Gold Rush 2020: Float the fall

Julie Bielenberg

Editor’s Note: This article was written based on the author’s experiences prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the activities, businesses, and lodgings described in this article may be limited today, and are following the necessary safety precautions and guidance as advised by county and state agencies. If you visit, please follow local, state, and federal safety protocols and social distancing practices to keep yourself and others protected.

Autumn colors delight leaf peepers of all ages. From stunning mountain passes littered in golds, yellows, and oranges to winding ranch roads with red and purple hues, Coloradans have access to some of the most spectacular fall scenery.

This year, embrace the abundance of colorful foliage on the numerous Colorado waterways—stream, river, reservoir, lake, whitewater park—the options are endless. Grab your PFDs (personal floatation devices) and make a splash!

Motor around the marina

Cruise Colorado’s second largest natural body of water by boat and take in the golden aspen leaves against the walls of green pines. Trail Ridge Marina in Grand Lake rents fishing boats, pontoon boats, kayaks, and stand-up paddle boards (SUPs) giving visitors access to both Grand Lake and Shadow Mountain Lake. Be on the lookout for moose and osprey on the tiny, natural islands in Shadow Mountain Lake. Plan early, as leaves tend to change color earlier at higher elevations.

Kayak the Colorado

Rapid Creek Cycles in Palisade offers single or tandem kayaks, and SUPs to enjoy a mellow autumn float down the Colorado River. The staff can direct you to some of the best put-in spots throughout town. Along the river you find a variety of cottonwoods, aspens, pines, and deciduous trees, all changing at various times to ensure a beautiful array of fall colors. The numerous wineries and orchards lining the route is a truly organic and unique fall experience, as the floaters can watch as the fruits are harvested.

Wade the waters

Chaffee County, also known as Colorado’s “banana belt,” holds colors a bit longer and offers numerous streams and rivers for foliage and anglers. © Chad Chisholm

From Labor Day through mid-October, the fall colors in Chaffee County are typically on display longer than in northern counties due to milder temperatures, and along the Arkansas River and its tributaries, the colors really seem to pop. To maximize this experience, book a guided wade fly-fishing trip with ArkAnglers in Salida or Buena Vista. They offer half- and full-day trips to smaller mountain streams that truly showcase autumn spectacles with fewer people, and the guides will give you as much, or as little, instruction as you need. Plus, you can also tour St. Elmo’s ghost town, where quaking aspens surround mellow, trout-filled streams.

Soak in the season

Soaking in the fall colors at Mt. Princeton Hot Springs. © Chad Chisholm

One of the largest hot springs in the region, Mt. Princeton Hot Springs in Nathrop offers leaf peepers numerous floats to enjoy the colors.

The resort and springs are adjacent to Chalk Creek, where in-river hot pools allow soakers to view the foliage directly above them, as they enjoy the natural springs. You can choose from the family relaxation pool, the historic soaking pool, or the exercise pool to take in the colors surrounding Mt. Princeton and the Collegiate Peaks.

Bikeraft the Southwest

Bikerafting combines bicycles and packrafts to offer a multi-sport adventure to see Colorado's fall colors. © Alamy/Cavan Images

Southwest Colorado is gorgeous in the fall, with cooler temperatures, sunny days, gorgeous colors, and migrating birds. So, why compromise on sport when you can pack two leaf-peeping adventures into one—on bike via packraft! Four Corners Guides in Mancos are the first outfitters in the nation to offer this human-powered sport.

“Bikerafting is a newer form of multi-sport adventure travel, with roots in the ‘80s. It combines bicycles and packrafts, in that you put your boat on your bike when you are riding trails, and then your bike on your boat when you are paddling a body of water you need to cross to access another trail to pedal,” explains Lizzy Scully, CEO of Four Corners Guides. “With only 25,000 people in all of Montezuma County, and 2,040 square miles (almost twice the size of Rhode Island!), our trails and water corridors don’t see a lot of traffic.”

SUP at Horsetooth

Stand-up paddle boarding is another great way to see splashes of color. © Uliasz

Horsetooth Reservoir in Fort Collins is one of Colorado’s most accessible scenic reservoirs and outdoor utopias. The 6.5-mile-long reservoir is a favorite fall foliage spot for a plethora of activities, including SUP. What’s SUP is a locally owned business that rents equipment and can let you know the best spots for pops of color. They offer three rental locations at Horsetooth: South Bay, Sunrise Swim Beach, and Satanka Cove. The Inlet Bay Marina also rents SUPs and offers first-timer tips.

Raft the roaring Arkansas

The Arkansas River provides mellow raft rides and abundant fall colors as it flows toward Cañon City. Courtesy of Echo Mountain River Expeditions

Fall couldn’t be a better time for families and first-timers to go on a rafting adventure. For an easy day trip from many Front Range locations, visit one of the oldest and largest tourism companies on Colorado’s Arkansas River, Echo Canyon River Expeditions in Cañon City. They offer numerous trips, from a few hours to a full day. Rafters will most often see Gambel oak along the river, which turn a vivid orange and yellow, as well as cottonwoods, which are renowned for their bright yellows.

“The climate in Colorado’s Royal Gorge region is tough to beat, with warm, mild days for rafting, and crisp nights for campfires and stargazing,” says Andy Neinas of Echo Canyon River Expeditions and Royal Gorge Cabins. “Many of our long-time guides say September is their favorite rafting month because it’s so calm and colorful.”

Mellow Moon opportunities

The completely renovated 1940s Mellow Moon Lodge on Grand Ave. in Del Norte has two unique partnerships, allowing guests rare accessibility to the Rio Grande River to witness autumn’s beauty. Mellow Moon guests have access to 2.5 miles of private fishing on the Gold Medal waters of the Rio Grande at the Rio Grande Club & Resort. Scattered along the banks and mini islands are deciduous trees that begin changing after Labor Day.

The other opportunity is with 8200 Mountain Sports. “We have SUPs, duckies, small inflatables; to float the Rio in early fall. The upper portions have mostly dark timber making for evergreen landscapes, but once you get to the lower half of the float near Creede, the elevation decreases, and the cottonwoods take over. They don’t just turn yellow, it’s a spectacular shinning gold that’s even brighter,” explains Joel Condren. “My guides will tell you if they could only fish and float one month of the year, it would be Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. The days are cooler, the fish are feeding, and we catch the biggest trout of the year during this time, and the colors are outrageous!”

Whether you want to wade the waters and catch your own colors floating by, or take a more adventurous approach to fall foliage, Colorado’s prolific water resources offer the best opportunities for aqua-centric leaf peeping.

Colorado’s color palettes

Located in the heart of Vail Valley, Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon is an educational and community mecca that receives hundreds of leaf-peeping inquiries each year.

Nicholas Scarborough, Youth Programs Educator and Foley Graduate Fellow at the Walking Mountains Science Center paints this picture of our colorful state, “Autumn is sometimes described as a ‘second spring,’ where the leaves get their chance to showcase colors like spring flowers.

“In Colorado, both spring and autumn start small. Only a few hints of bright colors speak up, before the exponential flourish of hues adorn every landscape.

“In autumn, among Colorado’s wetlands, willow shrub stems turn a bright mahogany color, while their leaves contrast the dark reddish hue with bright yellow, balancing the cool water with warm tones. Waterways become lined with warm gold cottonwood leaves. Fields of grasses and dried stems of flowers turn to a light brown, but I’ve always seen it as the shimmering of old gold.

“Rocky Mountain maple leaves to show off a pale yellow in the woodlands, much humbler than their eastern maple cousins. In drier environs, I’ve seen entire mountainsides of scrub oak turn as blood red as any great sunset, and I think that reveals the true difference of spring and autumn. Where spring is the sunrise, autumn is the sunset.”

EnCompass is streaming on Denver7

Floating calm waters on a paddleboard is a great way to relax and enjoy Colorado’s beautiful landscapes. If you’re in for more of a challenge, try Tree Pose in the middle of a lake. Meet the woman who helped save paddleboard yoga on the Horsetooth Reservoir in Fort Collins on the Denver7 streaming app. Just search “Denver7” on your Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV or Android TV to download the app, and then scroll to the “Discover Colorado” section.

Julie Bielenberg is Colorado’s leading dude ranch and agritourism writer, and regular contributor to EnCompass.