That crisp, cool morning air this time of year can only mean one thing: Fall is here. With it comes fall color. The glowing canopies begin to grace some of our favorite mountain haunts. The turning aspen leaves redesign even familiar trails into new and magical landscapes if you time it right. Here are a few trails close to town where you can bathe in the aspenglow.
Where to Find It: Between Divide and Cripple Creek
Route: Trail #704
Distance: 6.2 miles roundtrip
Difficulty: Intermediate—steep, then moderate, then easy
Best by: Hike, Run
Why You Should Go: This hike has so much to offer: sweeping views, intriguing rock formations, towering forests, switchbacks, meandering meadows, an optional waterfall, and—oh, I almost forgot, aspens! You’ll start out steeply, and just shy of a mile into the hike, you’ll find a fork in the trail with a clearly marked sign. Taking a left will lead to Horsethief Falls; staying right heads to Pancake Rocks. A series of switchbacks will carry you up steep hillsides before a more level, rolling last mile to the bizarre Alice in Wonderlan-like geologic formations known as the Pancake Rocks. Here you can savor sweeping views of the aspen-graced hills surrounding Cripple Creek and the south side of Pikes Peak. If you have any gas left in the tank on the way back, take the 1-mile side trip (roundtrip) to Horsethief falls before returning to the trailhead.
How to Get There: Travel U.S. Highway 24 west to Divide. Turn left (south) toward Cripple Creek on State Highway 67. After 9 miles, look for an S-turn with an old closed tunnel near the roadside. The unmarked trailhead parking area sneaks up quickly on your left at 9.3 miles, on the far side of the closed tunnel. Fall weekends can be crowded, so the many parked vehicles can make an obvious clue that you’ve arrived.
Rainbow Gulch, Rampart Range Reservoir
Where to Find It: Rampart Range Road near Rampart Reservoir in Woodland Park Area
Route: Trail #714
Distance: 2.6 miles roundtrip
Difficulty: Easy—gradual with some potentially slippery gravel
Best by: Hike, Run, Bike
Why You Should Go: I can’t remember a fall that I haven’t taken my family on a hike on this trail. You just have to do it. The aspen-glazed doubletrack trail takes a gradual downhill slope all the way to the reservoir. Keep an eye out for some great boulder fields riddled with aspens off to your left. It’s worth a side trip.
A little less than a mile into the hike, you will reach a creek that seems to come out of nowhere. The water is piped all the way from the upper Arkansas River Valley (think Turquoise and Twin Lakes area) to fill Rampart Reservoir. Cross over to the right (south) side of the creek just above the culvert, as the trail becomes singletrack and offers a more intimate experience—and more aspens. Once you reach the reservoir, have a picnic or skip some rocks before heading back to the trailhead. If you really feel up to the challenge, continue around the reservoir for a 13.7 mile loop.
How to Get There: Follow U.S. Highway 24 up Ute Pass to Woodland Park. Turn right at the McDonald’s stoplight (Baldwin Street/Rampart Range Road), and go 3 miles until you reach a Y in the road. Veer right onto Loy Creek Road and follow until you deadend into Rampart Range Road. Turn right onto the gravel, and go 2 miles until you reach the Rainbow Gulch Trailhead on your left. Or you can hop on Rampart Range Road in the back of Garden of the Gods and take the gravel road 18 miles up to the trailhead.
Cheesman Ranch Trail, Mueller State Park
Where to Find It: Mueller State Park
Route: Trail #17
Distance: 5.24 mile loop
Difficulty: Easy to moderate—generally rolling
Best by: Hike, Run, Bike, Horseback
Why You Should Go: Mueller State Park is a pristine area offering a wilderness experience in close proximity to Colorado Springs and the Front Range, and its Cheesman Ranch Trail is a classic. The wide trail rolls gently through wide, grassy meadows, past the historic Cheesman Ranch and through dense spruce and fir forests and majestic aspen groves. To increase your chances of hearing a bugling elk or spotting mule deer and black bear, hit the trail early in the morning or in the late afternoon or evening hours. Remember to leave your pups at home for this hike: No pets allowed in the park. And you’ll need to purchase at least a $7 day pass
How to Get There: Take U.S. Highway 24 up Ute Pass to Divide. Turn left at the stoplight onto State Highway 67, and head south toward Cripple Creek. After 3.5 miles, turn right at the entrance to Mueller State Park. Follow Wapiti Road, the park’s only road, to its end, where you’ll find the trailhead.