitely want to check this out if you are a fan of motorcycle or ATV courses.
Recent forest fire activity has made the peak of aspen color come earlier than usual this year so it may be best to stay in the lower elevations this week to experience the most vivid hues these trees have to offer. Most aspen and other trees on these scenic drives and hikes are already at their peak and there isn’t much time left in the season to check them out.
Josh Hardin is a Loveland native and Collegian photographer and columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about the best places to view fall colors this week go to the Colorado State Parks website at: http://parks.state.co.us/fall/colors.asp for a complete guide or call (303) 866-3437. The U.S. Forest Service’s nationwide hotline is also available at: (800) 354-4595, and the agency’s website is: http://www.fs.fed.us/r2/colors/.