Leaves changed on cue this year. As soon as the calendar hit Sept. 22, the official first day of autumn, the aspens responded with a show of bright yellow. This week and the next, as the changing aspen colors reach their peak, will be the best time to get outdoors on foot or by car.
Be aware that fall is also hunting season. If you leave your car in favor of the woods, wear bright colors to keep yourself on the safe side of hunters' bows and rifles.
Diane White-Crane, author of "Hiking the 'Boat" and "Hiking the 'Boat II," has been exploring this area for almost 20 years. To enjoy fall foliage on foot, she recommends the following hikes:
Uranium Mine Hike: This is a spectacular fall hike close to Steamboat Springs. The hike ends with a view of Fish Creek Falls to one side and the Yampa Valley to the other. To get there from Lincoln Avenue heading east, turn left on Third Street. Drive one block and take a right onto Fish Creek Falls Road. Follow this road for three miles until you reach the lower parking area for Fish Creek Falls on the left. Parking costs $5. Walk up the sidewalk for 0.1 mile and look for the trail on the left next to a big rock and the sign that reads, "No Motor Vehicles."
South Fork of the Elk River: This is an easy, family-friendly hike. It also is 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 Routt 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. 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 C.R. 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: This is a good hike for the fall foliage season, but it also is one of the most popular hikes in the area. The hike is three 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: "This is a remarkable hike in the fall for the contrast and the sheer size of the trees," White-Crane said. If you aren't up for a hike, the drive that leads to this trailhead is one of the best for viewing leaves from the seat of a car.
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 from Steamboat Springs. Turn right on Colorado Highway 131. Just as you arrive at Yampa, turn right on C.R. 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 nine miles to 959. Turn left at the Sheriff Reservoir sign, and drive three miles to the trailhead parking. The hike is 2.9 miles each way.
Heart Lake: If you're already in the Flat Tops, the Heart Lake hike is a great hike for a fall foliage photographer. The hike is 6.5 miles each way. Because it is too long for most people to make in one day, this hike makes a good fall backpacking loop.
To get there, drive toward Rabbit Ears Pass from Steamboat Springs. Turn right on Colo. 131. Just as you arrive at Yampa, turn right after the Welcome to Yampa sign. Drive through town and take a right at the Antler's Inn onto Colo. 7, which becomes Forest Service Road 900. Drive 10 miles to the Heart Lake Trailhead sign on the right.
Day hike on Wyoming Trail: This is the best hike to take with children or people who can't walk very far. The Wyoming Trail is 49 miles long, following the Continental Divide. This hike follows an easy two-mile section.
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 Routt County Road 38 (Buffalo Pass Road). Drive 13 miles to the 1101 trailhead sign on the left. There is a parking lot just past the sign.
To reach Autumn Phillips, call 871-4210 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org