Posted by: Sandy Steinman | September 22, 2017

Rocky Mt. National Park Fall Color 9/23/17

Afield Trails has a fall color report for Rocky Mt. National Park with predictions for the week of September 23

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.

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, see the previous reports for details.

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.

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.

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.

Nature isn’t static. Your guidebook doesn’t have to be either.
Install our Afield Rocky Mountain National Park Android app today and experience the Park like never before.
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See photos and learn about Afield Trails app for Rocky Mt. National Park at Current Aspen Conditions, 2017 – Afield Trails

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