Fall in the Rocky Mountains
Learn all about what it means to visit Rocky Mountain National Park in the Fall
Fall in Rocky Mountain is a spectacular time of year. It is when the classic aspens begin their “quake” and turn meadows and mountainsides into gold, when the air is crisp and refreshing, and when the wildlife begins their descent from the alpine into the montane. It is an absolutely remarkable time to be in the park. There are so many benefits to visiting this time of year, as well as some drawbacks. Below we will break down the most common topics so you can determine if fall is the best time for you to visit Rocky Mountain. (It is.)
benefits of visiting in fall
Fall is a spectacular time of year to be in Rocky Mountain National Park. One of the biggest benefits of visiting in the fall is experiencing the gold and glistening aspens. Aspens are the signature species in Rocky Mountain, and begin to change color in subalpine environments—at 9,000 to 11,000 feet—in early September, in the montane zone—at 5,600 to 9,000 feet elevation—they will change mid to late-September. The best places to see the aspens are Fern Lake Trail, Bear Lake area, Cub Lake Trail, East Inlet Trail, and Kawuneeche Valley.
Another benefit of visiting in the fall is the elk rut. Every fall, the elk leave the high country and arrive in the plains to begin their mating season. This season is characterized by the eerie bugle a male elk makes to intimidate its rivals as they compete with each other to win a harem of female elk. The largest male—with antlers weighing up to 1,100 pounds, will win the herd, but will constantly have to display his antlers, neck, and muscular body to intimidate others. Visitors have a great chance of viewing and listening to the elk in Moraine Park, Horseshoe Park, Upper Beaver Meadows, and Kawuneeche Valley.
Lastly, a benefit to visiting in the fall is the decrease in crowds. September is still fairly busy in the park, but as October rolls around, the crowds begin to thin. With fewer people, you have a greater chance to experience solitude in the park.
drawbacks of visiting in fall
One of the drawbacks to visiting in the fall is that Trail Ridge Road typically closes in mid-October for the season. The road is still open to Many Parks Curve while the rest of the road is closed. Even though this incredible and scenic road is closed, there is still so much to see and do in the park during the fall.
things to do in fall
When deciding when to visit Rocky Mountain, you should decide which activities are most important to you. Below are the most popular things to do in Rocky Mountain in the fall:
Hiking: Fall is the most perfect time of year for hiking in the park. As you hike to higher elevations, you get incredible and expansive views overlooking the majesty of autumn in Rocky Mountain—with golden aspens interspersed throughout the meadows and mountainsides; nothing beats this view. Most trails are still open and accessible, and you have the opportunity for seeing fewer people on the trails since the summer crowds have left.
Backpacking: The cooler temperatures and the lack of big snow storms make fall a perfect time for backpacking in Rocky Mountain. Most trails are still very accessible in the high country, allowing you to string together a multiday trip. Backpacking is ideal this time of year, as the crowds thin, it is more likely that you will get the permit for the itinerary that you desire.
Fishing: According to the professionals, fall is the best time to fish in Rocky Mountain, as the crowds begin to dissipate. In fall, you get near-perfect temperatures and warm, autumn-colored foliage, as well as more chances to encounter wildlife since it is the elk rut. Some of the best places for fishing in the fall include Glacier Creek, Dream Lake, Pear Lake and Creek, Ouzel Lake, and Roaring River. Note: a Colorado Fishing License is required for anyone over the age of 16.
Wildlife Viewing: Fall is mating season for many large mammals in the park, specifically for the elk, commonly called the rut. It is typically from mid-September to mid-October, and consists of large groups of elk in one area, the bull elk occasionally fighting to win a harem, proudly displaying their antlers—sometimes weighing as much as 1,100 pounds, and the sound of elk bugles echoing against the granite mountains. Elk are commonly seen in Estes Park, Moraine Park, Bear Lake, Upper Beaver Meadows, East Inlet Trail, and the Kawuneeche Valley in the fall.
Bicycling: If you want to truly experience Rocky Mountain National Park, with the winding whipping through your hair, and breathing the fresh air of the mountains, biking is the way to go. Bicycles are permitted on every road that cars are able to drive on unless posted otherwise, and after fall road closures, they are permitted on all but Fern Lake Road and Wild Basin Road. Although Trail Ridge Road closes to vehicles in mid-October, it is open to bicycles until November 30th. The road is not maintained after the first snowfall of the year, so ride at your own risk, but this is a fantastic way to see the high country.
hiking in fall
Hiking in the fall in Rocky Mountain National Park is world-class. With the aspens glowing gold, and certain wildlife in rutting season, you are sure to experience something like never before. The best way to capture the magnificence of autumn is on one of the many trails that take you up high and reward you with views that overlook the valleys and plains below. Some of the best hiking trails in the fall include:
1. Loch Vale:
- Roundtrip Distance: 6 miles
- Elevation Gain: 990 feet
- Trailhead: Glacier Gorge Trailhead
Starting from Glacier Gorge Trailhead, you will hike past Alberta Falls at .5 miles. This impressive 30-foot waterfall cascades down into Glacier Creek, depending on the amount of rainfall for the season. As you continun, the trail becomes fairly steep with switchbacks that let you look over the side to the gorge below. In fall, this gorge is colored gold with aspens. Once you reach Loch Vale, you are treated to the impressive lake, but also to incredible views looking down from this subalpine environment. This is one of the best hikes to do in autumn.
2. Deer Mountain:
- Roundtrip Distance: 6 miles
- Elevation Gain: 1083 feet
- Trailhead: Deer Mountain Trailhead
The first mile of this trail, you will be trekking through open meadows, speckled with aspens and fall foliage. There is a great chance of seeing elk and deer in this area, especially as they have entered the rut season. As the trail continues towards the summit, it gets steeper and steeper; but it will all pay off at the end when you are at the top looking down on the plains below. The views from the top of Deer Mountain are extraordinary and give a great perspective on how big Rocky Mountain National Park is.
3. Bear Lake to Fern Lake:
- Roundtrip Distance: 8.5 miles
- Elevation Gain: 1865 feet
- Trailhead: Bear Lake Trailhead
Hiking from Bear Lake to Fern Lake (or vice versa), you will get to see a variety of landscapes. The trail passes Lake Helene, Odessa Lake, Fern Lake, Marguerite Falls, and Fern Falls. There is a good chance to see wildlife along the path, as well as fall foliage. You can use the free park shuttle bus to get from the end of the trail back to your vehicle at the trailhead.
4. Ouzel Lake:
- Roundtrip Distance: 9.8 miles
- Elevation Gain: 1510 feet
- Trailhead: Wild Basin Trailhead
From the trailhead, you will pass Copeland Falls, at just over .5 miles. The trail follows Ouzel Creek, offers great hiking through meadows, and passes Calypso Cascades and Ouzel Falls. As you hike uphill from Ouzel Falls, you are treated to great views of Longs Peak and Mount Meeker. The trail will dip down toward the valley floor before gradually climbing back up the lake. Ouzel Lake is known to be one of the best fishing locations in the park, with its large greenback cutthroat trout population
5. Lone Pine Lake:
- Roundtrip Distance: 11 miles
- Elevation Gain: 1494 feet
- Trailhead: East Inlet Trailhead
Soon after starting the trail, you will reach East Meadow—where East Inlet Creek meanders along, moose can often be seen, and Mount Cairns, Mount Craig, and Mount Wescott are towering in the distance. This incredible hike is characterized by wildlife, big open meadows, waterfalls, and rivers. After 5.5 miles, you will reach Lone Pine Lake; there are many places to sit and enjoy the view on the southwestern edge of the lake.
backpacking in fall
Backpacking is ideal in September, October, and November. The weather is typically crisp and clear during the day, and dips into the 30s and 40s at night, making for a perfect night under the stars. However, make sure you bring plenty of layers and warm clothing, because the weather can change without warning, and you don’t want to be stuck in the backcountry without appropriate gear.
Backcountry permits are easier to obtain as the summer crowds begin to disappear. But, if you want a stress-free vacation, without having to worry about getting the permits you desire, book a guided backpacking trip. The guiding company takes care of all the logistics and planning, and you get to enjoy all the scenery of fall without any of the stress of organizing a National Park vacation.
weather in fall
The weather in the fall is usually clear, with crisp, blue skies; although early snowfall is not uncommon. Weather and temperature in the alpine can change drastically without warning, so always be prepared with rain gear, warm layers, and appropriate gear when heading out on a hike for the day.
Below is the typical weather for Rocky Mountain in September, October, and November, for Estes Park and Grand Lake:
|Month||Estes Park||Grand Lake||Days of Precip|
|Avg Hi||Avg Lo||Avg Hi||Avg Lo|
|September||69°F (20°C)||41°F (5°C)||66°F (18°C)||28°F (-2°C)||5-7 Days|
|October||56°F (13°C)||33°F (0°C)||53°F (11°C)||21°F (-6°C)||4-5 Days|
|November||44°F (6°C)||25°F (-3°C)||41°F (5°C)||9°F (-12°C)||3-7 Days|
JOIN A GUIDED COLORADO HIKING ADVENTURE
Rocky Mountain National Park is home to some of the most epic and amazing hiking vacations in the world. Wildland Trekking offers trips with the best of Rocky Mountain: waterfalls, mountains, views, wildlife, solitude, adventure, and fascinating natural and cultural interpretation.
Guided Rocky Mountain treks are all-inclusive which covers permits; local transportation (excluded on certain tours); meals; equipment; safety systems and professional hiking/wilderness guides; all of which allow visitors to maximize their time in Rocky Mountain and focus entirely on enjoying the Park.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN ADVENTURE TOURS
- GUIDED BACKPACKING ADVENTURES: these are for people interested in an authentic Rocky Mountain adventure away from the roads and crowds.
- PORTERED & LLAMA TRIPS: on these innovative trips, guests hike with light day packs and camp near stunning backcountry locations.
- INN-BASED PACKAGES: these tours are all-inclusive packages with lodging, amazing daily hikes, expert guides, meals, transportation, and more!
- CAMPING-BASED HIKING PACKAGES: camping-based hiking packages provide all-around hiking experiences of Rocky Mountain on wonderful outdoor vacations.
- DAY HIKE TOURS: maximize your day in Rocky Mountain on a fully guided, award-winning hiking tour on one of the Park’s best trails.