9 of the Vail Valley’s best fall foliage hikes
There’s a chill in the air now that wasn’t there two weeks ago. The sure sign of fall is here. Even though anti-pumpkin folks are up in arms about Starbucks’ decision to put the infamous pumpkin spice latte on the menu on Aug. 25 — the earliest release ever — there’s no denying that here in the Vail Valley, we’re starting to see inklings of fall weather. Combined with the lack of rain and hot and dry weather, trees are starting to lose their leaves already.
Before we know it, that two-week period where leaves are at peak color will be here. There are plenty of ways to enjoy fall in the Vail Valley, but if you’re a hiker, don’t get caught flat-footed. If you want those peak fall hikes, you’ve got to be prepared. Luckily for you, the Vail Daily has put together a list.
There are hiking options for all levels and all types of moods. In the mood for a quick half-day trek or an after-work hike? Try East Lake Creek, or stick with reliable classics at Vail’s North Trail. If you’re planning a full day of activity and want your butt kicked, try Nolan Lake, Lake Charles or even the full Meadow Mountain loop.
Here are nine fantastic fall hikes for viewing fall foliage colors in the Vail Valley.
Upper Piney River Trail
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Length: 6.1 miles out-and-back
Elevation gain: 845 feet
Upper Piney is a classic Vail hike for a reason: there are beautiful alpine lake views even from the parking lot. Getting up there is a bit tricky, and requires a long drive on a bumpy dirt road — you’d be best driving a vehicle that has good clearance on the bottom. The hike itself is moderate, with a steady and extremely doable incline that winds through aspen forests. It’s a great half-day outing, and Piney River Ranch is open for full dining and ice cream from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day.
Length: 2.5 miles out-and-back for panoramic views
Elevation gain: About 400 feet
The best part about Vail’s North Trail system is that it’s very easy to choose your own adventure here: if you hiked the whole thing, you’d be easily clocking 20 miles of trail. There are multiple trailheads connected to the same network, and all are well-marked. For the purposes of this hike, start at the Buffehr Creek Road trailhead. You’ll climb a few easy switchbacks until you get to an intersection – take the fork that heads up the mountain. From there, the climb gets a bit more challenging, but not difficult. At a 1.75 miles, you’ll come on a flat clearing with expansive, panoramic views stretching from Vail Village to Dowd Junction. Most hikers will be able to complete this in two hours. Feel free to continue on: elevation starts to descend and you can end your hike at Cortina Lane or at the intersection of Arosa Drive and North Frontage Road for 4.4 miles total. Keep your ears open though, this trail is popular with mountain bikers.
Length: 10.3 miles for a full loop
Elevation gain: 2,076 feet
This hike through sweeping meadows also offers plenty of options for adventure. It connects with the West Grouse Lake trails, if you’re interested in hitting fall colors and an alpine lake in one hike. For sweeping views of the mountains and foliage, take the loop up the mountain on Line Shack: when you reach the old hunting cabin, you start your descent. This trail winds through aspen forests at times, meadows at others and is also a great spot for birdwatchers: plenty fly over the meadows at all times of day. If your adventure takes you to the adjoining Everkrisp trail, which consists of a lot of rolling hills and has similarly awesome views, be prepared to move out of the way for mountain bikers.
Length: 7 miles out-and-back
Elevation gain: 2,421 feet
This narrow trail ascends steeply and doesn’t let up until the very last half-mile. Around 3 miles is the toughest part, but after that half mile, the trail mellows out for amazing views of Beaver Creek. It intersects with Nottingham Trail here, if you’re not quite pooped at that point, and you can continue on the creek trail from there, and even summit Red and White Mountain. This trail is perfect if you’re looking to burn out your legs like you would in a gym workout. Plus, there are plenty of aspens, and plenty of chances to gawk at trees changing on Beaver Creek.
Village to Village Trail
Location: Arrowhead-Beaver Creek
Length: 7.4 miles point-to-point
Elevation gain: Depending on direction, either 585 feet or 2,031 feet
Views are what you’re here for with this hike. As the name suggests, you travel from Beaver Creek Village, through Bachelor Gulch and onto Arrowhead—that’s the way people normally take this trail, so it heads downhill rather than uphill, but for a real workout, start at Arrowhead and climb the 2,000 feet to the Beaver Lake Trail area of Beaver Creek. There are plenty of aspens dotting the trail, as well as the opportunity for views when you’re in more open areas on the ski runs.
Squaw Creek/Stagg Gulch
Length: 9.2 miles out-and-back, 4 miles each way to Elk Park
Elevation gain: 1,844 feet
These two trails near Cordillera share a trailhead and a parking lot: when you reach a sharp, hairpin turn going up the mountain face on Squaw Creek Road, keep heading straight instead of turning up onto Fenno Drive. About one mile into the trail itself, the path splits into Squaw Creek and Stagg Gulch. Squaw Creek is mellower and ends up at the Elk Park meadows after 4 miles. Stagg Gulch has a steeper incline but gets to the top faster. The trails can be turned into a loop, to experience both sides of the trail.
East Lake Creek
Length: 24.4 miles out-and-back, 3 miles each way to bridge and creek
Elevation gain: 3,387 feet for the whole trail, about 1,000 for the half-day hike
The most common hike on this section of trail is to trek 3 miles out to a clearing where a bridge crosses the creek – this is a great spot to stop, enjoy the views, and maybe lunch or a snack. The full trail ascends to Upper Camp Lake over the course of 12 miles. Early on in the trail, it also intersects with Dead Dog Trail, which will send hikers on a difficult trek into the Holy Cross Wilderness. Remember that if you’re opting for the half-day 6-mile option, you’ll still have a decent amount of ascent on the way back, so make sure to pace yourself. The beginning of this trail is best for leaf-peeping, as it winds up and down through a dense aspen grove.
Length: 5.6 miles out-and-back
Elevation gain: 1,475 feet
Don’t let the short mileage fool you: with 1,475 feet to gain on the trail, you’re clocking 400-500 feet of vertical gain per mile. You can stop about 2.5 miles into the trail for views across a meadow, or hike .3 miles more to summit. The trail to the lake is marked by cairns and can be difficult to make out, so stay alert. At the top, enjoy views of Craig Peak and the northern Sawatch Mountains.
Length: 9.8 miles out-and-back
Elevation gain: 1,920 feet
The trail is fairly mellow for the first two and a half miles, climbing steadily. From there, expect about a mile of steep elevation gain, with incline grades as high as 28%. Lake Charles is surrounded by trees and is just below treeline, making for some great foliage. Keep your eyes open for wildlife, including mountain goats and deer. If you’re up to continue, Mystic Island Lake adds two miles to the trek, but there isn’t much elevation gain, so it’s doable.
This story was originally published on Aug. 26, 2020.