Best fall hikes for aspen leaves in Summit County (before they’re gone!)
September in the mountains is a great time to see fall foliage
BY THE NUMBERS
Surprise Lake, Eaglesmere Loop
Length: Roughly 11 miles round-trip (without detours to the Eaglesmere or Tipperary lakes)
Time: About 10-12 hours, depending on experience (backpacking is suggested)
Elevation gain: Roughly 1,673 feet
Length: Roughly 6 miles round-trip
Time: About 3-4 hours, depending on experience
Elevation gain: Roughly 1,408 feet
Length: Roughly 5 miles round-trip
Time: About 2-3 hours, depending on experience
Elevation gain: Roughly 1,200 feet
I’d always heard that aspen trees were classic Colorado, that their colors would be awe-inspiring. Humbling. It seems like just yesterday that summer arrived and the aspens started to finally bloom in rich, verdant hues. Now, every fresh morning turns them more rusted, golden. Soon enough, sidewalks, roads and trails will have more leaves than the trees themselves. Fall is rushing by.
For those who feel the urge to be completely submerged in this golden scenery, this hiking guide is for you.
SURPRISE LAKE, EAGLESMERE LOOP
My backpack feels like a ton of bricks as I start a steady climb through thick aspen groves.
These are some of the most thick, burly aspen trees I’ve ever seen — so thick I can barely clasp my hands around their trunks (insert tree-hugger joke). The aspens closest to the trail are engraved with hiker script.
Within 20 minutes, I break from the trees for views of the parking lot and Lower Cataract Lake. I squint, barely able to make out my car below. There’s a brief stretch of open vantage points, then back into a deep aspen and pine forest.
As I walk the trail, I’m kicking up golden leaves. Like ornaments, aspen leaves rest on the boughs of fir and pine trees. It all feels magical, and more so when the wind picks up, sending whispers through the forest.
I descend deeper into the forest, where it becomes heavily shaded, mossy and dank. I choose to take a 1.5-mile out-and-back detour to Eaglesmere Lake. This takes about 35 minutes and brings some decent elevation gain.
Returning to the Gore Range Trail from Eaglesmere Lake, I head towards Tipperary Lake. Surrounding me are plenty of streams, miniature waterfalls and alpine wetlands, dazzling in sunlight. During this section of the trail there are a series of footbridges to skip across — or walk, whatever bridges compel you to do.
Breathtaking views greet me as I descend from the thick woods. I can see unbelievably jagged peaks, with and Tipperary Lake resting just under 10,000 feet. From this point I weave through dense pine forests, shaded by their enormous heights.
After about 1.5 miles I reach Tipperary Lake, surrounded by sheer rock wall and alpine wetlands. I take my pack off at the lake’s opening and walk the social trail that encompasses Tipperary. Plenty of colorful fish dance underneath the surface, camouflaged by the tall grass in the water. This is to be my camping spot for the night, and I have the whole lake to myself.
I eat my breakfast looking out toward Tipperary and it is hard to convince myself to hit the trail again. Serious elevation gain greets me ahead as I move toward Surprise Lake some 3 miles away.
There are not many openings for views in this stretch, just the serenity and silence of the aspen and pine forest again. This push is tough, but reaching Surprise Lake is most definitely a reward. I return and the traffic on the trail starts to pick up significantly. Soon enough I’ve come full circle returning to the parking area near Lower Cataract.
Get there: To access the Surprise Lake, Eaglesmere Loop, enter I-70 and take exit 205 for Silverthorne. From here, hop on Highway 9 and head north for about 17 miles. Make sure to be on the lookout for Heeney Road on the left. I missed the turn — it’s hard to pull your eyes from those mountains, most of them unnamed in the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness.
Take Heeney Road for about 5 miles to a left onto Cataract Creek Road. The trailhead awaits about 2 miles down this gravel road.
For the first 3 miles or so, the Wheeler Lakes Trail follows the Gore Range Trail with some serious elevation gain. I am thankful to be carrying my daypack for this hike, instead of my 65 liter Osprey.
Not more than an hour into the hike I enter a warm forest of aspen trees. Although there is a high concentration of trees in this section of trail, the wind pushes through. The breeze is delightfully audible.
Dancing and rotating on their stems, the aspen leaves make a sound unlike any other leaf. Perhaps it’s their dry, paper-like texture that lends this beautiful sound — as repetitious and soothing as the ocean tide.
The aspens here were bent from the wind, curving toward each other on either side of Wheeler Lakes Trail. For some time I walk the middle of this golden tunnel. It’s easy to follow and relatively flat for a change.
I welcome a break in the trees, offering views of Copper Mountain ski area below and the Tenmile Range to the east.
From this expansive viewpoint it’s another quarter mile to Wheeler Lakes, and in about five minutes I reach their deep reflections: cumulous clouds resting in a bluebird sky are mirrored in the still, serious lakes.
From this point, it’s another 2 miles to Lost Lake and 3 miles to Uneva Pass. I decide the lakes are reward enough and that I’ll wait for an Osprey-pack day to reach these upper points on the map.
Get there: This trail is ridiculously easy to access from I-70 and became a favorite summer spot of mine. From the interstate, take Exit 196 at the scenic overlook. There are plenty of parking spaces here to choose from with easy access to the trail.
Even in September clusters of wildflowers run along the trail like a delicate fence. The trail quickly enters a grove of aspens and lodgepole. Like stained-glass windows, the aspen leaves pour golden light onto the trail.
What a stark contrast between the rich blue sky — not a cloud — and the deep, warm hues of the forests. Some of the trees are yellow, others a vibrant red or orange. A few trees are a rare mixture of colors. Meanwhile, leaning in the wind, the lodgepole pines creak like the staircase in an old house.
The Angler Mountain Trail is a jaunt and quickly opens up to views of the Gore Range and Silverthorne. Upon reaching the Ptarmigan Trail, there are opportunities to keep hiking in this WIlderness area for a backpacking stint. That, too, is for an Osprey pack day.
Get there: Also near SIlverthorne, the Angler Mountain Trail is north on Highway 9 for about 2 miles. Turn right onto Bald Eagle Road, and head for about 0.5 miles toward the trailhead, which is on the right.
This article was originally published September 2016, and is regularly vetted for accuracy.
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