The cooler temperatures and smaller crowds are telling us that fall is on the way to Aspen. The Silver Queen Gondola has reverted to weekend-only hours, so any weekday hike up Aspen Mountain during the week requires more time and effort (on our own two legs) to descend.
We began to notice bright yellow and rusty orange hues dotting the Aspen area mountainsides in early- to mid-September. Typically, peak season for Colorado fall colors occurs between the third and fourth weeks. If you’re planning a fall vacation to the Aspen area, we generally suggest aiming for that window. However, the colors on the valley floors remain well into early October.
One of the best ways to maximize your exposure to the golden beauty that makes up an Aspen autumn is by going for a hike. We’ve selected a few of our local favorites and, if you choose to take such an adventure, your memories will be etched in the glow for years to come. One strong recommendation for all of these hikes — use hiking poles. Hiking poles help to stabilize you when walking on rocky, steep or unfamiliar terrain, and can be rented for the day if you don’t own them already. They are indispensable on long or very steep hikes.
American Lake Trail in the Fall
The American Lake trail (southwest of Aspen) will give you a serious workout; you’ll be climbing 2,000 vertical feet over 6.5 miles. We recommend American Lake as a fall excursion because of the cooler temperatures (less sweat!) and the color intensity. The variety of landscape you’ll encounter (forests, meadows, a waterfall, and the alpine lake itself) will keep you engaged throughout the trek, and you’ll even get a small dose of history when passing an old mining site along the way.
Surrounded by thick swathes of aspens from the start, you’ll follow the trail as it begins winding up steep, forested switchbacks. You’ll eventually reach wildflower groves and meadows, although peak wildflower season has already passed by the time September has arrived.
Once through the meadows, you’ll pass through another section of forested trail to reach the waterfall. You will then continue a short distance to American Lake itself, which is surrounded by granite cliffs. The American Lake trailhead may be reached by taking the Castle Creek Road exit from the roundabout. Follow Castle Creek for 10 miles and turn right across from the Elk Mountain Lodge, where you’ll find the American Lake parking lot and the trailhead.
Lost Man Loop in the Fall
The Lost Man Loop Trail is another long excursion if you complete the entire loop. But just like the American Lake Trail, it’s perfect for fall. You definitely shouldn’t forget the sunscreen (the sun’s rays remain intense at high elevation year-round), you’ll stay refreshed more than summer would allow. In fact, you should plan on bringing a few layers of clothing, since temperatures can fluctuate throughout the day. There is a parking lot at either end of the almost-loop; we often recommend taking two cars and shuttling from one end to the other.
Do note that elevation may be a concern on this trail if you’re not yet acclimated. The hike starts at over 2 miles high (11,520 feet) — and gains an additional 1,290 throughout the journey. This is a difficult loop, taking around 6 hours to complete when you’re already used to the elevation!
If you’re not yet used to high altitude, plan to take frequent breaks, and be ready to turn around after a few miles. The early sections of the trail can provide great out-and-back adventures, allowing you to exert yourself, enjoy spectacular views, and return to your car without incident.
Once you’re hiking, you can expect to experience bright colors, creek sounds, alpine scents, and you may even spot the occasional mountain goat. The trail is open and exposed to the elements in many places, which means you’ll have stunning alpine views for the entire hike.
And you’ll need to come prepared for the possibility of changing weather.
To get to the Lost Man Loop Trail, drive from Aspen into the heart of the Rocky Mountains via Independence Pass. Be prepared for narrow, winding roads and the occasional absence of guardrails. You’ll find the Lost Man trailhead and parking area on your left, just past mile marker 55.
Capitol Creek Trail in the Fall
Hiking the Capitol Creek Trail is a great choice if you’re looking for a less intense fall adventure without missing out on the vibrant landscapes of an Aspen autumn. Some hikers plan to camp overnight at Capitol Lake, but the loop is the most common day trip approach. Note that you will lose cell reception soon after you leave the highway, so print out and/or write down any directions you might need beforehand!
The Capitol Creek loop starts up along Upper Capitol Creek Trail #1963 (called the “Ditch Trail” by locals) and returns via Capitol Creek Trail #1961. You’ll wind through spectacularly-hued aspen and evergreen forests while gaining a total of 1,500 feet in elevation as the breathtaking views of Capitol Peak encourage you onward.
To get to the Capitol Creek trailhead, you’ll need a 4WD vehicle. Drive 14 miles west from Aspen on Highway 82, and turn left at the Conoco gas station onto Snowmass Creek Road. Continue two miles to a T intersection, where you’ll turn right and continue 3 miles past where the pavement ends and reverts to dirt.
Sunnyside Trail in the Fall
The Sunnyside Trail is closer to Aspen than our previous three recommendations, and is an out-and-back trail, so it’s less of a time commitment. This is a great hike to choose if you’re just arrived in town, or if you don’t have most of the day to spend outdoors.
This 6-mile moderate trail is very open and usually dry, so you’ll be able to hike it long into the fall. You’ll gain a total of 1,700 feet in elevation on your way to the antenna towers, should you choose to go that far. Switchbacks lead hikers up Red Mountain through sagebrush and scrub oak.
The Sunnyside Trail is best known for the consistent views you’ll encounter along the way — they’re some of the most breathtaking views of the valley — including Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and the airport. The open trail gives you plenty of autumn sunshine paired with stunning, unobstructed views of the Aspen area and the glittering golden forests of the mountains and the valley.
To get to the trailhead, head out of Aspen towards the roundabout and turn right onto Cemetery Lane at the stoplight. You’ll follow Cemetery Lane through residential areas, down the hill past the Rio Grande trail and then wind up the hill onto McLain Flats Road (Cemetery becomes McLain Flats). You’ll come to a small pull-aside lot on the left with the trailhead marker across the from the lot. Cross the road to begin your hike.
Ute Trail in the Fall
While the out-and-back Ute Trail to Ute Rock is short and rewarding, it’s not for the faint of heart. In a relatively short distance (about a mile) you’ll gain over 1,000 feet of elevation. If you have a short exercise window and you’re up for a challenge, this is the in-town Aspen fall hike for you.
The steady uphill path takes you through dense foliage and a blanket of autumnal aspen trees as you navigate many, many switchbacks. If you stay the course, and maintain your heart rate, you’ll ultimately arrive at a wooden swing and the rocky outcropping of Ute Rock. Your reward will be panoramic views of the entire town and further down into the valley. Stop and rest here as long as you like before heading back downhill. Watch your footing and don’t be afraid to stabilize yourself with trees or roots on the descent — the rocks on the trail can be a bit loose!
From downtown Aspen, getting to the Ute Trail trailhead requires a short walk. Head east on Main Street and continue as it turns right towards Aspen Mountain and becomes Original Street. Take a left on Ute Avenue when Original ends, and walk half a mile to the parking lot and the trailhead across the street.
Where to Stay for Fall Aspen Hiking
If you’re planning to hike in Aspen during a fall visit, staying downtown will be your most convenient option. Aspen Square Condominium Hotel is located right across from the Aspen Mountain Gondola Plaza; the Ute Trail would be a just short stroll away! Contact us for reservations or booking assistance at 970-925-1000 x3515.