It is hard to argue that one season is more beautiful than the other in the Vail Valley because you really can't go wrong in such an aesthetically pleasing location. We will say that winter and even summer receive most of the hype, with fall seeming a little forgotten. Until now, fall has been one of the Vail Valley's best kept secrets. As it turns out, locals and visitors alike can't help but share breathtaking pictures of the fall foliage colors during Autumn when the leaves change. They also can't stop talking about the abundance of activities we have. So, the secret's out!
If you want to experience the best of the Fall colors season like a local, you have options. There are beautiful hikes, drives and bike trails sure to please any visitor.
Hands down, the best leaf peeping drive you can do in a day is Independence Pass. Commonly done as either an out-and-back route or a loop through Aspen, the sights do not disappoint. You will be treated to incredible wilderness views, often without a man-made structure in sight. Y will not want to put your camera down and no way will you need a filter on your photos. There are countless opportunities for breathtaking photos and fun mini-hikes. A variety of trees change colors but the real show-stoppers are the aspens, which display every shade of gold and sometimes orange, imaginable.
Begin on Route 6 East (directly in front of the hotel) and continue through the town of Minturn, which is full of unique shops and restaurants. If you’re already hungry, stop in to Thai Kitchen, Minturn Saloon or Kirby Cosmo’s.
Once you pass Minturn, Route 6 becomes Route 24. Follow it up, up, up into the White River National Forest. Enjoy the splendor of nature and make your first Fall foliage colors stop the historic Camp Hale. Here in he high country, the aspen trees can turn as early as the second week of September.
Constructed in 1942 and decommissioned in 1945, Camp Hale was a training ground for perfecting mountain warfare techniques. The elite troops who trained there were some of the first of the present-day United States Army’s 10th Mountain Division. Troops endured freezing temperatures and fierce winter storms as they practiced mountain climbing, alpine and Nordic skiing, and cold weather-survival tactics at an altitude of 9,200 feet. Troops were recruited primarily from colleges and ski clubs, with the thought that it might be easier to train warfare skills than ski techniques. This first group was deployed in World War II to the mountains of Italy and Austria. Although Camp Hale hasn’t been used for training for decades, the 10th Mountain Division is still a point of pride for Coloradans. The modern-day division has been involved in many important missions including Operation Desert Storm and Hurricane Andrew relief efforts.
Next stop, Twin Lakes. Just past Leadville on Route 82, Twin Lakes is a postcard waiting to be captured. The fall colors here can be spectacular! Park in the large lot just off the road and take a 5-minute walk to the shore.
Continue on Route 82 to the top of Independence Pass and the Continental Divide. Although this route is paved the whole way, it can be a bit tricky. Stay alert and take the hairpin turns slowly, as there are not always guard rails. Here, you are located in the exact spot where the water flow direction changes. On one side, all water eventually flows to the Pacific and on the other, all flows to the Atlantic. However, there is no need to be a geography buff in order to enjoy this site. Being at 12,095 feet in elevation with 360 degree views, that should do the trick.
At this point, you can choose to turn back the way you came or continue on to Aspen for some truly stunning aspen glades and fun hikes. Rather than traverse the entire loop backwards, we recommend opting for the quicker way back from Aspen via I-70. The circular trip will still take you 5+ hours with photo stops.
If you have chosen to continue on to Aspen, make a point to stop off at The Grottos and the Ice Caves. A 1.1 mile beginner hike will reward you with waterfalls and caves carved by rivers. You will not be disappointed.
Piney Lake (Drive/Hike)
There is only 1 road leading to this popular gem. Access the entrance to the road via Red Sandstone Road in Vail. This pot-holed dirt road is open from around June 21st until the last weekend in September when the leaves are changing colors, although the U.S. Forest Service sometimes changes these dates based on snowfall.
Like we said, the road is a bit rough but that is half the fun! 4-wheel or all-wheel drive is recommended although not required as long as you aren’t traveling after a storm. The upside to this small barrier is that the road to the lake is not often crowded and drivers are forced to go slowly. That means lots of time to take in your surroundings and snap pictures. If you get to the road/lake at daybreak, you’re likely to be treated to an encounter with a moose beginning their day!
As you continue down the road for 10 miles or so, you will see numerous areas to camp and hike. We recommend completing your drive to end at Piney River Ranch. There is a large parking lot for public use and you can technically park on the road side if necessary. Piney River Ranch hosts weddings and has some cute cabins for camping. There is also a restaurant, gift shop, and canoe rentals. Fall colors from the willows, oak bushes and aspen trees can be wonderful here too.
If you’re ready for more exploring, continue on to the Upper Piney River Falls hike. This trail is rated as moderate. You can choose to traverse the whole trail to the falls for a full 5.9 miles out and back or just hike as far as you like. The trailhead is located to the left of the ranch property if you are looking at the sweeping mountain view which serves as a backdrop to the lake. This hike is great in both the summer and fall. In the summer, you’ll find fields of wildflowers. In the fall, treat yourself to some foliage colors while you dream about cozy sweaters and pumpkin spice everything.
There are several hiking options near the hotel where you can explore the fall foliage.
The Aspen Glade on Beaver Creek Mountain is a moderate level mixed-use trail. You'll spend your day meandering through technicolor aspen trees in awe of what nature has to show you. The trail can be connected to a number of other popular hikes including Allie's Way and Cinch. Well-behaved, leased pets are welcome. While you're in Beaver Creek, stop in the Beaver Creek Chophouse for lunch on their slope side patio.
Other scenic trails to try: Paulie's Plunge, Missouri Lakes, Booth Falls, and Beaver Lake *All links are to AllTrails.com. This site is super helpful in finding information about trails all over the country. They have over 75,000 trails recorded, with user reviews, photos and handy maps. (No, this isn't a sponsorship, just a helpful hint!). You may be required to login to view information.
Eagle County is full of opportunities to ride both mountain bikes and cruisers, especially in the fall. For those who prefer to cruise, the Eagle Valley Trail is your top option. Borrow a bike from our Gear Garage and start peddling on the path directly out our back door. In the valley, the colors hold off till the end of September most years while the high country happens a few weeks earlier.
For those interested in some more adventure, rent a mountain bike from The Kind in Riverwalk and head towards some local favorite trails: Village to Village, Berry Creek, Mud Springs, and Boneyard. Berry Creek trail is a favorite in Edwards and you can bike to the trailhead from the hotel. Head up to Beaver Creek to enjoy the yellow aspens and cruise along the Village to Village trail which offers a flowy cross-country feel. There are also great trails 20 minutes down the road in Eagle, where the warmer weather extends the bike season even further into fall. The Boneyard Loop is a local’s favorite that steadily climbs up for 3 miles and then heads downhill, offering a flowy berm-filled ride down on the Pool & Ice trail for 3 miles.
Whichever option(s) you choose to take in the fall colors, you can't go wrong. You're sure to have an experience you will remember!