Color Hike

It’s the perfect time of year to grab your gear, and head into the backcountry for a fall color-accented escape from reality. The Dillon and Silverthorne area provide access to some of the most stunning backpacking trails in Colorado, made even better by the changing leaves and crisp mountain air. Here are our favorites:

A stand of fall color Aspen trees in front of mountains by Bill Linfield

Upper Cataract

Upper Cataract takes you through aspen groves and then fir and spruce forest to Upper Cataract Lake, sitting south of Mt. Powell. About 2.3 miles from the Surprise Trailhead, you’ll jump on the Gore Range Trail (look for Surprise Lake about 0.2 miles later). After another 0.6 miles, you’ll get on the Upper Cataract Trail. The roughly six-hour hike will take you to the alpine lake at 10,740 feet. Insider tip: This is one of the area’s most popular lakes for backpacking, and can fill up fast on the weekends. (Be careful to leave no trace!) Because it is also in the Eagles Nest Wilderness, it’s also a stove-only zone, with no campfires by the lake.

Level: Advanced

Length: 21 miles (roundtrip)

Elevation gain: 2,000 feet

Open to: Hiking, horses, XC skiing, snowshoeing, leashed dogs

Trailhead: Travel north 16 miles on Highway 9 from Exit 205. After mile marker 118 turn left onto Heeny Road (County Road 30). Follow that for 5.3 miles and turn left onto Cataract Creek Road (FDR 1725). Continue for two miles, and park at the Surprise Trailhead on your left.

Beautiful shot of Aspen leaves in full fall color by Bill Linfield

Gore Range/Gore Creek Trails: Silverthorne to East Vail

This route starts at Buffalo Cabin Trailhead near Silverthorne, links with the Gore Range Trail, and ends on the Gore Creek Trail as it descends into East Vail (or take the trail in reverse). It offers expansive meadows, gorgeous wildflowers, alpine lakes, thick forest, and creek crossings. At the trail’s highest point, 11,770 feet, you’ll take in striking views of Buffalo Mountain and Red Peak, well worth the challenging terrain. Camp in a meadow below the pass. If you’re not up for a multi-day trip, there are plenty of out-and-back day trips on the Gore Range Trail. In fact, this route includes just a small part of the 45-mile-plus Gore Range Trail, which runs north-south throughout the Eagles Nest Wilderness. Insider tip: The trail above treeline over Red Buffalo Pass becomes faint and can be difficult to follow, so make sure you have a map on hand. It’s also better later in the summer and early fall, to be sure the snow has melted at the highest elevations.

Level: Advanced

Length: 12.5 miles

Elevation gain: 2,000 feet

Open to: Hiking, horses, XC skiing, snowshoeing, leashed dogs

Trailheads: Park a car in a parking spot at the Buffalo Cabin Trailhead on the Silverthorne end, or the Gore Creek Trailhead on the east Vail end, about 2.3 miles east of Exit 180 off I-70 on Bighorn Road. Both allow overnight parking in the summer.

beautiful sunset shot over mountains and trees by Tripp Fay

Salmon Lake

Salmon Lake is in the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area. The hike is an out and back, intersecting with the Gore Range Trail shortly after its start, and again with the Willow Lakes Trail (turn right) about 4.8 miles in. You’ll meet a junction for Salmon Lake or Willow Lakes; head right. You’ll reach Salmon Lake after about a mile more, sitting at 11,165 feet. It’s a little over a mile more to the Willow Lakes. Look to the southeast for views of Colorado 14ers Grays Peak and Torreys Peak. Insider Tip: There’s limited legal camping (at least 100 feet away from the lake) at the top, as the topography lends itself to only camping on one side of the lake.

Level: Moderate to Advanced

Length: 15 miles (roundtrip)

Elevation gain: 2,367 feet

Open to: Hiking, horses, XC skiing, snowshoeing, leashed dogs

Trailhead: The Rock Creek summer trailhead allows overnight parking. Find it off of Exit 205, 7.7 miles north on Highway 9 to Rock Creek Road (FDR 1350), across the street from the Blue River Campground. Follow the gravel road 1.5 miles, and turn left on the road marked Rock Creek. Continue 1.7 miles to the Rock Creek Trailhead parking area at the end of the road. The last 1.7 miles can be rough, so if possible, use a 4WD or other high-clearance vehicle.

Looking-up through a stand of Aspen trees, photo by Bill Linfield

Day hikes

Angler Mountain

A more advanced trail with an elevation gain of 1,200 feet over 2.5 miles (one-way). Not great for young kids, and no bikes.

Lily Pad Lake

A quick-and-easy trail (1.4 miles one-way) popular with families, ending with lakes on the side of Buffalo Mountain. No bikes.

Willow Creek Trail System and Willow Falls

A scenic 5-mile roundtrip hike, this trail is popular year-round and a favorite in the winter. No bikes.

Oro Grande Trail

Get the best views across Lake Dillon with a trek on this relatively flat trail (3.5 miles one-way). Bikes allowed.

Straight Creek

This trail (5.4 miles one-way) takes you all the way to the Eisenhower Tunnel, passing through dense forest and alongside creeks along the way. Bikes, ATVs and motorcycles allowed.

For more information on Dillon and Silverthorne trails, please visit silverthorne.org/discover-silverthorne,
dillonrangerdistrict.com, or townofdillon.com/visit/dillon-parks-recreation/dillon-trails.

Backpacking Tips

Wear layers! If you take these trails in the fall, you’ll hit cooler temps and possibly even snow at higher elevations.

Bring as much information as you can about the trails you’re traversing, including maps, route pictures and descriptions. Don’t rely on your memory.

Prepack meals in gallon bags, depending on the trip duration.

Use a wide-mouthed water bottle to hold things you need to keep dry, like matches, cell phone, ID, and batteries.

Bring the material you need with you to quickly start a fire (along with matches and lighters). Two easy options: dryer lint soaked in rubbing alcohol; or cotton balls with petroleum jelly.

To pack out your trash with no leaks, use the compressible heavy-duty, zip-style bags that are designed for long-term clothing storage.

Take 33-gallon clear plastic trash bags, which can serve as a ground cloth for your sleeping bag, but also to protect gear during storms.

Read up on the rules of the areas you’ll be trekking through, and leave the land as you found it. Go to Leave No Trace (lnt.org) to learn how to ensure you’re enjoying nature responsibly.

Source: Backpacker. Get more to make the most of your trip at backpacker.com.