Planning a fall color tour at Rocky Mountain National Park is an exercise in timing and luck. We started late, which added to the challenge. After consulting the online foliage forecasts, we chose the last week of September 2021 for our visit. With Labor Day already past, we scrambled to snap up one of the last remaining rentals in Estes Park, made a set of suboptimal timed entry permits, and drove east via Southern Utah. We got lucky.
The rental was well located near both downtown Estes Park and the Beaver Meadows park entrance. We successfully swapped our entry reservations for morning slots online the evening before each hike. And the color grew only brighter and crisper as our week wore on. The weather cooperated, too. We avoided a hard rain or snow that would have brought the color season to a rapid close. The park was stunning.
Here are some photographic highlights from six different trails in the park:
Bear Lake Nature Trail
(Sept. 24, 2021) – 0.7 miles, loop
Bear Lake, which sits at 9,450 feet, is the epicenter for fall color day hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park. The Nature Trail is easy. Scoring an early timed entry permit for the 10-mile drive to the lake is a challenge, as is navigating the crush of tourists. The fall color at the water’s edge and clumps of golden Aspens in the surrounding mountainsides reflect nicely on the still lake water. It’s picture perfect for selfies, postcard shots and photobombs. But don’t linger at the lake. Pick a trail and climb.
Four Lake Loop Trail
(Sept. 24, 2021) – 6.8 miles, loop
The Four Lake Loop could easily be extended to encompass eight or more sub-alpine lakes . We hiked the trail counterclockwise and settled for five – Bear, Nymph, Dream, Emerald and Haiyaya. Fortunately, most hikers didn’t bother with a loop. They either settle for the trio of low-hanging lakes – Bear, Nymph and Dream – or began the loop clockwise and stopped at Glacier Gorge to ogle Alberta Falls. We had little competition on the loop’s spurs to Emerald and Haiyaya lakes, as well as on a shady two-mile stretch of pine forest with a handful of vistas overlooking colorful aspen groves in the valley below.
Lake Helene via Fern Lake Trail
(Sept. 27, 2021) – 6.1 miles, out and back
Lake Helene was totally outclassed by a fall color encounter. Just above the Bear Lake scrum, the Fern Lake Trail bisected a lovely grove of aspens, with gold and orange leaves quaking in the sunshine. The color was magnificent. Nearly three miles and 1,000 feet of elevation gain later we found ourselves creeping down a scary cliffside trail after missing the turnoff to Lake Helene. Gingerly retracing our steps, we eventually found the marshy lake, where we enjoyed our lunch and visions of re-encountering the aspen extravaganza below.
Ouzel Falls via Wild Basin Trail
(Oct. 1, 2021) – 5.9 miles, out and back
The hike was more about the water than the fall color. The first four miles parallel babbling North St. Vrain Creek as it rambles down the mountainside and over upper and then lower Copeland Falls. Farther up the trail, the Calypso Cascade splashes into the creek from the south with great views from a pair of bridges. The cascade completely outclasses Ouzel Falls, which is difficult to see from the trail. We had intended to hike beyond the falls to Ouzel Lake, but Dan forgot to pack his lunch and a fall chill had crept into the midday air. So we headed back down the mountain.
- Wind River, Storm Pass, Sprague Lake and Glacier Creek Loop (Sept. 26, 2021) – 6.5 miles, loop
- Sprague Lake Trail (Sept. 27, 2021) — 0.8 mile, loop
AllTrails lists three routes to Sprague Lake. We tried two of them. Friends from Fort Collins joined us on the Wind River etc. trail, which climbs to the edge of the lake before looping back down to the trailhead. Spotting a small school of trout was nice, but hiking with friends was the highlight. The next night we drove to the lake via Bear Lake Road in the evening, hoping to spot some wildlife other than fish. We spotted plenty of roadside elk and lots humans, but that was about it. Still, it was a nice evening walk.
In September 2021 we drove from our home Coastside on the San Francisco Peninsula to Rocky Mountain National Park via southern Utah. It was our first trip off of the the West Coast since the pandemic reached the United States in January 2020.