As an East Coast native, I wasn’t sure leaf peeping in Colorado could live up to the hype – after all, instead of an explosion of a billion different colors, you have “just” one color. Gold.
But there’s something about the contrast of the golden aspens against the evergreens that is just stunning. And there’s nothing like standing in a grove of dozens of bright gold aspen trees. But I probably don’t need to tell you that, because everyone and their mother goes leaf peeping every fall in Colorado!
Because I don’t love crowds, leaf peeping is a once-every-few-years outing for me. You need to bring your patience, set your alarm clock early (or really bring your patience), and embrace the fact that this will not be the time for solitude in nature. There will be Instagram influencers, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The Raccoon Trail in Golden Gate Canyon State Park is the perfect beginner-friendly option for some leaf-peeping close to Denver. Keep reading for all of my tips for this trail of less than three miles!
How do I get there?
If you already have a state parks pass, you can go straight to the trail head via Coal Creek Canyon and Highway 72. If you don’t have an annual pass, you have to buy a day pass at the main entrance on Crawford Gulch Road outside of Golden. You can also buy a day pass (with cash or check) at the northeastern entrance to the park on Gap Road (the fastest way from Arvada or Boulder area).
The drive to the park itself is easy, but does feel like it takes a long time since the highway from Golden is curvy and slow going. Once you’re in the park, if you have cash, you can just pull over at the small kiosk immediately to your right after entering the park.
If you need to pay with a credit card, skip that line and make your next right to park at the visitors center (where I’m sure there’s another line, just one that will get you what you actually need).
Where do I go?
If you’re comfortable on very steep, curvy (but still paved) roads, I recommend taking the scenic route on Mountain Gap Road, just past the fishing pond area of the park. Be very careful and drive slow since the park will be very crowded with other leaf peepers and there will be people walking along the road.
Your other option is to continue on the park entrance road until it comes to a T at Highway 119. Turn right on 119, then turn right again after a few miles onto Gap Road. This is the same road you end up on after taking the Mountain Gap Road (similar names, which I know is confusing). This is also where the road turns to dirt and gravel, but nothing you’ll need four-wheel drive for. This way is a little longer, but is less curvy and steep.
It’s going to be a little bit of a sh*tshow with how crowded it is, so just emotionally prepare for that if you know it’s going to be annoying to you. You can try to avoid the crowds by getting there early, but there isn’t anyone to take your money until 9 am, so make sure to stop on your way out if you get there before then.
I was (very) pregnant at the time of this hike, so getting up early was not on the table. We arrived around 2 pm along with the rest of the metro area, so parking was already snaking up the rest of Gap Road. It had only gotten worse by the time we were done, so an evening hike may not help you much with crowds. Rangers are on hand to help you find where to park – don’t be a jerk to them if they tell you to go elsewhere, they’re just doing their job!
To start the hike, I recommend going counterclockwise on the Raccoon Trail loop so you end with the best views. It’s not immediately obvious where to go from the signs, so make your way over to the Panorama Point overlook (it’s a large gazebo-like structure) and pick up the trail heading to the left of that. Stay on the Raccoon Trail – if you end up about to cross the road, you’ve gotten onto the Mule Deer Trail and are headed the wrong way!
What is the trail like?
No matter which way you go, you’ll go downhill first before coming back uphill. Traveling counter-clockwise, you go gently downhill or are on a flat trail for the first half. There are two big hills after that, but they are short so don’t get intimidated. Lots of people take breaks, and each hill doesn’t take more than 10 minutes of going up to get to the top.
Overall, the trail is well-maintained and easy to follow, but it does get rocky in places so watch your step!
The first part of the trail is in pretty dense evergreens, which I loved. It smells like Christmas and the pine needles on the ground make the trail really soft.
But then you open up into the aspen meadows and things start getting really scenic. Once you’ve climbed higher, you start getting glimpses of the surrounding mountains and the groves of gold aspen trees. There are two rocky outcroppings toward the end of the hike that make for excellent photo ops – and once you’ve gotten to the second one, you’re only minutes away from the parking lot!
The trail map and various places online said this hike was more than three miles long, but it’s actually almost a mile shorter than that. My watch missed the first section (see screenshot below) but only measured our hike at 2.3 miles, so I can’t imagine it’s more than 2.5 miles round trip. It took us about an hour and a half, including several breaks, photo ops, and my mad dash into the woods to find a spot to pee (thanks third trimester).
What should I wear and bring?
Always wear plenty of layers in the fall. It gets hot in the sun and going uphill, but any time you’re in the shade it was still quite cool. Golden Gate Canyon is also at significantly higher elevation than Denver, so make sure to check the weather at the park before you go. It’s typically 15 degrees cooler at Panorama Point than in Denver.
The day we hiked, it was unseasonably warm. I wore a t-shirt and fleece with leggings and a baseball hat. I got hot a few times, but for the most part kept my fleece on. You could wear grippy sneakers or hiking boots, it’s up to you. I opted for trail runners and was totally fine.
I also brought hiking poles which was a huge help for the rocky spots and those two big hills!
Speaking of those hills, make sure to bring some water and snacks. There isn’t anything immediately available at the trailhead, and you’re going to at least get thirsty. There is a convenience store along Highway 119 and snacks at the visitors center if you run out or need more.
Is it crowded?
Anywhere with aspens will be crowded in late September. But yes. It’s crowded. Parking is rough, there was a line to get into the park, and we hit a lot of traffic on the drive in too. If you want to avoid the crowds as much as possible, I’d recommend arriving shortly after sunrise or try a weekday.
The trail is also likely going to be very crowded when you first start out. Like to the point that you’ll wonder why you decided to do this and if you should just call it and go home. But be patient! After about 15 minutes, we had spread out enough that we weren’t still on top of everyone and their dog.
But that’s leaf peeping! Start early and bring your patience. It’s worth it!
Anything else I need to know?
The ideal time to leaf peep each year depends on the weather. We hiked this trail the first weekend of October which was just a little past prime (at least in 2019). A snowstorm was coming, so it was definitely our last chance, but there were some empty trees already.
Typically, the last two weeks of September are ideal. But this year (2020), it’s about to snow on Labor Day Weekend, so who knows! Not many trees have started turning, so maybe the early snow won’t affect things. (Wishful thinking?)