Video by Colette Bordelon
Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park during the fall is a must do. Starting in late August, aspens in the highest reaches of the park begin their annual quaking, a term to describe the aspens unique leaves changing a golden-yellow hue and how they react in wind.
As the quaking progresses the park’s high country becomes striped with color, appearing on fire from a distance.
In September, the aspens continue to change moving gradually down in elevation, until mid-September when typically the whole park is bathed in color. Adding to the impressive natural display, hundreds of elk migrate down from the high country to find a mate for the winter.
Photographers, wildlife enthusiasts and just about everyone else consider this time of year to be “prime time.” Even though just about every spot in the park is bursting with color, there are a few select spots we recommend, which should make your trip to the park all the more special.
Where to See Fall Colors on the East Side of the Park and in Estes Park
Don’t be fooled by the name. This valley isn’t really hidden. Known as an optimal spot to catch elk and aspen together, head to viewing areas along US-34 and look for aspens on the southeast-facing hillside. Photographers make sure to bring your telephoto lens since elk can appear just about anywhere.
One of the most spectacular fall-time hikes, leave from the Twin Sisters Trailhead on CO-7 just outside the park’s boundary and roughly 6 miles from Estes Park. The first few miles of trail pass under a thick aspen forest blazing with color. Crowds here tend to also be thinner since the trailhead is located outside of Park bounds. Start early for the best light if looking to catch a few photographs.
Bear Lake Road
Worth every minute, even if you get stuck behind someone driving 5 mph, start your journey from Moraine Park and head up Bear Lake Road. The road runs parallel to Glacier Creek under a thick canopy of golden quaking aspens. Turnouts are limited so if you want to grab a photo make sure to pull all the way off the road or stop at one of the many parking lots leading to lakes, trailheads, and overlooks.
Glacier Gorge Trail
It is nearly impossible to describe the beauty you will encounter while hiking along the Glacier Creek Trail to Alberta Falls. Thick aspen stands line the trail, their white scarred bark clashing against the yellow-golden hue emitting from their leaves. It can be easy to miss, but make sure to check out the creek as carpets of floating leaves make their way downstream.
Estes Park Autumn Gold Festival
The third weekend in September, the town of Estes Park celebrates autumn with a festival of bands, brats, and beer. In 2021, cold beer, soft drinks, hot cider, bratwursts and hot dogs and all the accompaniments are served throughout both days beginning at 10 am. The bands rev up at 11 am Saturday, noon Sunday, and the bluegrass, folk, rock and jazz sounds continue until 6 p.m. Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday. (www.visitestespark.com/events-calendar/fall-events/autumn-gold-festival/)
Where to See Fall Colors on the West Side of the Park and Grand Lake
2021 NOTE: East Troublesome Fire ripped through this area of the park in October 2020, leaving behind very visible evidence of fire, including burned trees and ground cover. It hit the Kawuneeche Valley particularly hard. While this area is gorgeous, damage from the fire has impacted it. For a park map of what’s open or closed because of the fire, check out this interactive map.
In the past, it’s been considered possibly the most beautiful place in the park to photograph and view aspens. You can drive 10 miles through this rich valley along Trail Ridge Road. The stretch starts at Grand Lake and finishes just after Timber Lake Trailhead. Plan on spending more time than you think along this stretch, since there is so much beauty along the way.
Located on Trail Ridge Road, Fairview Curve sits at 10,000-feet and serves up stunning views of the Mummy Range to the north. Aspens dot the mountain range and you can drink in views of the Kawuneeche Valley, which you just drove through, deep down below.
Download an official Rocky Mountain National Park map for basic road and attraction locations. Want a detailed topographical map of trails in the park? Buy the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map for Rocky Mountain National Park at REI.com. The map includes trails, trailheads, points of interest, campgrounds, lakes and much more printed on waterproof, tear-resistant material.