Colorado Fall Colors: Backcountry Taproom and Caribou Ranch Open Space

Three years ago, Pat and I attended Upslope Brewing’s annual Backcountry Taproom and had a blast. After one year off due to Covid, the event was resurrected last year and we attended again. In the aftermath, I was telling my mom about it and she mentioned she’d like to come with us sometime. So this year, when Upslope announced the event, I told her I’d pay for her admission if she bought herself a plane ticket. Twenty minutes later, I had a screenshot of her itinerary (shoutout to Southwest Airlines and their cheap flights between Montana and Denver!) and three tickets for the 2022 Backcountry Taproom.

As the weekend approached, we had our eyes on the weather forecast and it wasn’t looking good. In fact, it was looking downright awful. After such a beautiful fall, of course the weather would be crappy the one weekend we had non-refundable plans. Welcome to Colorado.

But actually, it ended up being not quite as miserable as predicted. It snowed in the mountains on Friday night, and we departed Denver Saturday morning to a view of snowcapped peaks. It was still cloudy, and as we gained elevation the temperature dropped to near freezing. At the highest point of our drive, there was snow alongside the road. But as we descended into Winter Park, the temperature slowly warmed and the sun was trying to peek its way through the clouds. By the time we arrived at Winter Park Resort, the sun finally shone through.

(Some of the photos below – the ones without snow in them – were taken during the 2021 Backcountry Taproom. Between the cold, the clouds, and the weather, I didn’t get many good photos this year.)

By the time we checked in, rode the gondola to the top, and began our 2.2 mile (3.5 km) hike back to the taproom, the snow was melting and the trail was just muddy. We arrived at the taproom location to mostly sunny skies, and the weather held out long enough for us to drink our first two beverages (each person gets four free beers/seltzers with admission), eat some lunch, and obtain our third beverages.

View from the top of the gondola
Views from the trail
View from the taproom

And then a storm rolled in and lightning struck a few miles away and the event was abruptly shut down. So rather than enjoying our last two beverages with a view, we hastily packed up and fell in with the massive line of people headed back down the mountain while carrying our drinks. The lightning came closer and thunder rumbled overhead. And then it started snowing. And yes, thundersnow is super rare and is usually something I would be excited about. But not when it’s happening while I’m standing on a mountainside.

Here comes the snow, dah-duh-dah-dah

Fortunately, we’d packed layers and rain gear and backpack covers, and we managed to stay reasonably warm and dry underneath our waterproof clothes as we made our way back down to the gondola and, ultimately, back to the car. The storm was beginning to lift a little by the time we headed out, but I don’t think the weather ever improved enough for them to reopen the taproom. Oh well. We’d had fun and enjoyed our drinks, and now we were ready to be warm and dry.

The next morning, the weather was only slightly better as my mom and I headed off toward Nederland in search of more fall colors. On the way through Boulder Canyon, we stopped briefly at Boulder Falls. The waterfall is just a five minute walk from the road and it was early enough in the day that very few people were there. We felt it was worth the stop.

Boulder Falls

Savannah met us at Caribou Ranch Open Space, and the three of us headed off around the relatively easy Caribou Ranch Loop. The area is covered in aspens and most of them had turned yellow. The cloudy sky muted the colors a little, but it was still really pretty.

There are also some old buildings and a red barn along the way, adding some rustic history to the lovely scenery.

Also, we saw a moose. Because I was there, so of course we did. Savannah hikes this trail every fall and has never seen a moose here before. Fortunately, he was pretty content just to lay in the grass munching on some plants while we observed him from afar. I don’t have a good photo, though; I wish they’d figure out how to make phone cameras with a decent zoom feature.

Between the loop trail and meandering around to all the old buildings, we ended up walking about 5.1 miles (8.2 km) with 420 feet (130 m) of elevation gain. This is the perfect autumn hike for families and out-of-towners who aren’t used to elevation… not too steep, not too high, with a dash of history, fall colors, and mountain views.

Mountain views and the Blue Bird Mine complex

It was a nice colorful way to wrap up my mom’s long weekend in Colorado, and she’s already excited to return for fall colors and the Backcountry Taproom next year.

And who knows… maybe next time, we won’t get snowed on!

The Important Stuff:

Backcountry Taproom

  • Who: hosted by Upslope Brewing Company, with all proceeds benefiting Leave No Trace
  • When: takes place annually in late Sept/early Oct; the date is usually announced in August, with ticket sales beginning in September. Order in advance; it sells out every year
  • Where: location varies by year
  • Cost: tickets are about $18/person, with the option to purchase lunch for an additional fee

Caribou Ranch

  • Getting there: from Peak to Peak Highway (CO 72) 2 miles (3.2 km) north of Nederland, turn west onto Route 126. Follow signs to Caribou Ranch. The road is dirt but passable by any car in good weather
  • Fees and passes: none
  • Hiking: there are two fairly flat trails through the park that can be hiked as an out-and-back or combined into a loop ranging from 1-3 miles (1.6-4.8 km)
  • Where to stay: There is no lodging in the park; this is best completed as a day hike from Denver, Boulder, Estes Park, or Nederland
  • Other: Note that dogs are not allowed on trails at Caribou Ranch, and a park ranger will be there to ticket people who attempt to hike with their dogs (we watched it happen)

29 thoughts on “Colorado Fall Colors: Backcountry Taproom and Caribou Ranch Open Space”

  1. Sorry about your shortened Tap Room trip, Diana, especially considering you got your mom there! But you had an adventure, none–the-less. And any trip with an adventure always seems worthwhile to me. We just had an adventure in New Orleans dodging a tornado, which may be just a bit too much adventure. 🙂 Enjoyed the fall colors. –Curt

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Colorado is pretty good at the whole multiple seasons in one day thing. Definitely not the first time it’s happened and it won’t be the last, I’m sure


  2. It’s unfortunate the Backcountry Taproom had to stop short this year– really, weather can really put a damper on events like these (pun intended)! Hope you choose to return the following year– and hopefully to better weather!

    Liked by 1 person

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