There’s gold in “them thar’ hills.” Of course the gold isn’t the kind you take to the bank, but it’s the bright orange, reds and yellows that attract leaf peepers to the byways and backcountry trails every autumn. While it’s easy to lament the passing of warm weather and long days, Mother Nature softens the blow with an explosion of color.
All that color has been lurking in the trees all along. Chlorophyll keeps the leaves green all summer, masking the reds and yellows until the chlorophyll breaks down and the other colors come through. There’s just as much yellow and red in the leaf in July, but those colors are hidden by the green.
The calendar is the primary trigger in the timing of the color change. The decrease in sunlight switches off the mechanism in the leaves that creates chlorophyll. As the green fades, the gold color dominates until the dying leaf flutters to the ground.
The intensity of the color depends on the weather, tree species, elevation and location of the tree. Certain colors are characteristic of particular tree species. Oaks turn red, brown or russet while aspen and poplars turn golden yellow. Maples differ species by species with red maple turning a brilliant scarlet, sugar maple going to orange-red and black maple changing to glowing yellow. Leaves of some species, such as the elms, simply shrivel up and fall, exhibiting little color other than drab brown.
If it freezes or a snowstorm suddenly hits, the leaves can freeze green and turn brown or black. Wind can speed up the process if conditions turn gusty late in the color change process, causing the leaves to drop quickly. Hopefully, that doesn’t happen this year and we have a long autumn with moisture, warm days, cool nights and minimal wind. These conditions, along with shorter days, enhance the best fall leaf colors.
Plan now for your leaf-peeping tour. Peak color is likely a couple weeks away, but the change is starting and it should be especially colorful by mid-September.
Aaron Voos, public affairs specialist with the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests, said leaf peeping options abound along roadways and trails. Suggestions on where to go are shown on a map available on the Medicine Bow National Forest website under the “Special Places” tab. In addition to roadways within the Snowy Range, the map also shows routes for Pole Mountain and the Sierra Madre Mountains.
The best color in the Medicine Bow National Forest is typically where aspen trees are especially abundant. Aspen is particularly plentiful where hardier trees have been damaged or destroyed.
“There are many areas around here to leaf peep,” Voos said. “Some of the best happen to be along our roads since most have had hazard tree work done and now aspens are some of the first pioneer species to come back in. We encourage people to take a drive.”
For those up for a longer drive, the western side of the Sierra Madre Mountains is especially rich in color. The higher moisture in that area contributes to the aspen growth where mature aspen stands provide large swaths bursting with color every fall.
The famed Aspen Alley is a stretch of mature aspen that creates a “tunnel” over Forest Road 801 in the Sierra Madre Mountains. This one-mile stretch of gravel road is far from its once spectacular glory but, thanks to new growth aspen coming in beneath the dead snags from the old aspen trees, it is still worth a visit. Give it a few years and it should be a top place for leaf peeping once again.
For those looking to hike or bike to view the color, head to the Medicine Bow Rail Trail, especially going south from the Woods Creek trailhead off of Highway 230 in the Snowy Range. Check out the fire scars that cross the Rail Trail. At the most recent Badger Creek Fire area between the Woods Creek and Vienna trailheads, pine trees tower as mere blackened skeletons. Close to the ground, beneath the burned trees, aspen is especially abundant and should provide excellent leaf peeping opportunities this year.
The Corner Mountain hiking paths off of Highway 120, as well as paths along Sand Lake Road, are also excellent options. Follow creeks in the Pole Mountain area where aspen mixes with cottonwood trees for more varied colors. Willows also add to the color, as well as other undergrowth along the creek bottoms.
The crystal ball remains cloudy on the quality of this fall’s color display. Here’s hoping for a mild fall that provides plenty of leaf peeping opportunities.