This past fall, my friend Savannah diagnosed herself with FOMOOL: fear of missing out on leaves. Peak fall colors season is generally sometime in the last couple weeks of September, although it varies throughout the state and depends on the weather. A wet summer followed by a dry fall is apparently the ideal combination… which is exactly what we had in 2021, leading to a spectacular autumn season.
So she put together a whole long list of hikes, taking her all around the state during the month of September. One of these hikes was to Pitkin Lake near Vail; it’s a hike that had been on my to-do list for a while, so I invited myself along. Fortunately, she never minds when I do that.
Along with her husband Blake, we set off before dawn on a Friday morning for the drive to Vail. The Pitkin Lake trailhead parking area only holds about 15 cars, and there’s no overflow parking because it’s in the middle of a neighborhood. The only other option is to park in town and take a shuttle… which is free but much less convenient in this situation because it stops at multiple places en route to the trailhead. Fortunately, we arrived early enough to secure parking.
From the first step, we found ourselves amidst the aspens. It was a little early still; quite a few trees hadn’t yet turned. But there was plenty of yellow to be found throughout the first 3 miles (5 km) of the hike. Once we ascended further, the landscape transitioned from the golden glow of aspens to the deep red of the autumn tundra. Needless to say, we took many photos.
And while the fall colors may have been the main objective of the hike, Pitkin Lake was lovely as well. One person was departing as we arrived and no one else showed up while we were there, so we had the lake entirely to ourselves for almost 45 minutes!
It also reminded us a lot of Fancy Lake, which we’d hiked to the previous fall.
By the time we began making our way back to the car, the sun was high in the sky and the leaves, now fully illuminated, were even more brilliant. It was a beautiful hike down. We passed about 20 people headed up to the lake, and the parking area was full. Nonetheless, it was one of the less crowded hikes I’ve been on recently.
Relative solitude, a beautiful lake, and fall colors… all in all, a successful autumn day in the mountains!
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: Pitkin Trailhead is located at the end of Fall Line Drive, just off I-70 exit 180 in Vail
- Fees and passes: none
- Hiking: round trip distance was 10.2 miles (16.4 km) with 2950 feet (900 m) of elevation gain
- Where to stay: this can be done as a day hike from the Denver area or anywhere along I-70 between Denver and Vail; reaching the trailhead from Denver takes about 90 minutes, so it makes for a longer day. Other options would include lodging in Vail or backpacking this trail and pitching your tent in the trees below Pitkin Lake (I wouldn’t recommend camping at the lake due to the lack of shelter)
- Other: this would be a beautiful hike any time of year due to the beauty of Pitkin Lake, but it certainly was an excellent fall outing in terms of color; even if you don’t feel like hiking to the lake, the first couple miles of this trail is almost entirely surrounded by aspens!