Loren Duggan, left, and her mother Lee Tillotson walk with Duggan’s son Odin, 3, and their dog Karli hike among the quickly changing Aspen trees along the Switzerland Trail on Sept. 18, 2018 near Nederland. Colors are peaking in the area. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post)
Mother Nature has been teasing us this year, but Coloradans eagerly awaiting the onset of fall color changes in the high country may not have too much longer to wait for the show.
Last year, the peak of the color change came earlier than normal because of drought in much of the state. Only a couple weeks ago, it looked like this year’s timing would be fairly typical, with color-changes starting around mid-September. But now, aspen experts are noting a delayed onset of the transformation, which typically moves from north to south across the state.
“We originally thought leading into this that we were going to be right about on-average for peak times, but it’s been so warm, and we haven’t had any cool temperatures come through,” said Dan West, a Colorado State Forest Service entomologist who teaches at Colorado State University. “We are seeing them delayed now. This isn’t an exact science. From what I’ve been seeing around northern Colorado, it looks like we’re one to two weeks behind what we would normally see on average.”
Still, there are signs that it may be close. Marcia Gilles, deputy district ranger for the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District, said she saw indications of that last weekend when she made the drive on U.S. 24 from Minturn to Leadville.
“I was just up there and it is probably going to start drastically changing from this weekend into next week,” Gilles said. “You can see some of them starting to go, turning this lighter green, so you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s going to happen soon.’”
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West noticed that, too.
“I was just up in Estes Park and they were just getting that off-greenish color, which means they are just starting,” West said. “With the cooler weather we’re supposed to be getting in, I thought, ‘OK, next week should really start to get things up and going.’ That puts us a week or two behind what I thought we were going to be leading up into the season.”
In any case, it’s time to start making plans. West gave us a list of his favorite leaf-peeping spots:
U.S. 285 over Kenosha Pass
This is one of Colorado’s favorite road trips for aspen-viewing, although it can be difficult to score a parking spot on the pass. In fact, “It gets kind of ugly up there,” U.S. Forest Service district ranger Josh Voorhis says. If you do find a parking spot, there are trails to hike through spectacular aspen stands. For a more extended trip, continue driving west from the pass on 285 to Como, then take the gravel Boreas Pass Road over to Breckenridge. You can return to Denver by way of Interstate 70.
Peak to Peak Highway
Otherwise known as Colorado Highway 72, the stretch between Nederland on the south and Allenspark on the north is a great place for aspen-gazing by car or bike ride. You might want to consider a side trip to Brainard Lake, too, which you’ll find at a turnoff to the west about halfway between Nederland and Allenspark.
Endovalley in Rocky Mountain National Park
You’ll find this by taking U.S. 34 (also known as Fall River Road) west from Estes Park. About 2.5 miles past the Fall River Visitor Center, turn right (west) at Endovalley Road. About two miles up Endovalley Road, there is a loop with a picnic area. You can take this loop and then head east back to U.S. 34 or continue west on the Old Fall River Road. This is a gravel road that is one-way westbound until it dead-ends at the Alpine Visitor Center high on Trail Ridge Road. From there, you can take Trail Ridge to the park’s Grand Lake Entrance to view the Kawunechee Valley (see below) or return to Estes Park via Trail Ridge.
Kawunechee Valley in Rocky Mountain National Park
This valley on the west side of the park runs north and south along U.S. 34 (Trail Ridge Road), paralleling the upper reaches of the Colorado River.
Poudre Canyon/Laramie River valley
Take Colorado Highway 14 west from Fort Collins into Poudre Canyon to see colorful cottonwoods. About 50 miles up the canyon, turn north at County Road 103 and head into the Laramie River valley for gorgeous aspens and willows.
Poudre River Trail in Fort Collins
Here you will find cottonwoods turning yellow, which can turn a simple evening stroll in town into a special autumn treat.
There are great aspen stands all over this area, including slopes that rise above Interstate 70 east of Vail Village. One great option is to drive south on U.S. 24 from Minturn to Leadville over Tennessee Pass. Another goes north from Vail on Red Sandstone Road to Forest Service roads 700 and 701, terminating at Piney Lake, which is simply one of the most beautiful spots in Colorado. Here, rugged peaks of the Gore Range serve as a stunning backdrop for an idyllic lake where you can see their reflections — along with changing aspens, too. “Oh my goodness, it’s gorgeous up there,” said Marcia Gilles, deputy district ranger for the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District. Yet another good drive goes west from Vail Pass over Shrine Pass to Red Cliff via Forest Road 709.
Flat Tops Trail Scenic Byway
Get away from the crowds and experience this beautiful 82-mile drive between Yampa and Meeker, much of which traverses open rangeland and about half of which is paved. It traverses the White River Plateau to the north of the Flat Tops Wilderness Area. Dunckley Pass (9,763 feet) and Ripple Creek Pass (10,343) offer panoramic views. Visitors are advised to check their fuel gauges before making the drive because there are no gas stations between Yampa and Meeker.
La Veta Pass
This drive on U.S. 160 west of Walsenburg crosses the Sangre de Cristo Range between the eastern plains and the San Luis Valley. At the pass (9,413 feet), there is a panoramic vista overlooking an open bowl.
Crested Butte area
There are very scenic routes out of Crested Butte, but most are out-and-back dirt roads with slow speed limits, and they can be crowded in leaf-peeping season. One great drive that might prove less challenging heads up and over Kebler Pass, through one of the most renowned aspen stands in the state, and continues another 25 miles to Colorado Highway 133 at Paonia State Park. From there, you can go north to McClure Pass and Carbondale or west to Grand Mesa. Both are great for aspen-viewing.
The world’s largest flat-top mountain,15 miles east of Grand Junction, is a great destination for fall colors. Cross the mesa on the Grand Mesa Scenic Byway, a 50-mile drive from the town of Mesa on the north to Cedaredge on the south, and you’ll see fall colors pretty much the whole way. Stop at the Grand Mesa Visitor Center at the top of the mesa for more information. There are many beautiful lakes on the top of the mesa, and don’t miss the Lands End Overlook, about 10 miles west of the scenic byway via Lands End Road on the western rim of the mesa, which offers soaring views of the Grand Valley.
A view of Mount Sneffels
Finally, here’s one from a reader: “About 6 miles west of Ridgway on Highway 62, there is a pull-off where photographers assemble to photograph Mount Sneffels with magnificent color. A great panorama photograph.” Mount Sneffels is a beautiful fourteener.
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