October is here, and thanks to the wet summer we endured in the high country this autumn has produced an amazing display of fall colors. Before the snow begins to fly in earnest, make a point of getting outside to experience all that the season has to offer in Aspen: crisp days, spectacular views and uncrowded trails. With that in mind, here are two great hikes near Aspen for experiencing the best of autumn in Colorado.
American Lake: To reach the American Lake trail, go west on Highway 82 to the Aspen roundabout and take Castle Creek Road for 9.6 miles. The trailhead is on the right, opposite the Elk Mountain Lodge. There is plenty of parking, but be careful where you leave your car, as the parking area is also the driveway for a nearby house. The trail starts off by rolling briefly through an open meadow before turning and climbing steeply uphill via a series of long switchbacks. The entire hillside is blanketed by a spectacular aspen grove that glows bright yellow with hints of orange and red at this time of year.
Eventually the trail reaches the top of the hill and levels off somewhat as it makes its way through a forest of pine and aspen at the feet of a handful of sloping meadows. Beyond this point the trail parallels a small creek, providing plenty of drinking opportunities for dogs and a cheery sound for their human counterparts, before finally reaching the lake, which is set in a narrow basin surrounded by pine trees and the towering summits of the Elk mountains.
Sunnyside: In contrast to the American Lake trail, the Sunnyside trail starts out by climbing an open hillside of scrub oak as it heads toward the top of Red Mountain. There is an aspen grove near the summit if you are willing to hike far enough, but the real draw of Sunnyside in the fall is that it affords hikers a spectacular panoramic view of the south side of the Roaring Fork Valley, including the large aspen groves coating the flanks of Buttermilk, Snowmass and Burnt Mountain.
To reach the Sunnyside trailhead, go west out of Aspen and take a right onto Cemetery Lane. Follow Cemetery Lane for just over a mile and cross the Roaring Fork River at Slaughterhouse Bridge. The trailhead is up the hill on the far side of the river, with a small parking area on the left side of the road and the trail itself on the right.
This trail also features a series of switchbacks, though they are not as steep as the ones leading to American Lake, as well as a couple of irrigation ditches, making it another good hike for dogs. Just be sure to keep your pets leashed or under tight voice control, as the Sunnyside trail is popular with mountain bikers and comes close to a handful of private estates.