By Rod Martinez
How did Colorado acquire its nickname “Colorful Colorado”? There are many reasons why Colorado is colorful, starting with the golden plains, or the blue spruce or green conifers, to our never-ending blue skies, or our abundance of red rocks on the Western Slope.
When I think of Colorful Colorado I think of the aspen trees that fill the lower mountain slopes and turn golden in early fall. A fall hike in Colorado’s mountains is a great way to view and photograph the gold in the hills that may only last a couple of weeks. If you wish to take a hike and view the aspens, take note that they normally turn gold the third week in September in the northern part of the state and last, weather permitting, until the end of the first week of October in the San Juan mountains.
Elevation also plays a role in when they change to gold, with the higher elevations in the northern part of the state turning first. The gold will then work its way down the mountain slopes into the lower elevations and to the southwest part of the state by Cortez and Dunton. The change to gold can be finicky and oftentimes does not follow scientific theory or the normal effects of weather. There are a number of great fall hikes throughout the mountains of Colorado, but I will describe a few of my favorites based on the trails and the beauty that I love to photograph in central and southwestern Colorado.
One of my favorite hikes is American lake, which is located to the west of aspen. From the round-a-bout in aspen take the Castle Creek Road and follow it for about 10 miles until you reach the trailhead, which is located on the right. The hike is 3.2 miles one way and it is strenuous only because of the 2,000-foot elevation gain.
In the beginning in the beginning there is a steady to steep climb. The trail is well-maintained as it rises through the aspen groves. Stop and take a breath and follow some of the side trails to get great panoramic vistas of the high peaks located at the head of Castle Valley. The trail will take you to a large high-alpine meadow, which is surrounded by spruce forests and the ever-colorful aspen groves. As you approach the end of the trail you will hike through a boulder field. Depending on the moisture that year you will pass by a cascading waterfall located on your left. Hike through the last section of trees and you will reach American Lake. The small emerald-green lake is an inviting place to take a lunch break. Admire the jagged mountain peaks and the ever-present gold of the aspens. This is also a terrific hike in the summer, as the meadows are awash in a great variety of wildflowers.
Maroon Lake and Crater Lake Trail
The 14,000-foot Maroon Bells Peaks are probably the most photographed peaks and are some of the most spectacular mountains in all of Colorado because of their red color and distinctive “Bell” shape. This location is one of the most popular destination spots in the Aspen area. Most people hike the trails to the Maroon Bells in late spring and early summer, when the wildflowers are at their best, but fall is the most colorful time of year.
If you want this place almost to yourself, then leave Aspen early in the morning and drive the 9.5 miles to the parking area at Maroon Lake. You may even see deer early in the morning on the way to the lake. Early morning will give you great light on North and South Maroon Peaks, but you will be able to photograph a superb reflection of the “Bells”, because there is barely a ripple on the lake. Pine trees and aspens then frame the lake and set the peaks off in the royal majesty they deserve. Aspen groves on the right side fill the landscape with color, and they are enhanced by the ragged red rock peaks that dominate the skyline.
The Maroon Lake Scenic Trail is an easy .75-mile walk to the end of the lake. You can continue another mile to Crater Lake. You will hike through more aspen groves and catch an occasional glimpse of Maroon Creek as it cascades over the boulder fields. After .75 of a mile you will see Crater Lake to your left. It is then a short hike to the lake and a very nice view of North and South Maroon Peak, Crater Lake, and an impressive waterfall if you hike all the way to the west end of the lake and look to the northwest. Because of the elevation of Crater Lake the aspen groves are fewer, but they come back into your picture as you descend back down to Maroon Lake.
Take your time descending so you can get a beautiful view of Maroon Lake surrounded by the golden aspens and green pines. You have now hiked one of the most scenic areas in Colorado. It is equally beautiful during the summer. If you are in the aspen area and an early fall snow takes place, attempt to drive to the lake and photograph the white “bells”, golden aspens, red jagged rocks, and green pine trees. This is the epitome of “Colorful Colorado.”
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2012 Issue (1016) of Trail & Timberline.