Leaf-looking tips for peepers

Close to the Colorado River, these aspens and willows are a brilliant gold. Can you spot the rainbow in the background?
Meg Soyars/Sky-Hi News

Autumn has officially begun, and Grand County is traditionally one of the best areas to view the changing leaves. Slow down for a scenic drive to take in yellow, golds and sometimes bright orange. Parks, whether Rocky Mountain or Granby’s secluded Kaibab, are great places to take in the beauty of fall.

According to forester Bill Wolf of the Colorado State Forest Service’s Granby field office, leaf-peeping season began early here this year and peaked last week, when colors were brightest.

“This has been an interesting season for fall colors this year in Grand County … It’s not an exact science, but I’m sure there are many factors that contributed to this,” said Wolf.  “Hot, sunny days and cool, but not cold, nights are best for bringing out and sustaining vivid colors.  Grand County saw several nights that dipped below freezing.  This may have contributed to a shorter than normal season.”

When leaf-peepers think of fall colors, aspens often come to mind, with their golds and orange canopy offset by their brilliant white trunks. Wolf said that aspens changed color especially early this year.

“Active monsoons helped the drought-stressed aspens, but then the rains decreased late season.  This lack of moisture may have expedited the viewing season and leaf drop,” said Wolf.  “I think that Grand County’s color viewing may have peaked this last week, but leaf peepers should be able to enjoy more colors if they travel south.”

Residents ready for a road trip can read this US Forest Service list of deciduous trees (those that turn color and shed their leaves in the fall). These trees offer stunning colors to lose yourself in before the snow flies.

  • Quaking Aspen – Usually found in clusters of yellow and gold at higher elevations and sometimes over entire hillsides, these beauties grow in areas disturbed by things like forest fires, where they bask in full sunshine. Aspens grow in clones that reproduce by sprouting from their roots, making aspen groves one of nature’s largest living organisms.  Different clones in aspen forest stands may have slightly different timing when their leaves change colors, and some clones turn different shades of yellow to orange. Aspens are an iconic tree across the landscape of Grand County.
  • Rocky Mountain Maple – These can resemble a multi-stemmed shrub or a small tree and generally grow five or six feet tall. Look for them at low to mid-elevations in rocky areas, along stream banks, in canyons, or on moist slopes. Their leaves turn yellow and sometimes orange to bright red in the fall. Press the leaves between the pages of a book to enjoy autumn colors year-round   
  • Cottonwood – There are two types in the Rocky Mountain Region, both live near rivers and lakes at different elevations. The plains cottonwood with large, wide leaves grows in the plains and foothills, and narrow leafed cottonwoods grow in higher elevations. Look closely to spot animals or birds near the cottonwood trees since these are favorable habitat for wildlife. Their leaves generally turn bright yellow in the fall.      
  • Willow – These can resemble a small tree or shrub and generally grow in thickets along riverbanks and in moist areas. They are also a favorite for wildlife. In fall, their leaves turn yellow.   
  • Alpine tundra – The miniature plants that grow above tree line on the very fragile alpine tundra create a beautiful mosaic of oranges and reds in the fall. Look closely but be careful not to trample these little gems – some tundra plants take several hundred years to grow just a few inches.   

“I think people focus on aspen and sometimes forget about the other species,” said Wolf.  “A couple of good winters and good summers of moisture will help with our long-term drought and really push the color viewing into the stellar category.”

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