Colorado Fall Colors: A 2023 Guide to Leaf Peeping

The explosion of color as the Aspen changes from green to red, orange, and yellow is one of my favorite things about the fall. The peak color change only lasts a few short weeks in most parts of the mountains, so a little research and planning is necessary to catch the best views of the season. Here’s my advice on timing your visit, where to go, and what to bring with you while checking out the color change in the mountains of Colorado.

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The Science Behind Colorado's Stunning Fall Colors

Before diving into locations and timings, let’s first understand the science behind the changing colors. The brilliant golds and reds of Colorado’s aspen trees are due to a reduction in chlorophyll production triggered by shorter days and cooler temperatures. Understanding this can help you appreciate the natural artistry you’re witnessing.

The transformation of leaves from green to gold is not merely a visual spectacle; it plays an integral role in the natural ecosystem as well. When leaves fall to the ground, they begin a decomposition process that is vital for soil enrichment. The decaying leaves release nutrients like nitrogen and carbon back into the soil, contributing to its fertility and providing essential nutrients for the next generation of plant life. This organic matter also improves soil structure, making it more conducive to water retention and aeration. Furthermore, the leaf litter acts as a natural mulch that helps to regulate soil temperature and moisture levels, which is particularly beneficial in the harsh winter months that follow the fall season.

Overall, the cycle of growth and loss of leaves is a crucial component of a sustainable ecosystem, facilitating a chain of life that goes beyond the immediate visual splendor of the changing colors.

 

Timing Your Visit

The Aspen in the northern part of the state are the first to change color, while the southern San Juans and Sangres are the last area to change. Thus, the further North you plan to visit, the earlier you’ll need to go.

This map below from Denver 9News shows the various eco-zones from north to south and when each area will be in peak colors at any given time this fall. Generally, the best time to go leaf peeing in 2023 is mid September through mid October. If you wait beyond that, there won’t be much left to see.

It’s important to remember that these timing guides are only averages, and each year tends to vary within 1-2 weeks. You should also research before your trip to check current conditions. I recommend joining one of several Facebook photography groups for Colorado – they quickly fill with pictures of the changing Aspen and provide real-time status updates on how they look throughout the state.

FB Group 1: https://www.facebook.com/groups/coloradophotography

FB Group 2: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1424365537781380

FB Group 3: https://www.facebook.com/groups/BestColoradoPhotography

Where to Go Leaf Peeping

You can go almost anywhere there are Aspen to see an amazing show of Autumn colors. Here are a few guidelines on where to go looking for these groves.

Aspen are an extremely moisture-dependent plan, so look for them along creeks and at the bottom of valleys and gullies where water is plentiful. They are typically located between 6,500 and 11,500 feet, especially on the Western Slope of Colorado. This map from the Colorado State Forestry Services demonstrates where you can find the most Aspen in Colorado. Here are some different destinations yo consider visiting:

  • Mountain Passes: Drive up one of these high elevation highways, like Marshall Pass by Salida, or Loveland Pass near I-70.
  • Hiking Trails: Catch the colors in action while taking a hike on one of my favorite Colorado hiking trails.
  • Mountain Towns: Several communities are specifically known for the quality of their fall colors, including Crested Butte.

Good Locations in Colorado for Leaf Peeping:

Here are a few tried-and-true hotspots for changing Aspen leaves in Colorado depending on where in the state you are looking.

Northern Colorado

  • Rocky Mountain National Park: Famous for its high-altitude aspen groves and well-maintained trails.
  • Cameron Pass: Located west of Fort Collins, offering a variety of deciduous trees.
  • Poudre Canyon: Known for its river views and expansive aspen groves, this canyon near Fort Collins is another option.
  • Brainard Lake Recreation Area: Situated near Ward, this area is ideal for those who enjoy combining fall foliage views with high-altitude lakes.

Central Colorado

  • Maroon Bells: Perhaps the most iconic spot in Colorado for fall foliage.
  • Independence Pass: This high-altitude pass provides panoramic views and is a must-see for photographers.
  • Guanella Pass: Located near Georgetown, this pass provides a wide range of colors and has numerous trails for both beginners and advanced hikers.
  • Castle Creek Road: Just outside of Aspen, this less-traveled road offers a more secluded experience with miles of aspen trees and craggy mountain vistas.

Southern Colorado

  • San Juan Skyway: Offers a 236-mile loop with multiple opportunities to view the foliage.
  • Cuchara Pass: A hidden gem located in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
  • The Dallas Divide: Near Ridgway, this area provides a stunning contrast between rugged mountains and soft, colorful meadows.
  • Wolf Creek Pass: Located along U.S. Route 160, this pass offers striking views of the San Juan and South San Juan mountain ranges, along with abundant aspen groves.

Tips for Leaf Peeping

Here are a few tips to get the best experience possible while checking out the changing autumn colors.

  • Dress warmly. It may be warm in the city, but it will be 15-30 degrees colder or more in the mountains, depending on the specific conditions.
  • Consider Parking: It gets limited in popular leaf-peeping areas. Get there early; the closer to dawn, the better if you do not want to worry about securing a spot.
  • Bring a pair of binoculars: They can be helpful for more extended-range views and checking out details like old mines or wildlife you come across.
  • Leave only footprints; take only photographs. Fight the urge to take home any leaves, flowers, or other natural items when you head back home.
  • Coffee? A thermos of coffee, tea or hot chocolate is a nice touch to enjoy as you look out over a cool mountain valley full of colorful Aspen. I speak from experience.
  • Stay Safe if Hiking: Remember to bring the ten essentials if you decide to go hiking on your trip.

Fall Colors and Photography

Capturing the stunning fall colors of Colorado requires a mix of technical prowess and artistic vision. One of the most crucial elements to consider is timing; aim to shoot during the “Golden Hour,” which occurs shortly after sunrise and before sunset. The soft, diffuse lighting during these times brings out the richness of the autumn hues, creating a magical quality in your photos. Another essential tool for any fall foliage photographer is a polarizing filter. This accessory can dramatically improve the clarity and vibrancy of your shots by reducing glare and making the sky pop, providing a striking backdrop for the vibrant foliage.

Composition is also key to creating visually appealing photographs. Use techniques like leading lines to guide the viewer’s eye through the frame, and consider using natural elements, such as arches or branches, to frame your subject. This not only adds depth to your photos but also highlights the intricate details of Colorado’s spectacular autumn landscape. With these tips and techniques in hand, you’ll be well-equipped to capture the full glory of Colorado’s fall colors.

Colorado Leaf Peeping for 2023: Now You Know

Colorado’s fall colors are a sight to behold and offer some of the most vivid natural landscapes in the United States. By equipping yourself with this comprehensive guide, you’ll be well-prepared to capture, admire, and immerse yourself in Colorado’s autumn splendor. Happy leaf peeping!

FAQs

Q: When is the best time to see fall colors in Colorado?

A: The optimal time to experience fall colors in Colorado is generally from mid-September to early October. However, this can vary by elevation, latitude, and yearly weather conditions. It’s wise to keep an eye on foliage reports for the most current information.

A: While many popular leaf-peeping spots are accessible by standard vehicles, some remote areas may require a 4×4 vehicle, especially after rainfall or early snowfall. Always check local road conditions before planning your trip.

A: Yes, several companies offer guided tours that range from simple day trips to multi-day adventures. These often include photography tips and sometimes even provide specialized equipment.

A: While hiking alone is generally safe, it’s important to take extra precautions during the fall. Weather can change rapidly, and trails may be less populated. Always inform someone of your plans and estimated return time, carry a fully charged phone, and bring adequate supplies.

A: Camping options vary significantly depending on the location. Some national and state parks offer campgrounds, but they often fill up quickly during peak foliage season. It’s advisable to book well in advance and to check for any permit requirements.

A: Prepare for a range of weather conditions by packing layers of clothing, including waterproof items. Also, bring snacks, sufficient water, a camera with extra batteries, and, if you plan to hike, a basic first-aid kit. Don’t forget your polarizing filter if you’re keen on photography.

Alex Derr, Founder of The Next Summit

Alex Derr is an Eagle Scout, climber, and environmental policy expert located in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. Follow him on Linkedin or Twitter or click here to contact him.

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