Finding Fall Color in Denver

Fall is quickly approaching in the mountains, and it will soon be here in Denver. You can see it by the subtle yellowing of the cottonwoods and ash trees in Denver and the vibrant golden changes in the Aspen in the mountains.

Everyone flocks to the high tops of the front range to catch their beloved views of Aspen color riots. But you can find some great fall color right here within the C470 loop, often within 10 minutes of your Denver home.

How does fall color IN Denver differ than the “color” you find up in the mountains? Up in the higher altitudes, you’ll find the bright yellows shining from Aspen trees. Contrasted against their white trunks, the display of color varies from brilliant goldenrod to rusty orange. But in Denver, the altitude is too low for a healthy Aspen grove. So what’s a Denverite to do?

Enter the majestic cottonwood. A tree that has both female and male species, its heart-shaped leaves resemble those of its cousin, the Aspen. But the cottonwood doesn’t shimmer and shake; its leaves are attached on a straight stem rather than at a ninety degree angle. What it does have going for it is its mighty size. Cottonwoods can grow to 100 feet and age to over 100 years. You’ll find cottonwoods on river banks, streams and our fabulous old ditch system (including the High Line!) here in Denver.

Three Denver Hikes for Fall Color

Throughout Denver you’ll find cottonwoods along the High Line Canal Trail, up and down the Platte River, and embedded along the Sand Creek Greenway and the Cherry Creek. The Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge is loaded with them as well. And bonus, bison!

Don’t forget that fall color shows up in our wild prairie grasses, too. Where there aren’t trees, there’s prairie. The grasses of the prairies have flushes of burgundy, rust and straw from the curly dock, blue stem, and bison grasses.

A Lush Prairie Grass Hike

To get a flush of grassy fall color, you don’t have to travel far. Check out this urban hike in Lowry for some great fall color via the grassy plains. It’s a great place to hear smaller song birds, too. A great time to do this hike is at dusk. The sun will be setting, birds will be fluttering, and you can get a high vantage point at low altitude via the Kelly Dam.

If “fall color” to you means trees, well, you’d be in good company. Instead of making some crazy drive to Kenosha Pass or Mt Audubon where you’ll have to brave lots of traffic, higher altitude breathing, and people galore, stay right here in town. Denver is lucky to have one of the longest urban trails in the country. It’s a gem that other cities wish they could trade us for. But they can’t. We’ve got the High Line Canal Trail.

Cottonwoods on the High Line Canal Trail

The High Line Canal Trail runs from just south of the airport in Green Valley Ranch to Waterton Canyon. Passing through rural and suburban Aurora, dipping into urban Denver, sliding across Cherry Creek, meandering through Littleton, and finishing in Highlands Ranch, a section of it is nearby. If you live in Metro Denver, you can be on the High Line Canal Trail in ten minutes. And guess what? It’s loaded with cottonwoods.

Whether you want one specimen by itself or an entire grove, you can find what you’re looking for. In Aurora on the DeLaney Urban Farm portion, you will see prairie dogs, hawks, and maybe a deer or two. Head further south to Windsor Gardens, and you can reflect on the famous Denverites buried in Fairmount Cemetery. If you want a complete cottonwood tunnel, you’ll find it between Centennial and Cherry Hills.

My favorite segment on the High Line, which is loaded with falling leaves, mountain views, and wind open prairies is around mile marker 35. But if you want to enjoy a smorgasbord of delicious wild fruits on the High Line Canal Trail, get yourself hiking especially between mile markers 16-25 (from Fly n B Ranch to Julia deKoevend Park, segments 5, 6, 7.) You’ll also find a plethora of wild apples and plums. Bon appetite!

Color on the Platte River

If you’re closer to downtown and don’t want to travel east or south, you don’t have to go far at all for fall color. The Platte River’s banks are loaded with cottonwood after cottonwood. They’re big, shady, and colorful. You can take the Platte River Trail for over 40 miles, but the good news is that its colorful secrets are close in town too. Between the Denver Skate Park and Commons Park, you’ll get your fill of color. You can park near REI and meander onto the banks of the river at the kayak trail and head down river.

Want to get away from the crowds at Confluence Park? Head towards Globeville. Here, the banks behind Brighton Blvd to I25 flush with cottonwood brilliance. If you make it all the way to Carpio Sanguinette Park (previously Northside Park) you’ll be treated to wonderful sayings of optimism embedded in  the concrete paths within the park. The 9 Creeks Loop, especially along the South Platte River near Globeville on segments 1 and 8 will fill your every fall color need.

Where will you see color in Metro Denver this fall? The fall color comes to Denver a bit later than up the front range. Denver’s lower altitude takes a bit longer to bring on fall. Expect fall color to show up in Denver in late September, but it can sometimes go on to late October. Me, I’ll be hiking the High Line Canal for most of October. I’ll squeeze in some time on the 9 Creeks Loop, and then I’ll probably end the season romping with the bison out at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge. Out there, even if I miss the color, there’s always bison to view!

Post pics of what you see this year and share your bounty of fall color in Denver. Tag them #denverbyfoot so I’m sure to see them.

~See you on the trail,

Chris