Aspen: The Birthplace of Leaf-Peeping

Fall is technically “off-season” in Aspen, and seems to get shorter every year. Beginning mid-September and ending around Thanksgiving (depending on snow), it’s one of the most special times for locals who stick around, and for tourists who are in-the-know.

Town is quiet(er). Some restaurants, bars, and hotels shut down. The ones that remain open become cozy gathering places for those who stay, so it’s a great time to basque in real locals and real living in Aspen, without the distraction of thousands of tourists and all-night parties. Don’t be mistaken, Aspen will never not party. Some of my favorites have been “anyone left in town” parties during off-season. But the vibe is more spontaneous, low-key and community-oriented (as in “we’re all in this [braving off-season thing] together”). And off-season specials kick ass. You’ll find cheap hotels, off-season food and drink specials, and free events everywhere, including the Belly Up.

ACTIVITIES

Hiking is the perfect off-season activity. The hot summer days give way to crisp early mornings and late afternoons, and the leaves clinging to their last moments color the mountains and trails beautifully.

  • Hunter Creek: Just a few minutes from Aspen core is the Hunter Creek trailhead. Shaded by enormous pines and Aspen trees, and winding alongside the Roaring Fork River, this trail is perfect for those looking for exercise amidst superb natural features, and stunning photo ops from the intermittent wooden bridges that span the fast-moving river. This is my puppy, Nala’s favorite hike for the many swimming spots and the constant shade. I would recommend doing the app. 5-mile Hunter Creek/Smuggler loop (once you hit the open meadow, follow signs for “Smuggler Cut-off” and you’ll continue up until you hit the Smuggler Observation Deck – another great place for photos of Aspen mountain and the entire town). Smuggler Mountain Road has dramatic views as you wind down, that are enabled by the more open trail, so you won’t find shade here most times of day. The entire loop takes about 2-3 hours, depending on how fast you are (and you can turn around at any time).

For a quicker hike, begin at the bottom of Smuggler Mountain Road and start back down when you get to the Observation deck. Aptly called “housewife hill,” this hike is quick (about 30 minutes up, 20 down), has beautiful views, and is also dog-friendly.

  • The Ute trail is another favorite hike, and the trailhead is just off of Ute Avenue, a few minutes from Aspen core. The Ute, aptly named “the Utey booty,” is a great workout with steep switchbacks through a pine forest, gaining over 1,000 feet in elevation (quickly) until you reach the outcropping. Locals have been known to relax with a few beers or a joint on the large boulders that overlook town, before heading back down. If you stop at the outcropping, it’s just under a mile, but you can continue on for a couple more steep miles to the top of Aspen mountain. Keep in mind gondola off-season hours and make sure you can hike down before dark if the gondola isn’t running (hiking down Aspen mountain in the dark is not for everyone).
Maroon Bells in Fall near Aspen - Stay Slopeside

Leaf-peeping in and around Aspen is different from Northeast leaf-peeping, but just as spectacular. At the end of August, the shocks of gold amongst the green mark the beginning of fall. Throughout September, that gold spreads and in some places gives way to deep reds. Fall happens quickly here, especially in years with early snowfall, and it is not to be missed. I recommend hiking (or driving) to Crested Butte for a day or two of gorgeous mountain foliage, and biking up (or busing) to the Maroon Bells for once-in-a-lifetime views. Independence Pass is still open until the first few major snowfalls, and a drive to Twin Lakes or the Continental Divide is super special and a great way to be encased in magnificent mountains along a cliff-side road.

What’s in the backpack?

Regardless of the activity, I recommend planning for late afternoon rain and thunderstorms in the fall. I’ve gotten caught in so many fall storms that I have come to expect it, and having the right gear is key. I always bring a backpack with a full camelback, high-protein snacks, a headlamp, tissues, one extra dry layer, a lightweight shell in case of rain, and stabilizers/yaktrax if there’s been any snow.

EVENTS

Aspen has great off-season events, many of them geared towards locals or those wanting a local experience. My favorite is “The Meeting,” a mountain film festival that features the NEPSA’s (Aspen backwards) as the main video competition event. The Meeting is generally regarded by locals as the weekend that gets us all stoked on ski season approaching after the long spring, summer, and fall missing our skis and boards.

And one would be remiss not to mention Halloween in Aspen. Buses from no one-knows-where shuttle outrageously costumed partiers into town, and all the bars and members-only clubs swing open their doors and welcome sick DJ’s for a night (or two or three) of some of the best parties of the year. Just note, if you’re one of those “too cool for a costume” people, you will stick out and perhaps be denied entrance to some parties, so get into it!

For some, off-season is a time to get out of Aspen for one more stint of warm weather before heading into the long winter; but for others, it’s the favorite time of year in our beloved town.

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