2017 Rocky Mountain National Park Aspen Reports

Previous Reports

These aspen reports are out of date! View the current report here.

This report covers the weekend of October 7, 2017.

October 5, 2017 — On our visit to the Park this week, we fully expected to find bare and battered trees defoliated by the recent snow. Instead, we found large swaths of colorful aspens and only a few naked trees backdropped by snowy peaks — at lower elevations, at least.

sun filtering through the aspen trees
Elk exclosures in Moraine Park are thick with golden-leafed aspen trees.

Three to four inches of snow blankets the ground as you climb from Deer Junction toward Hidden Valley, a chilly reminder of the nasty weather that visited the Park in the past week. While the leaves in the east side parques largely survived the storm, the same cannot be said of the aspen stands above 9,000 feet. The aspen trees at Hidden Valley, so brilliant in weeks past, are largely barren now, as are those along Trail Ridge Road leading up to Many Parks and Rainbow Curve. The shrubby willows, however, have taken up the slack and paint the valley bottom a golden hue. You should take advantage of the Park’s high elevations this weekend while Trail Ridge Road remains open, but if leaf peeping is the goal, it’s not an ideal destination.

Aspen viewed from the alluvial fan
The alluvial fan is surrounded by autumn colors and the barren ground offers great views of the aspens on nearby lateral hillsides.

Luckily, while the color fades in the upper reaches of the Park, it is still going strong in the lower elevations. The aspens in Horsehoe Park are displaying peak fall foliage. The alluvial fan is a mix of color from both low shrubs and taller aspens, and also has nice sightlines of nearby aspens on the hillsides. A parking area and picnic table near the Lower Lawn Lake trailhead is a good destination for those looking for a picnic spot. The West Horseshoe Park pullout is nicely situated near some large aspen stands if you’re looking for a nice photo opportunity.

You’ll continue to find autumn colors moving into Moraine Park. The groves near the Beaver Meadows entrance station display a mixed palette of gold, orange, and red, made even more stunning by a snowy Longs Peak towering in the background. The Moraine Park elk exclosures delineate dense golden groves with a multi-layered canopy.

Unfortunately, the Fern Lake area appeared more battered than other places. The road from the bus stop to the trailhead was still lined with fall foliage, but the colors seem duller than last week. The trail itself, a highlight of our recent visits, also lacked the pop of weeks past.

Finally, what aspen report would be complete without an update on Bear Lake Road? No report of ours, that’s for sure! As it has been for weeks, Bear Lake Road and Glacier Gorge are absolutely stunning. The colors remain strong and most trees have now changed, creating mosaic of color on a long hillside facing Longs Peak. For the full experience, do yourself a favor and go hike the Bierstadt Lake Trail. You’ll climb for a mile with non-stop jaw-dropping vistas.

Aspen changing viewed from Bierstadt Lake Trail
Breathtaking views abound on the Bierstadt Lake Trail, which can be accessed from Bear Lake Road and via the Rocky Mountain National Park visitor shuttle.

Trail recommendations

Most of the trails we’ve recommended in the past month are still great choices. You can also see our past aspen reports from earlier in the season below.

Bierstadt Lake Trail Each of the past few reports included a recommendation to hike the Bierstadt Lake Trail, and this week is no different. Simply put, it’s unrivaled for leaf peeping in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Alluvial Fan Trail The alluvial fan is a surprisingly beautiful place right now. This (very) short trail won’t get your heart rate up, but the denuded landscape offers great vistas of nearby hillsides draped in fall color. Tall aspens loom over the parking areas and the trail weaves through a dense understory of low deciduous shrubs changing color. So you not only get great aspen colors, but you’ll experience the redder shades of Rocky Mountain maple and the yellow of changing chokecherry and willow.

September 30, 2017

The aspen leaves at Twin Sisters were bursting with autumn color on September 26.
The aspen trees at the Twin Sisters trailhead are representative of the color in Rocky Mountain National Park right now.

The cold and wet weather this week will likely quicken the dropping of leaves and reduce the length of the leaf-peeping season, but there is still plenty of color to be seen. The aspens at lower elevations are finally changing and you will be able to find fall foliage throughout the park if you visit this weekend.

As in weeks past, the terrain along Bear Lake Road offers the most stunning vistas of autumn color, in my opinion. The whole east-facing hillside between the Bierstadt Lake trailhead and the Bear Lake parking area is full of color: red, orange, and yellow groves form a brilliant aspen tapestry. A few stands here and there retain their green leaves adding to the mosaic of color, but most of the leaves are now splendidly autumnal in their appearance.

For weeks, Hidden Valley was a great spot to see the leaves, but the recent snow and rain appear to have taken their toll: the area now has a mix of colorful leaves and bare trees stripped of their foliage. Because of bad weather this week I did not get much higher than 9,000 feet in elevation, but I expect that many of the higher-elevation groves are undergoing similar changes as Hidden Valley. You will still see nice colors, though the aspen stands may lack the fullness they exhibited early in the month.

Luckily, as the leaves begin to fall at higher elevations, they are just changing color in the montane forests and valleys of the park. Shrill bugles and large-racked bull elk make these areas even more enticing right now. Horseshoe Park is really pretty as the aspen leaves transition, and many of the trees in the elk exclosures add gold highlights to the valley. Entering from Fall River Road, a trip to Endovalley and the Alluvial Fan offers both great vistas of colorful hillsides and close-up views of transitioning groves. There are some gorgeous colors near the West Horseshoe Park pullout, and a picnic table near the Lower Lawn Trailhead overlooks a trail bordered by autumnal aspen trees. In addition to the aspens, many other species are also changing color right now. Rocky Mountain maple, chokecherry, and willows all contribute different hues to landscape and make the east-side parks particularly appealing.

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The Fern Lake trail in Rocky Mountain National Park has a great variety of color this fall.
The stretch of road between the Fern Lake bus stop and the Fern Lake trailhead is lined with glowing aspen trees. The colors follow the trail itself as it winds up to The Pool.

The aspens are changing over in Moraine Park as well. There are a number of large groves as you approach the Moraine Park campground. Keep an eye out for elk in that area as well, as it is a popular place for the large mammals right now as they rut. The leaves only get better as you arrive in the Fern Lake area. The walk from the Fern Lake bus stop to the trailhead is lined with color, from the reddish understory up to the golden canopy. The Fern Lake trail is one of the best places you can visit for leaf peeping this weekend, and there are a ton of elk in the area as well.

Trail recommendations

Most of the trails we’ve recommended in the past month are still great choices.

Bierstadt Lake Trail – The trail networks originating out of the Bierstadt Lake and Storm Pass trailheads are excellent starting points for a fall hike. The views from the steep and exposed hike are spectacular, and as you hike you can see all the groves in the valley. Because this trail is so exposed, I recommend doing it in the morning or late afternoon/evening on sunny days. It is not long, but steep and sunny.

The alluvial fan in Rocky Mountain National Park has a great variety of color this fall.
The alluvial fan's mix of shrubs and trees offers a nice variety of color.

Alluvial Fan Trail – The alluvial fan is a surprisingly beautiful place right now. This (very) short trail won’t get your heart rate up, but the denuded landscape offers great vistas of nearby hillsides draped in fall color. Tall aspens loom over the parking areas and the trail weaves through a dense understory of low deciduous shrubs changing color. So you not only get great aspen colors, but you’ll experience the redder shades of Rocky Mountain maple and the yellow of changing chokecherry and willow.

Fern Lake Trail to The Pool – The area around the Fern Lake and Cub Lake trailheads is gorgeous right now, and you will be hiking through all kinds of color on the Fern Lake Trail. Aspen leaves shimmer above you as the lush red and orange understory grace the trail with color. You can turn this hike into a large loop past Cub Lake or just do an out-and-back. Best of all, take the shuttle here from the visitor center and avoid dealing with parking.

Bonus scenic drive recommendation – The Peak to Peak Highway (CO 72) runs from Estes Park north past Nederland and offers a great Rocky Mountain Experience. You can access Rocky Mountain National Park from the Lily Lake and Twin Sisters trailheads, both of which currently host great autumn colors.

Lily Lake has great 2017 fall foliage.
The Lily Lake trailhead on the east side of the park is surrounded by golden aspen leaves.

September 23, 2017

The fall foliage along Bear Lake Road in Rocky Mountain National Park is beautiful right now.
The hillsides rising above Bear Lake Road are full of color right now, but have not yet hit their peak.

We highly recommend going to Rocky Mountain National Park this weekend–the color will be spectacular. And when you go, be aware of the Autumn Gold Festival in Estes Park, either to avoid crowds or join in! Described as a “Festival of Bands, Brats & Beer,” the Autumn Gold Festival will feature local musicians and a variety of food and drinks. The festival is on Saturday and Sunday, September 23 and 24, 2017.

Use the Fall River Road entrance station this weekend as an alternative to Beaver Meadows if you are looking for great fall colors. It may also be a better option to bypass crowds in Estes Park for the festival. You’ll drive past some large aspen groves on the side of Deer Mountain, which is crowned with bands of yellow. The Sheep Lakes provide a great vantage to observe the beautiful Hidden Valley hillside from afar and the changing aspens along Trail Ridge Road.

The area around Hidden Valley is pretty awesome right now. There is a large hillside covered in aspen that is in the process of changing. The Hidden Valley aspen trees bear a great variety of color as well: reds, oranges, and yellows all stand out on the hillside.

That said, Bear Lake Road is the best place to go to see the changing aspen leaves, in my opinion. The hillsides on either side of the road sport fully changed aspen groves alongside unchanged trees, which creates a lovely palette of color below towering peaks that surround the valley. The best is still yet to come on the road to Bear Lake, but as you can see in the image above it is pretty stunning already. The Glacier Gorge and Bierstadt Lakes trailheads are prime destinations if you want to see the autumn colors. The trees at each trailhead are bearing their full autumn colors, and trails originating from those points will take you through some beautiful scenery.

Hidden Valley was bursting with autumn color on September 20.
Hidden Valley is one of the best places to have a picnic and see fall foliage in Rocky Mountain National Park right now.

In the rest of the Park, most of the aspen trees above 9,000 feet (2,740 meters) have changed or are in transition. Many of the groves on the west side of the Continental Divide display their fall colors. The Colorado River and Timber Lake trailheads are great places to see some color.

Most of the large aspen groves in Horseshoe and Moraine Parks show some color, but the leaves are still probably one to two weeks away from fully donning their fall hues. The hillsides surrounding the valleys on the east side of the Park are blotted with colors and are beautiful places to visit. A golden grove near the West Horseshoe Park pullout offers a nice photo opportunity. The same is true for the aspens near Endovalley, the Alluvial Fan, and the Lumpy Ridge/Gem Lake trailheads. In all of these places, the aspens in the valleys and low elevations are just starting to lighten, but you’ll find a good amount of color as you climb in elevation.

I really enjoyed hiking to Gem Lake and around Lumpy Ridge. The forests in that part of the Park are classic montane forests filled with ponderosa pines, Douglas-fir, and juniper, but aspen are prevalent in the understory and create scenes of layered color, with dark greens in the upper canopy and yellows and golds lurking just below.

There are some golden aspen groves hanging out on the Gem Lake Trail.
Gold-topped aspens adorn the Gem Lake Trail.

Trail recommendations

Bierstadt Lake Trail – The trail networks originating out of the Bierstadt Lake and Storm Pass trailheads are excellent starting points for a fall hike. Not all of the trees along the trail have fully changed, but there is enough yellow and gold overhead to create some gorgeous lighting as you pass under the trees. Furthermore, the views from the steep and exposed hike are spectacular. As you hike you can see all the groves in the valley, with impressive views of Longs Peak, to boot. Because this trail is so exposed, I recommend doing it in the morning or late afternoon/evening. It is not long, but steep and sunny.

The aspen along the Gem Lake Trail are mostly found in the understory.
Aspen mostly grow in the understory and in ravines along the Gem Lake Trail and below Lumpy Ridge, but that doesn't make them any less breathtaking. You can find this grove just over a mile from the trailhead.

Gem Lake and Lumpy Ridge trails – Aspen groves spring up unexpectedly all along the Gem Lake Trail as you traverse through exemplary montane forests filled with ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, and juniper. The aspen near the trailhead are just starting to change color, but brilliant colors grace the forest as you move toward Gem Lake, punctuated by a glowing stand nestled below a large rock outcropping about 1.1 miles (1.7 km) from the trailhead. The hike to Gem Lake is quite satisfying, but if you want more distance–and more aspen!–continue on to Balanced Rock. For a different flavor on your return to the car, take the Twin Owls/West Gem Lake Access Trail to the Lumpy Ridge Trail to create a short loop back to the trailhead. You will pass yellow-soaked ravines and large, just-turning aspen groves mixed among the ponderosa pines.

Bonus scenic drive recommendation: If you are coming from the Front Range, consider accessing Rocky Mountain National Park from the Grand Lake entrance. The aspens along Highway 40 leading up to Berthoud Pass west of Empire are stunning, especially on the east-facing slope of Red Mountain. The Big Bend picnic area sits at the first curve of the pass, near the Henderson Mine, and offers stunning views of a mountainside splattered with color.

The aspen on Red Mountain, along Highway 40 west of Empire, are stunning with their fall foliage.
The aspen on Red Mountain, along Highway 40 west of Empire, are stunning. You can see this hillside on the approach to Berthoud Pass coming from I-70.

September 15, 2017

An aspen grove in Rocky Mountain National Park in full fall foliage splendor.
The aspen groves at the Grand Lake entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park display their full fall foliage splendor. The area between Granby and Grand Lake leading into the Park is filled with changing leaves.

If you have been waiting for the right time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park to check out the fall foliage, I have good news for you: the time has come. Many of the aspen groves on the west side of the Park are bursting with color, and those that have not fully transitioned are well on their way.

The Grand Lake entrance may currently be the most stunning place in the whole park. Large groves glow like golden sentinels along the road, welcoming visitors with impressive flair. A little farther into the Park (moving to the east), the Colorado River and Timber Lake trailheads boast jaw-dropping views of red and gold trees. In fact, any high point on the west side – the Farview Curve viewpoint, for instance – offers great vistas of hillsides spotted with color. Looking to the west, fall color seems to drip like wet paint from the stark line of the Grand Ditch.

On the east side of the Continental Divide, the aspen are not quite as far along, but enough trees have changed to make the visit worthwhile, but every day brings more color. Golden aspens embellish the roadside between Rainbow Curve and Hidden Valley, where the large aspen-covered hillside is beginning to transition in full.

The large expanse of aspen in Moraine Park is not quite turning yet, but keep the Cub Lake and Fern Lake trails in mind for the coming weeks. What you lack in color in Moraine Park, however, is more than made up for by the large elk herds and the sound of bugling echoing off the valley walls. I saw a six-point buck in my visit, busily defending his harem and fending off competitors.

Bear Lake Road remains a great destination for aspen viewing. Hillsides near the Storm Pass and Bierstadt Lake trailheads are quite colorful, and the trail to Alberta Falls is full of golden leaves.

Trail recommendations

The aspen on the West Glacier Creek Trail are beautiful among the dark conifers.
The canopy color along the West Glacier Creek trail, pictured here, typifies the conditions around the Glacier Gorge Trailhead.

Alberta Falls and West Glacier Creek trails – The area around the Glacier Gorge Trailhead is packed with quaking aspen, many of which are sporting fall colors already. In a few places, the trees create tunnels of color over the trail, and brilliant yellow and gold are visible through the pines and firs that also inhabit the area.

Bierstadt Lake Trail – The trail networks originating out of the Bierstadt Lake and Storm Pass trailheads are excellent starting points. Not because the aspen along the trail have changed (they need a few more days), but because the views of the aspen on hillsides south of Bear Lake Road are spectacular. Streaks of color stretch across the distant hillsides, and are made even more dramatic by the towering granite peaks above them.

Finch Lake-Confusion Junction Trail, Wild Basin – There is not a huge amount of aspen in Wild Basin, but the Finch Lake-Confusion Junction Trail provides access to the mixed palette grove atop the ridgeline. A 2-3 mile hike out should take you through some colorful scenery. You can start this trail from either the Wild Basin or Finch Lake trailheads.

Bonus scenic drive recommendation: If you are coming from the Front Range, consider accessing Rocky Mountain National Park from the Grand Lake entrance. The aspens along Highway 40 leading up to Berthoud Pass west of Empire are stunning, especially on the east-facing slope of Red Mountain. The Big Bend picnic area sits at the first curve of the pass, near the Henderson Mine, and offers stunning views of a mountainside splattered with color.

The aspen on Red Mountain, along Highway 40 west of Empire, are stunning with their fall foliage.
The aspen on Red Mountain, along Highway 40 west of Empire, are stunning. You can see this hillside on the approach to Berthoud Pass coming from I-70.

September 7, 2017

Although the color change is not yet widespread, we are beginning to see isolated groves transition to their fall foliage in Rocky Mountain National Park.
This aspen grove near Hidden Valley (9,160 feet) is one of the early adopters of fall colors.

It is still slightly early for the full splendor of fall foliage, but don’t let that deter you from visiting Rocky Mountain National Park this weekend–this is the perfect time of year for hiking and the smoky haze of western wildfires adds a touch of drama to the landscape. Isolated aspen groves are beginning to change color throughout the Park, though most of the trees retain their green summer leaves. Random splashes of color adorn hillsides on both sides of the Continental Divide: golden splotches tease the coming colors near Hidden Valley and the fiery red color of an aspen grove high above the Colorado River Trailhead will catch your eye. In any given location, you may come across a brilliantly golden tree surrounded by unchanged neighbors. Still, many of the expansive aspen groves of the east side parks (e.g., Upper Beaver Meadows and Moraine Park) remain green, as do higher elevation habitats like those found along Bear Lake Road and on Trail Ridge Road between Many Parks Curve and Rainbow Curve.

Trail recommendations

Timber Lake Trail – The Timber Lake Trail across the road from the Colorado River Trailhead in the Kawuneeche Valley on the west side of the Park. A mature aspen grove adjacent to the parking lot currently offers the most color; it is an enticing location for a picnic or bathroom break. The trail itself winds through a mixed aspen-lodgepole pine forest where the aspens are just starting to display their fall colors. The many standing dead lodgepole pines offer a sobering reminder of the recent mountain pine beetle devastation, but the reduction of the forest canopy offers hikers improved views of the lovely foliage just off the trail. The aspen trees are particularly prevalent in the opening stretch of the trail, and the three-planked bridge crossing Beaver Creek 0.7 miles from the trailhead serves as a logical turnaround for a short aspen viewing hike.

The aspen leaves are beginning to change at the Timber Lake Trailhead along Trail Ridge Road.
The aspen at the Timber Lake Trailhead are just starting to shift.

Alberta Falls and Glacier Gorge – The trail to Alberta Falls meanders through a forest that shape-shifts between aspen, lodgepole pine, and mixed conifer. The aspen leaves are still mostly green, but renegade leaves and branches already display shades of yellow and gold, hinting at the transition to come. The dusk lighting accentuates the color as the low sunlight illuminates the translucent yellow leaves. Alberta Falls is less than a mile from both the Bear Lake and Glacier Gorge trailheads, and the easy hike is definitely worth the trip. In a few short weeks, the trail network linking the Glacier Gorge Trailhead, Alberta Falls, and Bear Lake will burst with color and accent an already stunning landscape.

Some aspen trees are changing color, but the fall colors are not widespread yet in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Aspen leaves along Trail Ridge Road.

Other locations to keep an eye on: Trail Ridge Road between the Abandoned Beaver Ponds and Hidden Valley, Bear Lake Road, the Bierstadt Lake Trail, the pulloutbetween the Bierstadt Lake parking area and Glacier Gorge Trailhead that overlooks Glacier Creek.

August 31, 2017

It’s the last day of August and only a few scattered aspen trees display any color change. There are no changes in montane zones in the lower elevations of the Park, and minimal lightening of some groves in the subalpine life zone near Bear Lake (9,475ft / 2,888m). We noticed some riparian vegetation beginning to change, but no notable aspen groves yet. Based on this recent outing, it appears that a Labor Day trip to Rocky Mountain National Park will not yield any brilliant colors.

aspen near Bear Lake showing some yellow, but mostly green
Some trees around 9,500 feet (2,895 meters) display the first signs of color change. This grove above Bear Lake was one of the few beginning to change.
mostly green aspen trees
For the most part, the aspen around Bear Lake retain their summer colors, though some are beginning to hint at the changes to come.

Trail recommendations

The leaves aren’t really changing yet, so we don’t have any recommended trails at this time. What color there is can be found in the higher elevations of the Park, for instance around Bear Lake area where these pictures were taken. To enjoy the aspen before they change color, try hiking from the Fern Lake Trailhead or the Gem Lake Trailhead.