Is there anything more magical than bright yellow aspens shimmering in a crisp fall breeze? There’s no place better to see this fabulous fall display than Aspen, Colorado itself, the town named for the many stands of these dramatic trees. If you time your visit right to see Aspen fall color—see “The Best Time to See Fall Colors in Aspen” below—the mountains appear painted in brilliant gold as far as the eye can see.
It’s simply gobsmacking!
Aspen Fall Color: Where to Go
There are plenty of places to see bright yellow Aspens here!
Whether you’re looking for a scenic drive, hike, or bicycle ride, you’ll be awash in autumn color. Read on for my top recommendations…
1. Maroon Bells
The Maroon Bells are two bell-shaped peaks—Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak—in the Elk Mountains, just 10 miles outside of Aspen.
These peaks are known as “fourteeners”, as they say in Colorado, because they’re 14,000 feet high.
Insta-famous Maroon Bells are some of the most photographed peaks in the USA, and for good reason!
They’re beautiful any time of year but during a fall visit, they simply glow as the Aspens turn yellow and reflect that brilliant yellow in the clear water.
Photography tip: Arrive early in the day when there tends to be fewer crowds and less wind kicking up so that you capture reflections in the glassy lake.
You’ll find Maroon Bells off Highway 82 out of Aspen, in a glacial valley.
The thing to know about visiting in fall is that there is no access by private car after 8 am this time of year.Y our choices are to shuttle in or cycle.
If you’d like to take the 30 minute shuttle ride, be sure to book advance reservations or prepare to be disappointed.
Return shuttles are available from the trailhead every 15 to 20 minutes up until 4 pm.
We brought our e-bikes on our Colorado road trip and absolutely loved riding scenic Highway 82 to Maroon Bells.
We rode through countless stands of shimmering aspens and past gorgeous Pyramid Peak.
Just be aware that the road to Maroon Bells climbs 1,300 feet; it’s 16.2 miles round-trip.
We saw plenty of other cyclists on regular road bikes, but if you’re not as fit as those hardy souls, an e-bike is perfect. And wow, was the downhill back into Aspen a fun little ride!
Be sure to allow time for a hike once you arrive at the lake. (You can lock your bike in the parking lot.)
The fall colors only get more vivid as you head a bit into the back country.
If you’re looking for an easy, scenic hike, just follow the lake around to the far side along Maroon Bells Scenic Loop Trail over a few bridges past the creek (1.9 mile loop, 500 feet elevation change, approximately 42 minutes).
For a more challenging hike, consider the 3.5 mile out and back Crater Lake Trail which begins at Maroon Lake and climbs 688 feet out and back to Crater Lake. Plan on 1 hour 44 minutes.
How to Rent a Car for Aspen
My top two recs are:
1. Discover Cars has no hidden fees, 24/7 customer service, and free cancellation. They search all the major rental car companies so you don’t have to.
Check price and availability on rental cars here.
2. Turo is like Airbnb for cars. It saved us $$$ during the pandemic on our Hawaii and Banff rentals when rental car prices were sky high.
2. Castle Creek Road
Aspen’s Castle Creek Road—otherwise known as County Road 15— is phenomenally beautiful during peak fall colors in Colorado.
It’s relatively traffic free making it perfect for a scenic drive as well as another wonderful place for cycling!
You’ll pick it up right in Aspen and gain almost 1900 feet in elevation over the next 13.2 miles.
The paved portion of the road ends at a gravel road (Copper Creek) after that.
There are plenty of places to pull over for dramatic views of the valley here but I recommend two must-see stops in particular.
About 11 miles in, you’ll come across Ashcroft, a fascinating little silver mining ghost town that was built on the stage route from Aspen to Crested Butte.
It will cost you $5 per person to enter but it’s well worth the stop.
You’ll toddle down the trail and arrive at a series of historic ruins and homesteads from its silver mining heyday.
In fact, back in 1882, Ashcroft was home to 13 saloons and 2,00 residents…eventually peaking at 3,500 residents, six hotels, and 20 saloons!
If you’re up for a short hike, keep walking past the homesteads on the trail along the river. It opens onto a beautiful view of the valley here!
Or for a more serious hike, keep driving on Castle Creek Road until you come to Castle Creek Trailhead.
Your second must-not-miss stop here on Castle Creek Road is for lunch or dinner at the Pine Creek Cookery. Reservations recommended, especially if you’d prefer patio seating with epic valley and mountain views.
Be aware that Pine Creek Cookhouse is swank mountain food (trout, elk, boar) with prices to match.
To get a seat here, you’ll need to commit to the two course prix fixe menu for lunch or a la carte dinner.
The food is excellent, however—try the house made pickle jar—and you may never enjoy another meal with a view this stellar!
Where to Stay in Aspen
Aspen is where celebrities stay and play so budget accordingly. We stayed in Snowmass to save on lodging but found the 25 minute commute into Aspen (not including traffic) to be a huge pain. Try these instead:
1. The Gant. Just a 5 minute walk from the base of Aspen Mountain, these airy ski chalets come with a private kitchen and terrace as well as an onsite restaurant, hot tub, and fitness center.
Guest review: “What a gorgeous place, we are gutted we hadn’t booked to stay for longer!”
—Amy, Sept. 2022.
Check price and availability at The Gant here.
2. Aspen Alps condo. Also conveniently located at the base of Aspen Mountain, this two bed/two bath condo gets top reviews by guests for its spotlessly clean, modern aesthetic and 1200 feet of living space. Walk to all the best restaurants in Aspen.
Check price and availability at the Aspen Alps condo here.
3. Independence Pass
Independence Pass is one of Colorado’s most strikingly beautiful drives and it’s at its very best in fall!
You’ll head west on I-70 from Denver (or Estes Park, as we did) to Aspen with plenty of fun stops so make a day of it. The fall color here was brilliant!
In fact, we were so awash in colorful fall leaves that we were surprised Aspen was still fully green when we dropped down into the city.
It took almost another week for Aspen to turn golden.
By the time we stopped for lunch in Frisco, the color was really blazing! (If you like healthy, fresh organic food that’s big on flavor, stop into Pure Kitchen here.
(Lamb burgers, forbidden rice noodle bowls, gourmet tacos, and inventive salads…It was one of our favorite meals on our trip.)
After you pass Frisco, you’ll eventually come to Leadville, a historic mining town that is still full of charm.
Downtown Leadville looks a lot like it did way back when…with Victorian architecture and plenty of quaint shops.
This makes a great little place to stretch your legs, a bathroom back or to grab a coffee as we did at City on a Hill.
Then drive up the road a bit to the adorable little town of Twin Lakes.
You’ll spy the photogenic pair of alpine lakes right from the highway. And if you blink, you’ll miss the town right after the lake. Population 182!
However, if you’d like to break up your drive here with a scenic hike, take the Interlaken Trail, to a historic luxury resort, the Interlaken Resort where you can still explore some restored buildings. It’s 4.7 miles out and back and fairly flat.
After that, you’ll climb and climb and climb in your car around many, many switchbacks to photogenic Independence Pass.
The valley views here are unbelievable with lots of scenic overlooks.
The grand finale of the drive? Crossing the Continental Divide at 12,095 feet! It was crazy windy when we were there but absolutely beautiful.
Be sure to get out and walk to the viewpoint here. But you might need to bundle up in fall!
4. Rio Grande Trail
If you are cycling, as we were in Aspen, don’t miss the Rio Grande Trail. (You can rent bikes and e-bikes right in Aspen!)
This is 42 miles of paved multi-use trail between Aspen and Glenwood Springs with no cars. And it was gorgeous in fall.
We drove to the little town of Woody Creek and parked near the Woody Creek Tavern to pick up the trailhead.
(Drive past all the tavern’s “no parking” signs and you’ll see plenty of legal parking for cyclists.)
The trail is fairly flat and meanders past scenic meadows of grazing horses with a beautiful mountain backdrop as well as all along the Rio Grande River.
You’ll crisscross a few rivers and see plenty of blazing aspens here if you time it right.
We went as far as Basalt where we stopped for a lovely outdoor lunch riverside at The Tipsy Trout.
The Best Time to See Fall Colors in Aspen
The quaking aspens turn pale green and then gold in the month of September typically, starting at higher elevations and moving down mountains as the nights become colder.
Nature can be unpredictable, however, so it’s always a bit of guesswork to time a visit to Aspen for leaf peeping.
Generally, peak foliage season tends to be the third or fourth week of September in Aspen. Some years, it lasts into October.
We visited the third week of September and hit it just right for Maroon Bells and Independence Pass. I think one week later would’ve been ideal to enjoy Snowmass and Aspen itself at peak, however.
5. Aspen Mountain
One of the best ways to appreciate fall in Aspen is with a bird’s eye view from the top of Aspen Mountain.
You’ll take the Silver Queen Gondola up to the top after you purchase a ticket at the base of the mountain at Aspen Mountain Ski Resort.
Just be aware that in fall, the gondola only runs on weekends.
At the top, grab some snacks at the Sundeck. Play a round of golf at Kiss the Sky, an 18 hold golf course (and the highest disc golf course in the world) or go for a hike.
The Aspen Mountain Nature Trail at the summit is an easy, flat 1.1 miles as is the 4.4 miles (out and back) Richmond Ridge Trail. Try the Ajax Trail (3 miles round trip, 400 feet elevation) in early evening for shade.
If you’re a hardy hiker and would prefer to hike to the top, word is that you’ll earn a free gondola ride back down for free. (But double check as I haven’t done this myself.)
6. Smuggler Mountain Overlook
Smuggler Mountain Overlook is an easy spot right in town for colorful valley views if you’re in Aspen at the right time.
The leaves hadn’t quite turned yet when we were here in late September, but I wanted to include it as I suspect it will be stunning in another week. Runners love the trails here!
You’ll follow Highway 82 (Cooper Street) east out of town, turn left on Parker Avenue, and right on Park Circle. It’s a little confusing so keep an eye on Google Maps.
The pay-off is that it’s just 3 miles round-trip hike to the Smuggler Mountain overlook, with a gain of 800 feet.
Other Hikes to Check Out for Fall Foliage in Aspen:
1. Hunter Creek Trail. 8.9 miles on Smuggler Mountain Road into the valley of Hunter Creek.
2. East of Aspen Trail. 6.3 miles with views of Independence Pass. Close to town.
3. American Lake Trail. 6.8 miles up Castle Creek Valley with a 2,000 foot elevation change.
4. Government Trail—10.5 miles from Buttermilk to Snowmass Village on a dirt trail.
5. Capitol Lake Trail—6.5 miles with 2,200 feet of elevation gain. You’ll likely need a 4×4 vehicle to get here.
6. Crater Lake —3.5 miles round trip with just 500 feet of elevation gain. Easy!
7. John Denver Sanctuary
What would a trip to Aspen be without paying your respects to Rocky Mountain legend John Denver?
It’s easy to do with a visit to the beautiful John Denver Sanctuary right in town, nestled next to Rio Grand Park.
You’ll find lyrics from John Denver engraved on huge boulders along the walking path.
Plus, it’s free to the public from dawn to dusk; no ticket required. Easy access by bicycle or the walking path that skirts the outer edge of the sanctuary.
It’s an ideal spot for a fall picnic as there are picnic tables and restrooms here.
In fact, order some of the most outstanding sandwiches you’ll ever eat at Meat & Cheese Restaurant to enjoy at the sanctuary. You’ll be singing Rocky Mountain High in no time!