Get out and enjoy fall on Durango’s impressive local trails

Fall in Durango is a wonderful time to hit the trails. The days are mild and the leaves are changing, blanketing the landscape in autumn bliss. Whether you want to get out on a quick evening hike or spend the weekend in the woods, here are six trails within 30 miles of downtown Durango for the best autumn colors.

bridge colorado trail junction creek
A bridge crossing Junction Creek on the Colorado Trail signals the start of a series of switchbacks up to Gudy’s Rest.Tiona Eversole
Colorado Trail

Running 486 miles from Denver to Durango, the Colorado Trail offers multiple segments at varying lengths. The Junction Creek trailhead is only 5 miles from downtown Durango. 

For a nice day hike or mountain bike ride, start from the Junction Creek trailhead and make your way to Gudy’s Rest. This part of the Colorado Trail winds through dense forest and gains about 1,400 feet to a nice lookout. Start early and have lunch at the lookout before heading back to the trailhead for a total distance of 8.1 miles. 

If you’re looking for an excellent high country mountain bike ride, then shuttling the last segment of the Colorado Trail is a must. Start at the top of Kennebec Pass on the Colorado Trail and make your way down to the Junction Creek Trailhead on this 22-mile ride. Be prepared to do some climbing — about 1,500 feet — but the downhill on this ride is worth a little suffering.

Falls Creek

The Falls Creek trail system offers hiking and mountain biking for all skill levels. Tucked away in Hidden Valley 6 miles from downtown Durango, Falls Creek provides an escape from the bustle of town without having to travel too far. Climb the ridge for stunning views of Missionary Ridge across the adjacent valley, or walk the meadow and marvel at the changing scrub oak on the face of Animas Mountain. 

Falls Creek offers several pulloffs for parking, allowing for hikers and bikers to customize the distance and duration of their trip. The main parking area is located at the entrance to the valley, and is designated with an information board that talks to the trails and archaeological history in the area. 

haviland lake durango colorado
The sun sets on the ridge above Haviland Lake one fall evening.Tiona Eversole
Haviland Lake/Chris Park

Located 20 miles north of downtown Durango, Haviland Lake and Chris Park are full of history. Stop to read the signs at the trailhead before heading out, which will provide you a brief history of the area along with what to keep an eye out for while you’re hiking around. You might come across a pile of antiquated, rusted cans — or find yourself standing in the remnants of an old miner’s cabin.

Haviland Lake and Chris Park are easier than many of the other trails on this list. Steep climbs on these trails are few. The loop and connector options allow you to customize the length of your hike as well.

A good sense of direction is a must while hiking these trails. Many of the trails in the Haviland Lake/Chris Park area are not marked, and you will encounter many forks in the trail. This map is a good resource while exploring this trail system.

missionary ridge fall
Missionary Ridge dazzles with fall colors and views of the nearby San Juan Mountains.Cole Davis
Missionary Ridge

Known for the Missionary Ridge Fire that ravaged 71,739 acres back in 2002, this area north of Durango has bounced back tremendously. These days, young aspens and scrub oak set Missionary Ridge ablaze in deep shades of gold and auburn.

Haflin Creek to Missionary Ridge provides a difficult yet rewarding day hike. This 6.4-mile out-and-back climbs almost 3,000 feet to its conjunction with the Missionary Ridge Trail.

Many mountain bikers opt to ride this trail as a shuttle. This is a technical downhill trail with rocky outcrops and tight switchbacks, and is not recommended for novice riders.

Since traffic consists of both uphill hikers and downhill riders, please respect other trail users and make sure you know who has the right-of-way. And on windy days, exercise extreme caution. Dead trees from the Missionary Ridge Fire are still prone to falling. 

purgatory trail aspens
The Purgatory Trail winds through aspen groves on the descent to Purgatory Flats and Cascade Creek.Terrance Siemon
Purgatory Flats

If aspens are what you seek, then head north to the Purgatory Trail. Located across from Purgatory Resort, this trail quickly descends roughly 700 feet in about a mile. The trail takes you through aspen groves to a spacious valley known as Purgatory Flats, where the 13,000- and 14,000-foot Needles Mountains tower above. In this valley, you will find several trails that shoot off in different directions. 

For a shorter day hike, simply spend time wandering around Purgatory Flats and enjoying the gentle flow of Cascade Creek until you are ready to make the trek back up to your vehicle.

If you’re looking to add a few more miles, head south from the valley. This trail follows Cascade Creek to its confluence with the Animas River, where a picturesque bridge carries you across the fast-moving waters to a nice little rest area.

If you’re interested in backpacking, take the Purgatory Trail to Chicago Basin. If starting at this trailhead and treating your trip as an out-and-back (Chicago Basin connects to many other backpacking routes), the total distance is approximately 26 miles roundtrip. Known for its proximity to three 14ers — 14,059-foot Sunlight Peak, 14,083-foot Mount Eolus and 14,082-foot Windom Peak — Chicago Basin is the perfect base camp for those looking to summit some of the state’s most remote and rugged 14ers.

Vallecito Creek

The Vallecito Creek trailhead is located about 30 miles east of Durango past Vallecito Reservoir. Primarily used for hiking, backpacking and horseback riding, this 12.7-mile out-and-back trail is an excellent starting point to exploring the Weminuche Wilderness. 

For a shorter hike, head to the first footbridge — a 6-mile roundtrip hike that follows Vallecito Creek, slowly climbing above the swift, rocky waters before descending to the water’s edge.

For backpackers, the Vallecito Creek Trail offers countless opportunities to spend anywhere from three nights or longer in the backcountry. From the Vallecito Creek Trail, backpackers can link up with the Continental Divide Trail, head out on the Weminuche Trail or connect to the Pine River Trail and hit Emerald Lake on a loop. 

Whether you’re looking for a short day hike or plan on spending a few days backpacking, the Vallecito Creek Trail offers countless opportunities to take in the scenic Vallecito Creek and the surrounding jagged peaks. 

For other ideas on what to do in the Durango area, check out these 5 Autumn Adventures.