Vail, the largest ski mountain in Colorado, is a very popular mountain town located approximately 2 hours from Denver. The ski mountain is known for its hotels, dining, and events. While I’m not part of the winter ski attractions, I find Vail and the surrounding area to be an excellent place for fall hiking. Below is a limited list of falls hikes near Vail. Directions to each hike can be found on AllTrails.com.
Upper Piney River Falls (Moderate – 5.9 Miles)
Upper Piney River Falls is a 5.9 mile heavily trafficked trail located in the Eagles Nest Wilderness. The trail is accessed by a rocky, dirt road and begins at the entrance of Piney River Ranch. The path travels through open meadows and then ascends through intermittent aspen groves and evergreen forest. The highlight at the end is a cascade which tumbles down the granite boulders. Use the AllTrails app to be sure to find the tall falls. For more details and pictures see my post A Weekend in Vail.
Bighorn Creek Trail (Hard – 6.9 Miles)
Bighorn Creek Trail is a hard, steep trail located in the Eagles Nest Wilderness. The parking area is limited to six cars at the trailhead and six cars further down the road. Consequently, arriving early is essential as no parking is allowed on the street.
The path begins steeply with a 30-40% grade for the first quarter mile. Then it levels off to a more reasonable ascent through a lovely aspen grove. After a reprieve of intermittent golden aspen and meadows, the trail again climbs steeply through boulder fields where it provides some lovely views.
While the path continues on, the hike ends at an old cabin in the woods. Personally, I think the viewpoint from the boulder field is a better place for a snack than the cabin, but it depends on if you prefer sun or shade. Hiking poles would be very useful for this trek. For more details, visit my post Roadtrip to the Rockies: Vail.
North Loop Trail (Moderate – 6.4 Miles)
North Loop Trail is another trail with extremely limited parking; likely only enough spots for 8 cars. It was filled by 10:15am on a weekday when I returned from this gorgeous fall hike. Probably not a minute goes by where there is not a view of an aspen tree.
The path ascends through golden aspen groves and affords expansive views of surrounding peaks dotted in yellow, orange, red and green. The autumn colors are amazing. Watch for moose, deer and elk on the moderate climb, and know that the area is closed during a portion of the summer to protect the migration.
The downside to this hike is the highway noise in the beginning, and the ¾ mile that weaves through the streets of the neighborhood, all-be-it pretty for leaf peepers.
Eagle Vail Trail in Avon (Moderate 5.2 Miles)
This hike actually begins on Stone Creek Trail, a heavily trafficked path among the locals. The first mile descends along a smooth trail through a colorful forest featuring evergreens, golden aspens, and splotches of red and orange shrubbery, providing an excellent fall foliage experience. At the trail junction, Eagle Vail Trail descends through a large aspen grove, crosses the creek, and then jogs up and to the left as it skirts the golf course from afar. There is no need to worry about errant golf balls, but lookout for the softball I found in a tree trunk!
While there are lots of ups and downs on this undulating trail, the path descends to a neighborhood, thus save some energy for the ascent on this out-and-back hike. Additionally, know that the last mile has a lot of highway noise. For a quieter option, stay on Stone Creek Trail.
While the aforementioned hikes are closer to Vail, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some trails near Minturn, just minutes from Vail. The historic railroad town from the 1800’s features a quaint downtown with handful of restaurants and boutiques. It is a great place to stop after you hike one of the below trails on a crisp autumn day.
Game Creek Trail (Moderate – 7 Miles)
Game Creek Trail might be one of my most favorite fall hikes near Vail. The dirt parking area abuts the road on the hill overlooking the popular Minturn Saloon. The trail is accessed through private property just up the road. It is not the trail that descends from the parking area.
Every mile of this path travels through glorious aspen. For the first two miles, as the track follows Game Creek, the grey granite path contrasts with vibrant red bushes, golden ground cover, and shimmering aspen. You couldn’t ask for better fall colors.
The hike continues up the mountainside of aspen in the White River National Forest to Eagles Nest, part of the ski resort. The peak provides spectacular views of a multi-colored autumn scene. For more details and pics, see my post Happy Hiking: Game Creek Trail.
Grouse Lake Trail (Hard – 9 Miles)
The Grouse Lake Trailhead is easily accessible off the main road into Minturn.
The trail begins as a dirt road that passes through a meadow in the White River National Forest. Soon it reaches a well-marked trail junction and converts to a single track. Going straight leads hikers to Grouse Lake through two miles of brilliant aspen groves before entering a lodge pole pine forest.
The lake’s marshy edge keeps hikers at a distance, but it is a nice place to relax before returning on the out-and-back path. For more pics and details visit my post, Happy Hiking: Grouse Lake Trail
Cross Creek Trail to Surprise Lake (Moderate – 5 Miles)
The Cross Creek Trailhead is located a few miles up bumpy dirt road. A small dirt parking area spans both sides of the road and there are a few pullouts as well.
The moderate trail briefly descends toward the creek before lightly climbing to Surprise Lake. The rocky path features intermittent aspen groves, forest and views. I suppose the lake is appropriately named, as it is difficult to see and could be a surprise if not looking for it.
Getting to its marshy edge requires some gymnastics over fallen trees, but it is a tranquil, though buggy place, for a light snack before returning.
Lionshead Rock via Cougar Trail (Moderate – 6.2 Miles)
This trailhead is located in White River National Forest just minutes from Minturn. In the beginning, the rocky path climbs through a golden aspen grove blanketed in red shrubbery. It continues up switch backs through the evergreen forest. Toward the end, the single-track trail widens to a dirt road with expansive views of colorful mountainsides, a leaf-peepers delight. For more details, visit Road Trip to the Rockies: A Weekend in Aspen.
These aren’t the only fall hikes near Vail. Pitkin Lake and Booth Lake are also amazing fall hikes, though challenging. These hikes keep eluding me with bad weather, aggressive mountain goats, and more. But one day, I will add them to my list of fall hikes near Vail. In the meantime, happy hiking, enjoy the fall colors, and don’t forget the ten essentials. ETB