Staggering alpine terrain, an enticing web of backcountry trails, gemlike lakes strung beneath a crown of peaksit’s no wonder hikers flock to Colorado’s Indian Peaks Wilderness all summer long, making it home to one of the most heavily used trail systems in the country. But come fall, the Front Range wilderness reverts to the kind of high-country retreat that drew all those people in the first place: a 73,000-acre parcel of Rocky Mountain highs where backpackers can find superlative scenery and solitude in equal proportions.
The catch? There isn’t one, unless you count the Rockies’ iffy fall weather.
One glance at the topo map tells you everything: Indian Peaks Wilderness, straddling the Continental Divide, delivers sky-scraping heights, broad valleys, and more than 50 alpine lakes. What the map doesn’t show you are mountainsides aglow with aspens turned gold, mountain lion tracks along the Sourdough Trail, golden eagles cruising the thermals over Paiute Lake, and black bears in the thick forests north of Arapaho Pass.
My favorite autumn hike is the 15-mile Buchanon Pass Trail. From Peaceful Valley, the path climbs more than 2,500 lung-busting feet in its first nine miles, following the course of the glacier-fed St. Vrain Creek. Just more than seven miles out is the trout-laden Red Deer Lake. Backed by a perennial snowfield, the lake is beyond the range of most dayhikers, who you may encounter along the first few miles of trail.
Next up is the top-of-the-world terrain at Buchanon Pass, where you cross the Continental Divide at 12,000 feet. I always take a long break on the divide to try to identify all the sights on the near-limitless horizon. Sawtooth Mountain, a well-known Front Range landmark, lies just south of the pass, and the peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park and the Never Summer Wilderness stab the sky to the north. To the east, Boulder Valley rolls out toward the High Plains, and Gourd Lake and other sparkling alpine ponds light up the land to the west. The only thing missing from this flawless vista is the crowds of summer.