Autumn in Durango: 5 Great Hikes for Fall Foliage

View from the San Juan Skyway
View from the San Juan Skyway Susan Renee
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At last, it’s autumn in Durango: The temps are (slowly) starting to taper off and there’s a brisk note in the evening breeze. For just a few, fleeting fall days, the mountainsides will be aglow in golden, rust, and amber hues. Don’t let this spectacular time of year slip by: Get outside, get hiking, and enjoy Mother Nature's spectacular show. Here, five great hikes to enjoy fall foliage around Durango.

1. Engineer Mountain

Engineer Mountain comes to life in the fall.
Engineer Mountain comes to life in the fall. Filar Williams

Any day now, the iconic peak of Engineer will receive its first dusting of snow, and while you might not be able to make it to the summit this time of year, you can certainly enjoy the brilliant aspens on your hike up to the base. A round-trip hike is just less than five miles and offers some of the best views in the area. The trail is mostly uphill and climbs to 11,600 feet, where you eventually breach the tree line. If you decide to keep going to the summit, the trail becomes distinctly more challenging as you climb the exposed tallus ridgeline to the 12,968ft. peak. Don’t worry if you’re feeling a bit breathless; the surrounding panoramic of the San Juan Mountains will be worth your while!

2. Falls Creek

Also known as Hidden Valley, the Falls Creek area is one of Durango’s true hidden gems. If you’re short on time and need a quick out-and-back after a long day at work, head out to the easy and accessible Falls Creek trail system. Hike through this long, open valley and enjoy the changing scrub oak and aspens on the mountainsides to your right and left. Stay in the valley or climb one of the many singletracks to the gain the eastern ridge. From here, you’ll find views of both the Animas Valley and Falls Creek.

3. Junction Creek to Gudy’s Rest on the Colorado Trail

Gudy's Rest is one of many options to soak up fall foliage in Durango.
Gudy's Rest is one of many options to soak up fall foliage in Durango. Maggie Casey

This classic Durango run, hike, and bike ride is a must for anyone looking to enjoy the spectacular fall colors. Start at the lower (main) trailhead and follow Junction Creek through thick aspen stands. After a mile, the trail begins to climb steadily above the narrow valley, offering some stupendous photo ops of Gudy’s Rest in the distance. But if you want the best views, you've got to work for them. Cross Junction Creek at the bridge and climb the final mile and a half to Gudy's Rest. On top of this sandstone band of cliffs, the Animas Valley stretches away into the distance, offering an unforgettable view of the region.

4. Elbert Creek Trail (Castle Rock)

A brilliant view from Castle Rock on the Elbert Creek Trail.
A brilliant view from Castle Rock on the Elbert Creek Trail. Maggie Casey

Just south of Purgatory Resort, this unmistakable sandstone promontory rises above US 550. If you’re up for a solid day hike, park behind the Needles Convenience store and locate the Elbert Creek trailhead by the corrals. The trail switchbacks in and out of lush aspen stands and picturesque meadows. Eventually, you’ll reach the top of Purgatory Cliffs, also known as Castle Rock, where you’ll discover unparalleled views of the San Juan Mountains. This can be a strenuous hike, so be sure to pack plenty of water, food, and layers.

5. The San Juan Skyway

View from the San Juan Skyway
View from the San Juan Skyway Susan Renee

Okay, this isn’t actually a hike, but a drive along the San Juan Skyway during autumn is an absolute must-do. This 236-mile scenic byway connects Durango, Silverton, Ouray, and Telluride in a spectacular six-hour drive.

Start out early from Durango and head north toward Silverton. The highway climbs over two stunning mountain passes before dropping into the historic mining town of Silverton. From here, things get interesting. Once you climb Red Mountain Pass, the highway descends into the Uncompahgre Gorge, where you may want to put any fear of heights on hold, as the views over the sharp cliff to your left are so incredible they might make you dizzy. Eventually, the byway leads into Telluride where the jagged mountainsides are bejeweled in golden swathes of aspens. Finish the loop in Durango, where a pint of craft beer at any of six local breweries will be a worthy reward.

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