9 of the Vail Valley's best fall foliage hikes | VailDaily.com
YOUR AD HERE »

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

An aspen grove near Piney Lake above Vail exhibits bright greens and yellows during the fall of 2008.
Lauren Glendenning | Daily file photo

Location: Vail

Length: 6.1 miles out-and-back

Elevation gain: 845 feet

Difficulty: Intermediate

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.

View on REI Hiking Project

North Trail

The panoramic view from the North Trail lookout point, about 1.75 miles into the “western section.”
Casey Russell | crussell@vaildaily.com

Location: Vail

Length: 2.5 miles out-and-back for panoramic views

Elevation gain: About 400 feet

Difficulty: Easy/Intermediate

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.

View on REI Hiking Project

Meadow Mountain

Meadow Mountain overlooks ranges and winds through aspen groves. At about 3 miles, you reach a beautiful aspen grove with a mellow incline, which is a good place to turn around for a shorter hike.
Casey Russell | crussell@vaildaily.com

Location: Minturn

Length: 10.3 miles for a full loop

Elevation gain: 2,076 feet

Difficulty: Intermediate/Difficult

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.

View on REI Hiking Project

Buck Creek

Location: Avon

Length: 7 miles out-and-back

Elevation gain: 2,421 feet

Difficulty: Intermediate/Difficult

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.

View on REI Hiking Project

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

Difficulty: Easy/Intermediate

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.

View on REI Hiking Project

Squaw Creek/Stagg Gulch

The Stagg Gulch hike can be done as a loop with Squaw Creek or as an out-and-back by itself. In addition to wildflowers, the hike has beautiful aspen groves.
Special to the Daily

Location: Edwards

Length: 9.2 miles out-and-back, 4 miles each way to Elk Park

Elevation gain: 1,844 feet

Difficulty: Intermediate

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.

View on REI Hiking Project

East Lake Creek

The East Lake Creek Trail offers an accessible trailhead outside Edwards.
Casey Russell | crussell@vaildaily.com

Location: Edwards

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

Difficulty: Intermediate

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.

View on REI Hiking Project

Nolan Lake

The hike to Nolan Lake is a 6-mile trek almost entirely uphill. The trailhead is near Eagle, and wildflowers are abundant in the area now.
Alex Spaeth | Special to the Daily

Location: Fulford

Length: 5.6 miles out-and-back

Elevation gain: 1,475 feet

Difficulty: Difficult

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.

View on REI Hiking Project

Lake Charles

Lake Charles, as well as Mystic Island Lake, require a moderate hike starting near Eagle.
Special to the Daily

Location: Fulford

Length: 9.8 miles out-and-back

Elevation gain: 1,920 feet

Difficulty: Intermediate/Difficult

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.

View on REI Hiking Project


Support Local Journalism


Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User