Now’s the time to get to the high country and enjoy Colorado’s fall foliage
The splendor of the changing of the seasons is displayed in spectacular colors right now in aspen forests across western Colorado and eastern Utah.
You could travel in any direction from Grand Junction and find aspen trees turning colors, from deep summer greens to brilliant golds, yellows and reds at elevations 7,500 feet and higher. It’ll take a few more weeks for the cottonwoods and other foliage along the Colorado River to change here in the valley, but if you don’t head to the high country soon, you might miss the aspen turning.
Three factors influence autumn leaf color: leaf pigments, length of night and weather.
The timing of color change and leaf fall are primarily regulated by the increasing length of night. None of the other environmental influences — temperature, rainfall, food supply, etc. — are as unvarying as the steadily increasing length of night during autumn.
As days grow shorter and nights grow longer and cooler, biochemical processes in the leaf begin to paint the landscape with nature’s autumn palette.
I could wax poetic about chlorophyll, which gives leaves their basic green color, or carotenoids, which produce yellow, orange, and brown colors, or even anthocyanins, which give color to such familiar things as cranberries, red apples, concord grapes, cherries and plums. They are water soluble and appear in the watery liquid of leaf cells.
My extensive research on this subject (from the U.S. Forest Service) tells me both chlorophyll and carotenoids are present in the chloroplasts of leaf cells throughout the growing season. Most anthocyanins are produced in the autumn, however, “in response to bright light and excess plant sugars within leaf cells.”
Now that you know all that, I can stop waxing poetic. But before I tell you where I went to celebrate this changing of the seasons — Glacier Springs Campground in the Mesa Lakes Group — I’ll tell you that my favorite drive in the entire state at this time of year is over Kebler Pass, between Paonia and Crested Butte.
This is a dirt road, but well maintained. It travels around the edges of the Raggeds Wilderness Area and Dark Canyon, where you can view one of the largest contiguous stands of aspen on the entire planet.
To reach Kebler Pass, travel south from Grand Junction to Delta on U.S. Highway 50. Turn east on Colorado Highway 92 to Hotchkiss, then take Colorado Highway 133 to Paonia. Keep driving past Paonia through Somerset.
A few miles past this small coal-mining town, watch for signs of the pass on the right, or south side of the road. Just before you reach Paonia dam, take that right turn. It’s about 23.5 miles to Crested Butte from that point.
Closer to home, Piñon Mesa also offers spectacular scenery this time of year. Take Broadway to Monument Road, then travel through the east gate of the Colorado National Monument. If you’re traveling to Glade Park or Piñon Mesa, you don’t have to pay the entrance fee, but if you’ve got your yearly pass, flash it anyway, in support of the national monument.
Once you get through the tunnel and past Cold Shivers Point on the east side of the monument, turn left at the sign pointing toward the Glade Park Store. Travel to the store, then take a left, traveling south on 16½ Road, and head on up the hill.
Now, back to Glacier Springs and Grand Mesa — it’s truly grand this time of year with all the aspen crawling up the sides of the largest flattop mountain in the hemisphere. Glacier Springs is located in the Mesa Lakes group. That’s the first group of lakes you’ll reach once you climb above Powderhorn Ski Area heading toward the top of the mesa.
You’ll see plenty of color on the way up, and you’ll discover there are a plethora of activities this Color Sunday on Grand Mesa. For example, The Mesa Leaf Library Volunteers’ fifth annual Arts and Crafts Fair is from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Mesa Community Center in the town of Mesa. You’ll travel through this quaint little town to reach the top of Grand Mesa.
An annual Color Sunday Dinner to benefit 4-H is at the same time in the same community center.
A Color Sunday Festival takes place at Powderhorn Ski Resort. Lift rides are available from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; $10 for adults and $5 for kids 12 and younger.
There’s also live music at P-Horn for your enjoyment.
A Color Sunday open house is from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Grand Mesa Visitor Center. Mascots Smokey Bear and Woodsey Owl will be on hand, and the Rocky Mountain Nature Association will present a nature program.