No matter how well you can explain the scientific process of slowing chlorophyll production, fall's sudden explosion of yellows, reds and oranges is still a magical thing and a good excuse for long hikes and longer drives.
As changing aspen colors reach their peak this weekend, Routt County is full of places and angles to view the foliage. But fall is also hunting season. If you leave your car for the woods, wear bright colors to keep yourself on the safe side of hunters' bows and rifles. (Bow season ends today, with a break until the first rifle season, which opens on Oct. 11.)
Diane White-Crane, author of "Hiking the 'Boat" and "Hiking the 'Boat II," has been exploring this area for 15 years, she said. To enjoy fall foliage on foot, she recommends the following hikes:
South Fork of the Elk River: This is an easy, family-friendly hike. It is also a good hike for visitors who are not yet acclimated to the high altitude. The hike is 7.5 miles roundtrip -- 3.75 miles each way -- and can be reached by taking County Road 129 through Clark. Turn right on Seedhouse Road. Drive 9.55 miles to Forest Service Road 443. Turn right. Drive 1.7 miles to a sign for Burn Ride Trailhead.
Three Island Lake: "This is a beautiful hike this time of year, because of the contrast between evergreens and aspens," White-Crane said. The distance to Three Island Lake, a 23-acre lake that is 40 feet deep in spots, is 3.5 miles each way. To get there, turn right on Routt County Road 129. Turn right on Seedhouse Road. Drive nine miles to F.S. 443. Turn right. Drive 3.2 miles to the second signed trailhead for Three Island Lake.
Gold Creek Lake: "Gold Creek Lake is gorgeous this time of year," White-Crane said. It is also one of the most popular hikes in the area. The hike is 3 miles each way, and the first section of the hike to the waterfall is a good hike for children. Follow the directions to Three Island Lake until you reach the Three Island Lake Trailhead. Continue past it two more miles to the end of Seedhouse Road. The trail to Gold Creek Lake is marked.
Bunker Basin Trail: "These are the prettiest aspen groves I've seen in my life," White-Crane said. "It's also an absolutely gorgeous drive if you have the time."
The drive to the trailhead follows a portion of the Flat Tops Scenic Byway, which is one of the best drives for this time of year. The Scenic Byway is an 82-mile stretch of road from Yampa to Meeker.
To get there, drive toward Rabbit Ears Pass. Turn right on Colorado Highway 131. Just as you arrive at Yampa, turn right on Routt County Road 17. Travel north on 17 for five miles to C.R. 132.
Follow 132 to Forest Highway 16, also called Rio Blanco 8, and follow this for 9 miles to 959. Turn left at the Sheriff Reservoir sign and drive 3 miles to the trailhead parking.
The hike is 2.9 miles each way.
Day hike on Wyoming Trail: "This is a pretty flat trail, great for kids," White-Crane said. "It's also a chance to look down on the aspens."
Even if you don't walk very far, she said, the drive up Buffalo Pass during the fall is worth it.
The Wyoming Trail is 49 miles long, following the Continental Divide. This hike follows an easy two-mile section.
"You might even see elk," White-Crane said.
To get there, turn north on Third Street from Lincoln Avenue. Go one block and turn right on Fish Creek Falls Road. Turn left on Amethyst.
Turn right on C.R. 38 (Buffalo Pass Road).
Drive 13 miles to the trailhead sign for 1101 on the left. There is a parking lot just past that sign.
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