Enos Mills was a real mountain man — a naturalist and conservationist who spearheaded the move to create Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park in 1915. Mills was also the state’s official snow observer. He explored the Continental Divide in deep winter snows, often traveling without a tent and little equipment or food. He guided 257 ascents of 14,259-foot-tall Longs Peak, the tallest mountain in his backyard. In numerous essays, Mills laughed about encounters with mountain lions and fierce alpine winds that threatened to blow him off the mountain.
But this intrepid climber, guide, and mountain man turned into a giggly schoolboy when he talked about his favorite tree: the aspen.
“Gowned in autumn gold, the aspen is a magic tree, a part of fairyland,” Mills wrote. “No other trees known to me so completely express the elasticity; the bounding, boundless hopefulness of youth. Never are (aspens) serious. They are romping children.”
What is it about Colorado’s signature tree that makes it so special? Perhaps it is the impermanence that it exudes. In the high country, aspen trees are still budding in mid-May, and by mid-September, their glowing green leaves are turning to gold. Or perhaps it is the aspen's survival instincts; they are the first trees to appear in wildfire-ravaged terrain and they are often seen reaching up from unstable, eroded, seemingly lifeless parts of the landscape. Aspens are also incredibly interesting in terms of their interconnectedness; a grove of them is in fact one living organism, with an elaborate and intricate root system that forms a clonal colony.
Whatever the reason, the annual turning of the aspen from green to gold is a major event in Colorado. As temperatures start to drop in the Rocky Mountains, hikers head to the hills. Some take scenic drives through the high country. Others perch on overlooks. Still, others find their inner Enos Miller and hike their way into the golden forests.
RootsRated offers 5 suggestions for unforgettable aspen experiences along the Front Range.
1. Mountain View to Barr Camp
The Manitou & Pikes Peak Railway that leaves daily from its station in Manitou Springs is a great way to get to the gold-tinged forests of fall. It’s a popular attraction that often sells out, but hikers can purchase $12 tickets on the first and last trains of the day (check their schedule online), before being dropped off at Mountain View Station. From there, it’s a 1.5-mile hike through aspen forests to Barr Camp , and then 6.5 miles back downhill to the Barr Trail trailhead.
Can you say big? Brookside-McCurdy is the main north-south trail through the Lost Creek Wilderness . To reach it from the north, head to the Payne Creek/Brookside trailhead near Bailey. From the south, go to the Twin Eagles trailhead southeast of Tarryall Reservoir. The halfway mark on this 33-mile trail is the Lost Creek trailhead. Start from the south for a day hike, and you will soon find yourself dwarfed by some of the tallest stands of aspens in Colorado.
Just south of Mueller State Park, this small wildlife area holds a sparkling creek, fantastic rock formations, and aspens so girthy that you can't even get your arms around some of them. They decorate the hillsides here with glittering stands all along the hike, which takes you back and forth across the creek.
Just up the road from Dome Rock, Mueller comes alive in the fall. Herds of elk frequently travel through here. Listen for them bugling at dusk. There isn’t a single trail in this park that doesn’t have some breathtaking aspen view. Favorites? Elk Meadow, where we’ve seen badgers, elk, and mule deer; Rock Pond, a multi-use trail with a lovely mixture of aspen and fir; and Cheeseman Ranch, a longer multi-use trail that ends at the remains of an historic ranch.
Fall leaf lovers know the route to Cripple Creek holds the promise of gold. Colorado Highway 67 from Colorado Springs to Cripple Creek is a favorite car tour in the fall because of sweeping views of aspen forests. Along the way, the Horsethief Park trail is a great place to get out of the car and walk into the cover of trees. Park just past the closed tunnel and head uphill. When the trail levels out, watch for a place to cross the small creek and enter Horsethief Park. This broad mountain park was named for horse thieves who would hide out here in the late 18th century. Today, it is a serene place for fall and winter hikes, and of course, aspen foliage.