Amazing autumn colors, phenomenal weather, active wildlife, unique fall festivals, and smaller crowds make fall one of the best times explore Colorado. Read on to learn about the amazing adventures you can have on a fall vacation.
Most people thinking of exploring Colorado on summer trips to mountain lakes and winter trips to the ski slopes. They’re not wrong, but there’s another great season in Colorado too. Imagine the sun shining from bright blue skies, shimmering mountain lakes, waterfalls pouring over cliffs surrounded by the golden flutter of aspens, moose munching grass in the meadow, birds soaring high above, and the sounds of elk bugling in the distance. This is a fall vacation in Colorado!
The Fall Colors
Colorado has amazing scenery, there is no doubt about that. When you add the shimmering gold leaves of the changing aspens to the backdrop of Colorado’s blue sky and majestic mountains, it gets even better! The aspen leaves are usually at the top of people’s list for visiting Colorado on a fall vacation. The stunning change of aspen color starts in the north and moves south through Colorado for about a month, starting in mid September and ending in mid-October. The intensity of the aspens’ color change is dependent on warm sunny days and cool nights. The weather that makes their dramatic shift in color, is also perfect weather for adventuring.
Amazing fall foliage can be seen driving on popular roads like Trail Ridge in Rocky Mountain National Park and the Peak To Peak Scenic Byway along the front range, or over mountain passes like Kebler Pass near Crested Butte, and Slumgullion Pass in the San Juan Mountains. These highways and byways provide accessible and quick access to the beautiful autumn show that Colorado offers free of charge to visitors.
However, there are more adventurous, and memorable ways to seek out these views. These experiences offer unique views that are often crowd free. Hot air balloon over the tops of the aspens to get a birds eye view. Hike through the trees and look up through the leaves to the amazing sky above before getting to magnificent vistas of aspens and mountains, and none of the cars and people. Float down a river and watch the aspens slip quietly by as you enjoy the smells of fall. One adventurer said “it smells like magic and promises!”
If you can manage to carve out a few days for a fall vacation there’s no better way to experience fall than a camping or backpacking trip! Campgrounds and backcountry sites see few visitors this time of year. Along with the beautiful fall colors during the day, you can experience steaming coffee or hot chocolate in the crisp morning air, and the crackle of the fire and the twinkling stars at night!
Colorado’s weather is hard to beat any time of the year! September and October, however, offer a unique combination of warm days and cool nights that is perfect for adventuring. Average high temperatures in September are in the mid-seventies which is great for hiking, mountain biking, and other active adventures. The mid-sixties of October are a bit cooler, but the sun still shines intensely. Don’t forget your sunscreen.
The Maroon Bells, and the trek to Crater Lake is an amazing hike. Done in the fall it’s even better because of the cooler weather, changing colors, and not needing to deal with the shuttle that is required in the summer time. Another great option is Great Sand Dunes National Park. The cooler temps make it easier to explore the dunes. The changing aspens in the nearby Sangre de Cristo range are amazing!
If your fall vacation includes heading out for hiking, biking, or other fall adventure remember that Colorado weather can change quickly. Even on a warm sunny day in the fall, it’s important to take a warm sweatshirt and rain jacket with you. When your done adventuring, the cool evenings are perfect for sitting around campfires and roasting marshmallows, or searching out fireside spots at the local brewery or distillery.
Fall Adventures In Colorado
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If you’re hoping to see wildlife during your Colorado vacation, fall is the perfect time to visit. The long hot days of summer typically push animals into quiet dark places during the day and limit their activity to cool night times. As the days get shorter and temperatures drop, many animals including elk, moose, deer, mountain goats, and big horn sheep start to become more active. Dawn and dusk are the times it’s most easy to view these magnificent creatures. With a later sunrise and earlier sunset it’s also for easier us to be awake and out viewing these animals.
Moose can be found throughout Colorado, but the best opportunity for seeing them is in the northern part of the state. State Forest State Park, near Walden, is a great off the beaten path place to find them. Look for interpretive displays there and talk with park staff to get recommendations on good viewing spots. Moose are huge creatures, and also a little goofy looking. They seem fairly docile, but can be very aggressive if they feel threatened. If you’re traveling with a dog, be sure to keep it leashed to avoid any unfortunate encounters.
Elk are also magnificent and abundant creatures. Their bugling which typically begins in late September and peaks in October is part of the fall elk rut when males are trying to impress the females. They have become very adjusted to having people around, but they are still wild animals and close encounters should be avoided. Rocky Mountain National Park is a phenomenal place to view them, you may even find them wandering the streets of nearby Estes Park.
The bighorn sheep is Colorado’s official state animal and there are more in this state than any other one. The large curly horns of the male sheep can weigh up to fifteen percent of an animals weight. The female sheep also have horns, but they are smaller and typically more spike like. Canyons like the Big Thompson Canyon along US Highway 34, and Big Horn Sheep Canyon along US Highway 50 are great places to find them. Bring along your binoculars though, as they are often seen high on the canyon walls.
Mountain goats are a favorite animal of many Coloradans. The billy and nanny (male and female) mountain goats both have beards and long black horns. Their cloven hooves and the inner traction pad on their feet make them amazing rock climbers and they are often found on slopes in excess of sixty degrees. Many of the mountain goats in Colorado are very accustomed to people and very curious. They may walk right up to you which can be scary and dangerous. Mount Evans and Quandary Peak are two of Colorado’s Fourteeners that offer great places to find mountain goats. On the Mount Evans road, you can often view them from your car. Quandary Peak requires a hike, but is easily accessible from Breckenridge and Summit County. For the more adventurous wildlife viewer, consider a backpacking trip into Chicago Basin. The train ride, fall colors, and abundant wildlife will make it an adventure that you won’t soon forget.
When you’re out viewing the amazing animals in Colorado it’s important to remember that they are wild and care needs to be taken. Here are some general wildlife viewing tips from Colorado Parks and Wildlife Department.
- Time your outing for morning or evening, when wildlife are most active.
- Wear earth-tone clothes such as gray, khaki and olive green. Animals will tolerate you better if you blend into the surroundings.
- Keep your distance, for the safety and comfort of both animals and people. If an animal changes its behavior, stops eating or seems nervous at your presence, it’s time to back away.
- Stay quiet and still. Noise and quick movements mean “danger” to wildlife. They might run or fly off, sometimes leaving their nests or young unprotected. Never chase or harass wildlife.
- Look to the edges of the landscape (where the forest meets the meadow for example) because many wildlife species spend time along habitat edges.
- Look for movement, shapes and color contrasts. Motion is the best giveaway. Also, look for parts of an animal such as its head, tail, ear, wing or antler.
- Use binoculars, a spotting scope or a telephoto lens for a close-up view.
- Use your car as a viewing blind. Pull safely off the road. Respect others who are viewing the same animals.
- Avoid animals that behave unexpectedly or aggressively. They might be ill, injured or have young nearby.
- Leave your pets at home. Pets hinder wildlife watching. They can chase, injure or kill wildlife, or be injured or killed.
- Do not feed wild animals. It can change their behavior in ways that can be harmful — both to them and to people.
Fun Fall Festivals
Fall is also a great time to explore the small communities of Colorado. Many of these towns have fall festivals celebrating their unique identity. Whether you are looking for harvest festivals showcasing the local produce and crops, craft festivals that celebrate the skills of local artisans, or wine and beer festivals that offer tastes of Colorado’s abundant breweries and wineries, there is a festival nearly anytime that you are visiting. The list is too long to include, but Click Here for a regularly updated list of Colorado’s Fall Festivals. A couple great ones to consider for your fall vacation are the Vinotok Fall Harvest Festival in Crested Butte and the Elk Fest in Estes Park.
The Vinitook Fall festival is a weekend long celebration of storytelling and the changing of the seasons. It has ancient roots in the rites of Thanksgiving. It takes places near the autumnal equinox and Harvest Moon. The culmination of the weekend is the Trial of the Grump that includes mini-theatre, parade, bonfire, and dance.
Elk Fest in Estes Park may be a little less theatrical, but it is no less interesting. To celebrate the annual elk rut the community hosts elk bugling contests, elk exhibits and seminars, and has an arts and crafts fair with a lot of elk inspired art, jewelry, and cuisine. Live country, rock, and bluegrass music, dancing, and a craft beer garden are ready for the adults. A children’s area with elk themed activities is ready for the kids, making this a festival with fun for everyone.
During July and August, it’s often hard to find a parking spot in many of the Colorado’s State and National Parks! In the fall, the size of the crowds change as dramatically as the aspen leaves. Rocky Mountain National Park sees 22% fewer visitors in September than its peak season of July. It gets even better in October with a 56% reduction. Other popular places in Colorado like Hanging Lake and Pikes Peak also see similar declines. This means fewer people between you and the adventures that you are looking for.
The lull in visitors at the end of the summer travel season can also mean money saving deals for your season vacation. From airline flights and rental cars to hotels and attractions, there are often good discounts to be found, although you’ll still have to avoid the peak weekends during leaf season. Take advantage of some of the lower rates to stay longer and enjoy all the amazing fall opportunities that are out there.
Fewer crowds is great for lots of reasons other than finding a parking spot too. If you enjoy photography, it’s much easier to get shots of the lake or mountains without people in them. For wildlife viewers, animals tend to start moving back into areas that the summer crowds have pushed them out of. If you’re a hiker you’ll enjoy the forests, lakes, and peaks with fewer interruptions from others. For campers it’s much easier to grab a campground spot or dispersed campsite with amazing views, and you’re less likely to have neighbors.
Pick your reason for a fall vacation to Colorado and start your adventure today!
Fall Vacation In Colorado
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