Park offers colorful leaf peeping in fall

ESTES PARK, Colo. – Picture this: Driving up through Rocky Mountain National Park as September creeps into its last remaining calendar days. The temperature on the car thermometer slowly drops one digit at a time – 40, 39, 38, as we increase altitude. Road-trip jams softly play on the radio, setting the adventure mood. “No service” is shown on the top left corner of iPhones.

Cameras are at the ready.

Scenery along 2.8-mile Glacier Gorge Trail, a popular leaf peeping site in Estes Park (Photos by Jenni York).

The aspen leaves of Colorado flutter in the light, cool breeze, giving a little wave hello. Light sprinkles of amber, marigold, crimson and auburn fuse into a gradient along the mountainside, illuminating the sides of the long road ahead. It is, indeed, a fall wonderland.

Timing the peak of aspen colors each fall is a tricky science; however, planning a trip in late September to early October is a leaf peeper’s best bet.

Leaf peeping? This is an informal term in which thousands of locals and visitors head into national parks and other areas to experience and photograph the newly developed fall scenery in the western mountains, the upper Midwest and in northern New England.

Trail Ridge Road, a highway that stretches throughout Rocky Mountain National Park for 48 miles, is a home for vibrant life and vivid colors. Running parallel to Glacier Creek, Colorado’s aspen treasures sparkle with gold from Estes Park in the east to Grand Lake in the west.

Sunrise at Many Parks Curve Overlook, a popular outlook spot on Trail Ridge Road.

“It’s like clockwork. Every year at just about the same time is the color peak,” said Charles Jones, a Bear Lake park volunteer. “Now this is when we get the rush of people!”

Scientifically speaking, as the summer season concludes and trees begin to “shut down,” the production of chlorophyll – a pigment in plants that is responsible for absorbing light and providing energy for photosynthesis – begins to breakdown. The way in which light filters through chlorophyll creates its green appearance; hence, no chlorophyll, no green hues.

“The timing of fall colors is actually based on the elevation, latitude, light, air moisture and temperature,” said Melinda Merrill, a director of the Estes Park Environmental Center.

Throughout 2018, unusual weather conditions – such as low snowpack and a dry spring – have pushed Colorado into a record-breaking drought, causing trees to respond to stress differently than its normal cycle.

“It’s been a dry year, which has caused leaves to change earlier than normally predicted,” said Lindsey Easter, a guide at the national park’s Fall River Visitor Center.

In addition to a road trip into the Rockies, visitors plan action-packed trips revolved around hiking the beautiful park trails. Trekking along Glacier Creek Trail to the fresh, glistening waterfalls of Alberta Falls, hikers’ heads are on a swivel, admiring the golden hue flickering through the leaves as the sun sits overhead.

The aspen trees stand tall, plotted in a linear formation. The trees’ white scarred bark classifies the aspen. Initials of couples and friends are carved into the wood, leaving a mark of passing fellow travelers.

“It’s prime time to capture scenic photos of Colorado,” expressed Sandy Luther, an annual Estes Park visitor. “It is really, truly beautiful up here in the fall.”

Aspen tree leaves burst with yellow hues along the trail to Alberta Falls.

Cruising up the mountain to above 12,000 feet towards Alpine, cars are pulled over along the side of the road while passengers photograph the landscape of colors flowing across the horizon. The alpine treeline becomes bare as the elevation rises: Shades of green fade to brown and the chilling wind speed intensifies.

“I always have my camera on me – there are some secret spots I’ve found on my way up the mountain that are postcard worthy,” said Adam Miller, an Estes Park tourist from Chicago. “But sometimes it isn’t even about the photos. It’s about stopping and appreciating nature and its untouched beauty.”

So, if you’re not a hiker or if you get car sick, how else could you leaf peep? Across the grounds of Estes Park, the list of exploration methods is extensive.

Hop on a bike and ride through the national park’s back roads, saddle up the horses and hit the trails with a four-legged friend, buckle up for a guided off-road tour or get hooked on the scenic views while fishing in the rivers and lakes.

“But what if we miss the peak?!” some might ask. Fear not, there are still billions of leaves to be seen – just not as many.

Whether walking an uphill, three-mile trail surrounding Bear Lake, stopping at a viewpoint along the side of Trail Ridge Road, or simply sitting beside a delicate, flowing river viewing the elevated trees from a mile away, there is no wrong place to appreciate Colorado’s autumn treasure.


If You Go

Estes Park, Colo. –


Directions from Denver International Airport:  Quickest Route: Exit the airport on Pena Blvd to toll road E-470 northwest to I-25. Travel north until exiting on State Route 66 west towards Estes Park. E-470 toll charges apply for a two-axle vehicle. Possible increased tolls for rental vehicles, please contact your car rental company for additional details. Bypasses most of Denver in-city traffic. From Lyons, Colo., take Hwy. 36 to Estes Park. Estimated 1 hour, 26 minutes, 76 miles.

Scenic Route: Follow above directions to Lyons. From downtown Lyons, CO take Hwy 7 south to Estes Park. Estimated 1 hr. & 49 min., 89 miles.

Dates: Popular visiting dates: June through September. Best leaf peeping dates: Late September through early October.

Best Leaf Peeping Attractions/Trails:

  • Gem Lake – Lumpy Ridge Trailhead – 3.5 mile round trip
  • Glacier Creek – Bear Lake Trailhead
  • Mills Lake – Glacier Gorge Trailhead – 5.3 mile round trip

Rocky Mountain National Park Fees: One-day pass: $20/automobile; seven-day pass: $30/automobile; annual park pass, $50.

Travel Tips:

  • Bring plenty of water and snacks
  • Ensure all photographing devices are fully charged
  • Dress accordingly for changing weather conditions and enduring physical activity

Comments are Closed