Catching the peak fall colors in Colorado’s Vail Valley is an experience of a lifetime. As the breeze picks up, yellow aspen leaves are blown high through the valley and look like golden glitter in the wind. Trails are littered with colorful leaves and each step releases earthy, crisp aromas.
Fall in the mountains is utterly beautiful; a very unique experience compared to any skiing or summer hiking adventure. There’s something about the cooler air, the smells, and the stark contrast of yellow leaves, green grasses, gray stone, and blue sky that evokes a deep sense of happiness. While we at The Inn at Riverwalk recommend being out in the mountains during the fall catching the fall colors in full peak can be difficult to accomplish. This information can help guide you on how to time seeing the colors (also known as leaf peeping), as well as provide you with the tools to help you understand how to time your trip.
If you are planning this trip six months or more in advance, the last week of September is your statistical best bet. If you are driving in from a nearby area, or have a flexible schedule and can fly in with shorter notice, the information below can help with timing for the peak.
First and foremost, the fall colors can be around for as long as a month and as short as two weeks, depending on how dry the area is. In extremely dry summers, the leaves will last for about two weeks and timing can be very difficult, but wet summers with good rainfall after large snow years will have longer leaf viewing times and make it much easier to catch fall in full splendor.
Additionally, different areas of the valley have fall colors at different times. The science of leaf changes is described in more detail below, but, generally speaking, cooler, higher elevations will have fall colors before warmer areas in the valley.
So, if you arrive in the valley and it seems like you are early, head up to aspen groves at higher elevations on south facing aspects. Places like Piney Lake in Vail, Booth Falls, and June Creek Trail often deliver stunning aspen colors early in the season.
If you arrive and think you are late and all the leaves in the valley seem to have fallen, look for gorges and draws with ample moisture. Trees with more access to water will pop much later in the year and the colors will be much more dramatic when they do. East Lake Creek has some absolutely incredible aspen groves that are historically late to the party for coloring up.
Viewing Spots If You’ve Timed It TightRight?
Eagle Vail Trail
This is the number one trail to experience utter immersion intomajestic aspens. This area gets a lot of moisture and allows the trees to hold their leaves for longer, regardless of the water conditions of the year. One of the oldest growth aspen forests in the area, it offers a very flat and well groomed trail. The trail has a few options and hiking and parking instructions are here: Eagle Vail Trail.
East Lake Creek
This trail offers multiple old growth aspen forests, holds moisture very well, and offers a gorgeous variety of fall colors. The trail is undulating and has a great stopping point about 2.5 miles in at a roaring creek with a lovely wooden bridge. The first major aspen grove is only about ¼ of a mile in and certainly well worth the trip. Two more groves await if you go in a little further.
Drive Highway 24 in Minturn
Driving from Minturn towards Red Cliff offers a panoramic scene of colors and seasonal waterfalls. The road hugs a cliff and has ample pull off locations to stop and take in the breathtaking scenery. You largely won’t be in the aspens but you will see huge swaths of color. This drive is not to be missed.
Beaver Lake Hike in Beaver Creek
This hike has breathtaking fall color. A largely uphill hike from the base of Beaver Creek’s resort, this hike culminates at Beaver Lake. The hike follows a wide forest service road up to the lake and is well maintained with multiple good break/rest points. You quickly will be immersed in fall colors and, as you climb, you’ll find more and more open views of all of Beaver Creek’s aspen glades.
Background Tree/Leaf Science
To help understand how to catch these colors, it is good to dive into some very light science. The colors that develop on our high elevation trees and shrubs are related to weather conditions that occur before and during the time the nutrients are leaving the leaves and going into the trunk and roots for the dormant phase (winter). External temperatures and amounts of moisture leading up to the fall season are the two variables that matter most for when the trees will pop and how intensely the colors will be. If you follow the weather patterns for the area you’ll know if there will be early colors, late colors, or prolonged colors and can plan your trip accordingly.
Any period of warm, sun-filled days followed by cold but not quite freezing nights is the recipe for the most brilliant color displays. In the fall, the sugars in the leaves need to move to the trunk to prepare for a dormant phase. However, to protect itself from winter, a tree will shut off all nutrient flow to and from the leaf in preparation. A series of nice cold nights will cause the tree to shut off the sugar flow before it has all left, which causes a chemical reaction for an intense pop of color.
The amount of moisture in the soil is incredibly important for predicting what part of fall the colors will be brightest. Soil moisture is interesting in that certain areas of a valley region, like the Vail Valley, have more moisture than others. So, groves will change colors on a different time scale depending on the area. This is perfect as it allows for visitors that planned their trip far in advance to still find some magic in the right locations.
As with anything related to Mother Nature, regardless of how well you plan, nature is variable and unpredictable. This guide should help you plan a vacation full of colors and smells, but you could be early or late by the time the trip arrives. The good news is the Valley is full of super fun things to do and see regardless of the time of year.
Finally, if you missed the peak of the fall colors, the end of fall usually sees the most vibrant of oranges and yellows on the aspen trees. You likely will see less color overall, but what you see will be brighter and more beautiful.