The Best Places to See Spectacular Fall Foliage in Aspen

The Maroon Bells earn their title of "most photographed place in Colorado" when the fall colors dress up the view.
The Maroon Bells earn their title of "most photographed place in Colorado" when the fall colors dress up the view. Jordan Curet
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Named for its iconic trees, Aspen boasts one of the largest aspen groves in the world. And as the fall chill hits the high mountain air, it means the region's spectacularly changing landscapes are not far behind, with brilliant canvases of yellow, orange, and red that delight leaf-peepers and outdoor lovers.

A little science lesson on how that beautiful monochromatic color happens: Aspen trees are somewhat unique, as whole forests of them are interconnected by roots that grow near the surface and sprout new trees that are identical to the parent tree. In the fall, all the leaves of an interconnected grove tend to change their colors at about the same time, creating those large swaths of similar hues that make many a photograph pop and turn an ordinary hike into a breathtaking affair.

Of course, the best way to experience this breathtaking artwork of Mother Nature is by getting out into it. Here are the best places to see fall foliage in Aspen (and be sure to bring the camera).

Maroon Bells and Crater Lake

The reflection of brilliant aspen in an alpine lake makes for a jaw-dropping view.
The reflection of brilliant aspen in an alpine lake makes for a jaw-dropping view. John Fowler

The Maroon Bells , just 14 miles up Maroon Creek Road, are the most photographed spot in Colorado for good reason. At more than 14,000 feet, the tinged peaks loom high above Maroon Lake and Crater Lake. Between the two lakes is a band of aspens that change color in the fall, taking this one-of-a-kind view to the next level. The hike that connects the two lakes is just 1.5 miles, offering hikers an up-close-and-personal view of the colorful foliage.

For the best views, try to arrive before sunrise or sunset, as the setting sun seems to blaze on the trees. (But you aren't likely to have this spectacular show all to yourself, as other leaf peepers and photographers will have a similar idea.)

Ashcroft Ghost Town

The trees take on a golden color near the Ashcroft ghost town.
The trees take on a golden color near the Ashcroft ghost town. Jordan Curet

Eleven miles up Castle Creek Road, lined with glowing aspen trees, is the ghost town of Ashcroft , a boom-and-bust mining town built in the 1880s. Today nine buildings still stand, complete with clapboard fronts, making the landscape reminiscent of an old Western movie set. But beyond the old structures, the real draw in the fall is the sprawling groves of bright yellow aspen trees.

It's an easy walk from the road to wander among the dilapidated buildings standing against the brilliant autumn colors. This spot also offers great views of Malamute Peak and Star Peak above the tree tops, often frosted with snow in the late fall, making for a stunning contrast in photos.

American Lake Hike

From the trail to American Lake you can look back across the slopes at aspen trees groves stretching all the way across the valley.
From the trail to American Lake you can look back across the slopes at aspen trees groves stretching all the way across the valley. Jordan Curet

Less than a mile back down Castle Creek Road is a hearty hike that offers incomparable leaf-peeping views. American Lake Trail offers a 3.2-mile hike with 2,000 feet of vertical gain that winds through one of the largest aspen groves in the area. It makes for a stunning stroll among the aspen trunks, with their yellow leaves against the crisp fall sky. As the trail ascends above the valley floor, the view across the slopes offers more color than any other in Aspen. The trail eventually rises above the elevation that aspens grow at before ending at American Lake, a tranquil, high-alpine body of water. On the hike back down, prepare to have your breath taken away yet again as you make your way through the aspen groves.

Crystal Mill

A visit to the Crystall Mill in the fall is one of the best kept leaf peeping photos in the area.
A visit to the Crystall Mill in the fall is one of the best kept leaf peeping photos in the area. Jordan Curet

A day trip from Aspen takes you to the town of Marble, one of the area's hidden gems. The drive is about 56 miles, but the gorgeous scenery of Highway 133 makes the miles fly by, as the route follows the clear, swift Crystal River, dotted with hunks of marble that have sifted downriver from the quarry. At Marble, the highway twists away from town, surrounded by lofty, snow-covered mountain-tops.

Just east of town is the 4x4 road that leads to the mill, which is a 10-mile roundtrip hike to reach. Barely wide enough to be called a more than a path, the road follows the clear waters of the calmer portions of the Crystal River headwaters, with bright, lustrous aspen trees dotting the route. The prize at the end of the journey, an old mill on a waterfall, is also surrounded by aspens that change with the season. It is worth the drive and the walk, no matter the weather.

The National Forest Foundation promotes the enhancement and public enjoyment of the 193-million-acre National Forest System. By directly engaging Americans and leveraging private and public funding, the NFF improves forest health and Americans’ outdoor experiences. The NFF’s programs inform millions of Americans about the importance of these treasured landscapes. Each year, the NFF restores fish and wildlife habitat, plants trees in areas affected by fires, insects and disease, improves recreational opportunities, and enables communities to steward their National Forests and Grasslands. Learn more at www.nationalforests.org.

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