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Golden Gate Canyon State Park: Hikes, Aspens, and Fall Colors

Adele Jeunette has been a librarian for 20 years. She lives in Denver, not too far from the Molly Brown house.

Hiking Colorado's Golden Gate Canyon: Scenery from Beaver Creek Trail

Hiking Colorado's Golden Gate Canyon: Scenery from Beaver Creek Trail

A Short Drive to Golden Gate Canyon State Park for Fall Color

Since Golden Gate Canyon State Park is only 30 miles from Denver, it’s great for a short trip to see the aspen's changing colors during the fall. I went there in October of 2015 and decided to take a short hike on Beaver Trail to see the change in the fall leaves.

Most descriptions you can find of the park are short and vague, so I thought I'd tell you more about what you can expect if you hike this trail. Here's a bit about the hike, as well as nearby lodging options and plenty of photos to give you a preview of what you can expect to see when visiting!

General Information About Golden Gate Canyon State Park

Since Golden Gate Canyon is a state park, there is a small admission fee per car. As of 2022, the daily admission fee per car is $10.00. You can pay at the Visitor’s Center or at a small booth near the entrance of the park. When it’s not busy, there is a little self-pay canister.

The Visitor’s Center is at about 8,200 feet in altitude, and Reverend Ridge on the west side of the park is around 9,200 feet above sea level. At the Visitor’s Center, you can get maps, ask questions of the rangers, buy firewood, get a drink, and use the restrooms (flush toilets!).

Unfortunately, I didn’t see any kinds of snacks for sale or any drink vending machines, so make sure to bring plenty of food and drink with you. There are also some nice displays like a topographical map of the area and information about the local wildlife (including taxidermied animals—just so you’re warned) that you can read over before beginning your adventure.

Lodging and Hotels Near Golden Gate State Park

Golden Gate Canyon State Park has several lodging options and places to pitch your own tent, cabins, and yurts. There are no kitchens or sinks, but they do have a heater and electric lights. Flush toilets and showers are within walking distance. Also, a three-bedroom guest house with a full kitchen opened recently that you can book. Our family enjoyed camping there in the summer, and I decided to take another trip there in the fall to see the aspen colors.

Hotels

There are a few hotels, many attached to casinos, just outside the park and near the historic cities of Central and Black Hawk. The closest lodging you can book to Golden Gate is just under 20 miles away, but you can make the drive back to the park another scenic experience. Try Ameristar Black Hawk, Monarch Casino Resort Spa Black Hawk, Horseshoe Black Hawk, or the Lady Luck Casino when visiting the area.

One of the cabins available for rent at Golden Gate Canyon State Park

One of the cabins available for rent at Golden Gate Canyon State Park

Fall Colors at the Golden Gate Canyon State Park Visitor’s Center

There is a beautiful strand of aspens near the Visitor’s Center, which is coupled with bushes that turn bright red. You almost have enough scenery right there to fill up your camera’s memory card. Here are the photos I took just wandering around the entrance to the park.

Hiking Up Beaver Trail

Eventually, I wanted to get out and see more. Since Beaver Trail was listed as relatively short (2.8 miles) and promised good views and aspen groves, I thought I’d give it a try. Even though one spur of the trail starts right out from the Visitor's Center, the ranger advised me to drive a half mile up the road and start off at Slough Pond so that I wouldn’t have to cross the highways at a blind curve.

The trail starts at about 8,200 feet and gains around 1,000 feet in altitude. It is listed as one of their “most difficult” hikes, which I guess is a matter of perspective. I’m middle-aged and not in the best shape, but I wouldn’t say it was that difficult. It did gain a lot of elevation, but I stopped pretty often. I did it in about two and a half hours because I wanted to stop and take lots of photos of the fall colors (and also to catch my breath).

I’d have to say I’ve been on a lot of steeper longer trails, and I’d rate Beaver Trail as a medium. You’ll have to take into account that I live in Denver at 5,200 feet, so the altitude wasn’t as much of an issue for me as for someone coming from sea level. If you are coming from the lowlands (which is anything under 5,000 ft, in my honest opinion), you may want to pick a more moderate hike, or plan to take lots and lots of rest stops.

The Visitor's Center at Golden Gate Canyon State Park includes this list of things a person should take on a hike to be prepared.

The Visitor's Center at Golden Gate Canyon State Park includes this list of things a person should take on a hike to be prepared.

Preparing for the Hike Up Beaver Trail

This display at the Visitor’s Center has some good tips, but you’ll want to know them before you get there. Here are the most important ones:

  • Take a walking stick. On the way down, Beaver Trail is steep, steep, steep, steep, with lots of loose pines needles, and some gravel, and it’s easy to slip. I slipped three times and actually fell once. Lots of people use collapsible lightweight aluminum walking sticks.
  • Take water. It’s amazing how thirsty you can get at dry, high altitudes.
  • Take a jacket and a rain poncho. Even if you’re roasting at the trailhead, the weather can turn on a dime, and there is no such thing as a warm rain shower in the Rocky Mountains.
  • Have a companion. I went on a Friday, and the good news was that I had the trail all to myself. The bad news is that it would have been a long crawl to the car if I’d turned an ankle badly.

Fall Colors at Slough Pond and Beaver Trail

There is space for about a dozen cars in the parking lot as well as a picnic table and a pond that people can fish in. It is right by the highway, so not the best place for quiet and solitude.

Fellows fishing at Slough Pond near the trail head for Beaver Trail at Golden Gate Canyon State Park.

Fellows fishing at Slough Pond near the trail head for Beaver Trail at Golden Gate Canyon State Park.

Trees aren't the only plants that change colors in the fall. The bushes and grasses near streams and brooks  turn warm, earthy colors.

Trees aren't the only plants that change colors in the fall. The bushes and grasses near streams and brooks turn warm, earthy colors.

Trail head sign for Beaver Trail at Golden Gate Canyon State Park

Trail head sign for Beaver Trail at Golden Gate Canyon State Park

It’s time to start climbing. In fact, I’d recommend taking the first right-hand turn you come to on the trail, so that you take the steepest part of the trail up and the more gentle part of the loop going down. If you haven’t hiked in the Rocky Mountains much before, you’ll find that you are fighting gravity both ways—trying to get away from it as you go up, and working to keep it from pulling you down too rapidly as you descend.

At points, trail conditions make it easy to slip. When coming down, it's tricky to negotiate loose rocks and gravel. It's a lot steeper than it looks here, as well.

At points, trail conditions make it easy to slip. When coming down, it's tricky to negotiate loose rocks and gravel. It's a lot steeper than it looks here, as well.

Some Sights Along the Upward Portion of Beaver Trail

If you take the right fork, you’ll climb up through pine forest toward the top of the mountain. You’ll see a few aspens here and there, but you won’t see the vistas until you’ve reached the top and are heading down along the ridge.

Heading Down the Other Side of Beaver Trail

Here is where you will see some vistas of the colorful aspen trees on the mountains across the valley. This side includes several switchbacks that make it easier to keep your footing while you descend.

You’ll notice that my long shots show a lot of haze. We had a wet spring and summer the years these were taken, but unfortunately California and Washington did not. Smoke in the west is going to be an unfortunate part of life for some time to come, I’m afraid. I would have preferred a clear day, but it’s worth documenting the time period.

The Story Behind Lichen

One of the first questions I got when I worked at the Denver Botanic Gardens was "How fast does lichen grow?" It was tricky to find in those days before the internet, but I'm proud to tell you I found the answer: 1 X 10 with an exponent of -14. Extremely slowly. So this lichen has likely been around hundred of years.

You may know that lichen is a composite of algae or bacteria (or both) and fungus. But did you know that children's author Beatrix Potter (of Peter Rabbit fame) was the first to figure this out? She was quite the amateur naturalist. She even wrote a paper to present at the Linnean Society of London, but they didn't allow women in their organization. So, she had to give it to a man to read to them.

So unfair! On the other hand, how many people remember anyone from the Linnean Society of London? Now who remembers Peter Rabbit? Maybe she got the upper hand in the end.

You can find many types of lichen growing on the rocks at Golden Gate State Canyon park.

You can find many types of lichen growing on the rocks at Golden Gate State Canyon park.

Here is another scene you can capture as you hike down along the ridge on Beaver Trail.

Here is another scene you can capture as you hike down along the ridge on Beaver Trail.

Near the trail head, a nice specimen of Colorado's state tree, the blue spruce.

Near the trail head, a nice specimen of Colorado's state tree, the blue spruce.

A Successful Hike of Beaver Trail at Golden Gate State Park

Now it’s 2.8 miles later, and you are back where you started. Remember, all these photos were taken the first weekend of October, and there was still a fair amount of color left. An early freeze or strong windstorm might move the peak season earlier. Here are some helpful links that talk about when you can expect to see the colors turn in the Rocky Mountains and include some other places to view the fall leaves.

John Fielder is the name in Colorado photography, and it seems he has been almost everywhere in the state. The book Colorado Autumn is about 80 pages of his favorites over the last 20 years. I like that it's not a huge coffee-table book, but a more manageable size to peruse.

After looking at the spread on pages 42–43, I've decided I definitely need to make a trip to Horse Ranch Park below Kebler Pass in the Gunnison National Forest in the fall. Beautiful reds, oranges, yellows and greens with rugged peaks as a backdrop.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Adele Jeunette (author) from Colorado on October 11, 2015:

You pay a $7.00 fee for the day. If you're camping, I'm not sure if you have to pay that fee, but you do have to pay for a campsite, cabin, yurt or guesthouse. The fees are pretty reasonable.

James from The Eastern Bypass on October 09, 2015:

The place looks very beautiful. I really like the mix of colors. What are the entry requirements?