The term “leaf peeping” was born in New England, but when a town is named after a tree itself, it’s a clue that the popular autumn pastime is just as good — dare we say better — than anywhere else.
Coloradans and droves of visitors go crazy to catch the fall colors, which peak in Aspen in late September. And only in Aspen can you take your sightseeing drive, leisurely stroll, or heart-pumping hike way up a notch by chartering a helicopter, cycling with pros, or heading way out on horseback.
It’s also prime time to find discounted lodging deals like the Limelight Hotel’s Colorado Locals Rate (from $155/night with proof of residency) or the Aspen Meadows Resort’s Leaf Peepers Fall Foliage Package (20 percent off lodging with breakfast daily).
Here, we round-up five of our favorite adrenaline-fueled adventures that will set a new kind of gold standard this season.
Silver Queen and Elk Camp gondolas
For the most affordable bird’s-eye viewing experience, hop on the Silver Queen Gondola in Aspen — about a 20 minute ride to the top of Aspen Mountain, where you’ll reach an elevation of 11,212 feet and catch postcard-worthy panoramas of Aspen Highlands and the Highland Bowl. For a perfect family-friendly fall outing, have lunch at the Sundeck restaurant, play lawn games or explore Richmond Ridge’s hiking trails. From $29, Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 8 from 10 a.m.-4 p.m., 970-923-1227, aspensnowmass.com
Meanwhile in Snowmass, take an equally scenic ride up the Elk Camp Gondola to access a restaurant and bar, climbing wall, paintball, disc golf, hiking trails and the Snowmass Bike Park — a dreamland for downhill mountain bikers that features 50 miles of trails ($42; includes gondola ride). Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 1 from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. 970-923-1227, aspensnowmass.com
Independence Pass Outfitting Company
When heading to Aspen from the Front Range, driving over Independence Pass is non-negotiable until it closes on Nov. 1, 2017 (reminder: the Grand Avenue Bridge in Glenwood Springs is closed for construction). Following the fall colors the whole way, and just past mile marker 55 and 13 miles before arriving in town, you’ll see a sign for “Trail Rides, Drop-Ins Welcome.” It’s where lifelong local Susan Hatter, whose family has been in the outfitting business for nearly 50 years, set up a new home base two years ago with her husband Tracy. Together, they offer everything from short trail rides to full-day outings to overnight pack trips through the neighboring Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness and up Lincoln Creek Road until Oct. 1; rides on East Maroon Trail to the Maroon Bells are available upon request. Reservations are recommended, because it’s no secret that traveling on horseback deep into the area’s densest fall color forests is truly spectacular. From $75 (one-hour trail ride), 970-948-4868, facebook.com/ipocllc
Calling all daredevils: Soar (and see the gold) like a bird on a tandem flight that launches straight off the side of Aspen Mountain. With an expert pilot attached — certified to the highest attainable rating by the United States Hang Gliding & Paragliding Association — you’ll run down a 30 foot slope at the top of Walsh’s (the double-black-diamond ski run) until the glider gradually lifts you gently off of the ground. Big air and stomach butterflies aside, the views of the endless sea of glimmering groves down below are unmatched. $275 (guided tandem flight), 970-925-6975, aspenparagliding.com
Aspen Heli Charter
It’s on the steeper end of the price spectrum, but your wish is chief pilot Joe Mlaek-Madani’s command when it comes to leaf-peeping. Departing from Aspen-Pitkin County Airport’s private terminal, the Eurocopter 130B4 has a range of 300 miles and is designed for sightseeing, with oversized windows and increased viewing angles. Plus, it seats up to six passengers comfortably. Whether you stay high above Aspen, soar over Snowmass, or fly all the way to Crested Butte and back, you’ll take in jaw-dropping vistas of his most-secret seasonal stashes. Because when in Aspen, right? $3,000 (one-hour flight), 970-948-4354, aspenhelicharter.com
Clip-In with Christian
For the serious, luxury-leaning cyclist, there’s still time to sign up for a last-minute spot in The Little Nell’s annual four-day cycling camp (Sept. 24-28, 2017). Now in its fourth year, retired professional road racer Christian Vande Velde is at the helm of the action-packed itinerary, which includes guided rides all over Aspen, gourmet group meals, wine tastings with master sommelier Carlton McCoy, a sponsored gear bag and, of course, accommodations at the five-star property. This year, former pro Craig Lewis and newcomer Ryder Hesjedal (Grand Tour 2012 Giro d’Italia winner) will also join in on the pedaling party, with Scott providing two road bike options to take for a test spin from their 2018 line. $5,750 (single rider), 970-920-4600, thelittlenell.com