Fall is a beautiful time of year to visit Rocky Mountain National Park. The weather cools down and the park explodes with golden splendor as the aspen trees change color. It is the perfect opportunity to explore this wonderful park. Although fall color will be all around you, here are tips for where to see the best Rocky Mountain National Park fall colors in September and October.
The Best Time to See Fall Color in Rocky Mountain National Park
The second half of September and into early October usually brings the most vibrant colors to the Rockies. The elk mating season also begins in early September, so a fall visit will include a great chance for wildlife viewing in addition to enjoying the fall colors. The peak color usually occurs in mid-September and lasts into mid-October.
The color change varies by elevation at Rocky Mountain National Park; therefore, you can expect higher elevations to reach their peak first as early as late August. The color change then slowly progresses down the mountain to lower elevations. You’ll find more than fall colors in September and October, check out our article on 7 Reasons to Visit Rocky Mountain National Park in the Fall.
Aspen Trees Provide Most of the Fall Color
Aspens are the trees that make up most of the fall color in Rocky Mountain National Park. Although they display primarily golden colors in the fall, you will also see shades of oranges and reds. The thing I love most about this tree is the way the leaves move in the breeze, creating a shimmering effect. That’s probably why they are often known as Quaking Aspen.
Aspen is a deciduous tree, meaning they lose their leaves each year and grow back in the spring. According to the US Forest Service, aspen tend to grow in the 20-80 foot high range. They are one of the first trees to repopulate a burnt area providing habitat for a wide variety of wildlife.
Most of the aspen forests are found in Colorado and Utah. This makes the fall color experience in Rocky Mountain National Park unique compared to other parts of of the country.
Where to See the Best Fall Color in Rocky Mountain National Park
You can see fall color almost everywhere you drive in Rocky Mountain National Park. I suggest taking advantage of the scenic drives and hiking opportunities to get up close and personal with the changing leaves.
Start with Reflecting Lakes for Beautiful Fall Scenes
You won’t find any scene in Rocky Mountain National Park more perfect than golden aspens with a mountainous backdrop reflecting in one of the gorgeous lakes. For easy viewing, that won’t require much of a walk, take a picnic to Sprague Lake, Bear Lake or Lily Lake. All can be viewed with a short walk from the parking area or you can take the loop hike around to capture the best reflection based on the sun’s position.
Scenic Drives for Fall Color Viewing
Rocky Mountain National Park has some of the most scenic drives on earth. The most popular drive is Trail Ridge Road which travels 48 miles between Estes Park and Grand Lake crossing the mountains at over 12,000 feet. From Trail Ridge Road stop at the many pull-offs for views of the aspen filled valleys below. Farview Curve on the Westside is particularly famous for its stunning fall scenery. As you travel down the mountain towards Grand Lake you’ll pass through the Kawuneeche Valley which is loaded with golden aspen.
If you’d like a drive that brings you right through the aspen forest, wander up Old Fall River Road. This is a rustic road that takes you to the top of Rocky Mountain National Park. Golden aspen line much of the roadway making it feel like a fairyland in September.
Note: Trail Ridge Road and Old Fall River Road close temporarily when it snows, and don’t be surprised if it snows at high elevations during your fall visit. Both roads will close for the winter then around mid-October.
Best Hikes to Walk Among the Changing Trees
There are many amazing hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park that allow you to walk among the changing trees. A few of our favorites that would be perfect for fall color are:
- Alberta Falls (and beyond if you want a challenge) which takes you through aspen to a waterfall that drops 30 feet. You can continue from here on to Sky Pond for one of our favorite day hikes. You’ll enjoy the Rocky Mountain National Park fall colors as you traverse this trail.
- Any of the lake hikes around Bear Lake such as Nymph Lake and Dream Lake or even on to Bierstadt Lake will follow aspen lined trails.
- Ouzel Falls is a family friendly all day hike through the forest that passes not one, but 3 waterfalls.
- Twin Sisters, although a strenuous hike, it is referred to as one of the best hikes for golden aspen viewing. The trailhead is located near Lily Lake South of Estes Park.
Look at Plants Beyond Aspen Trees for Fall Color
Aspen trees are not alone in showing off their fall foliage. You’ll find a variety of plants sporting beautiful colors throughout September and October. Some wildflowers will continue to bloom into autumn. Keep an eye on South facing slopes for the white blooms of the artic gentian (Gentiana algida).
You’ll discover splashes of yellow, red and orange under the tree canopy from serviceberry and chokecherry bushes. I love the brilliant red of sumac and the interesting shape of red twig dogwood as the stems turn deep red for winter. The golden color of the drying grasses in meadows creates a beautiful backdrop for wildlife, especially elk and moose who are moving to lower elevations for winter.
How Weather Impacts Intensity of Fall Color
The weather going into autumn and throughout September and October will influence the vibrancy of the fall color. It is the change in temperatures combined with the change in day length that signals the plants to start preparing for winter. Plants stop producing chlorophyll, which is what makes leaves green. That means the green color disappears bringing out the other colors in the leaves like red and yellow.
If Rocky Mountain National Park has been in drought conditions then the colors start to change earlier and are less vivid. An early cold or hard frost can cause leaves to drop early. And storms coming through the mountains can result in winds or heavy rains causing leaves to drop.
The best fall color conditions are when rainfall has been normal and the fall is full of warm sunny days with cool nights. Although every year is a little different, I think you’ll find Rocky Mountain National Park’s fall color show amazing no matter what the weather.
Where to See Fall Color Near Rocky Mountain National Park
On the Eastside of the park, the community of Estes Park is a glow in fall colors. The mountains provide a gorgeous backdrop of golden fall color to the city. The tree lined streets and parks in town add more color to the show. Late September Estes Park annually celebrates fall color with the Autumn Gold Festival, a weekend of beer, brats and bands.
The Grand Lake community on the far Westside of Rocky Mountain National Park is much more laid back with abundant fall colors. If you have time, a meandering drive through Grand County is a perfect way to spend a day.
The colors this time of year are incredible and the air is crisp. Enjoying Rocky Mountain National Park fall colors is a lovely experience, with all the golden aspen trees that line every trail. If you’ve never been to RMNP in the fall then I highly recommend it! You won’t regret it!