2022 fall foliage forecast: How will the wet summer affect the changing leaves?

Learn the best spots to see the leaves change in Routt County

Fall colors in Steamboat Springs could be affected by the wet summer.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

The Yampa Valley has had a damp summer, which has been great for postponing, and hopefully avoiding, fires this season. However, it might have a negative effect on leaves changing color this fall. 

“The moisture is helpful for general stress reduction and productivity of most of our stems, but too much water can also be a detriment,” said Carolina Manriquez, a forester with Colorado State Forest Service. “There’s a lot of foliage fungus.”

Fungi such as marssonina, or black leaf spot, cause leaves to go gray or brown rather than turning a bright color. 

Of course, some trees in areas not heavily affected by fungus are loving the additional moisture this year and had a busy growing season, according to Manriquez. 

“When you look out, you see areas where the aspen are looking green and beautiful and there are other areas where it’s kind of grayish and whitish,” she said. “And in other areas, the moisture that we got this summer came a bit late and the (tree) is already dying and this moisture didn’t make a difference. We have to think of this moisture as part of a 20-year drought.”

The rain has helped grasses thrive this summer, but trees take longer to react to moisture, and one summer hardly makes a dent in a decades-long drought. 

In short, the autumn prediction is just as much a guessing game in 2022 as it has been in years passed.

Leaves change based on numerous factors such as tree health, elevation, latitude, moisture, frost and more. Some factors will have more of a pull in one area, while others dictate the color in another area.

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Leaves changing colors is a chemical reaction triggered by cold weather in which trees move their sugars down to the roots in preparation for hibernation. This retraction of sugars paired with slower production of chlorophyll is what changes the color of the leaves.

When trees are stressed, this happens earlier in the year so the plants can try to preserve food and resources. 

Since this reaction is triggered by colder nights, trees at higher elevation tend to change first. The color seeps down a mountain as if an egg was cracked at the top and the yolk dripped over the course of weeks. 

Because of this, it’s hard to determine one color “peak” for areas with such a range in elevation. That doesn’t stop people from trying, though. The fall foliage prediction map at has Routt County’s colors peaking on Oct. 24.

“That seems really late,” Manriquez said. “It’s usually late September.”

The map was created in 2013 and quickly gained popularity nationwide. It doesn’t claim to be 100% accurate, but rather a visual tool to help plan trips. It uses historical and forecasted temperatures and precipitation as well historical trends and user reports. The map is aided by a public, three-question survey that anyone can fill out to improve accuracy.

The Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests also created a map a few years ago that helps people see where they could potentially see colors. The entire California Park area north of Hayden is lit up red to indicate it’s a great place to see foliage. Additionally, a few stretches along roads in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming are highlighted as well. 

The Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests fall foliage map shows where people can see leaves change color based on where deciduous trees appear in the forest.
Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests/Courtesy photo

“They’re a pioneer species, they come back quicker than the pine do, or even the spruce,” said Aaron Voos, public affairs specialist with the US.. Forest Service. “So, we have seen, especially along the roadsides where we’ve done a lot of clearing, more aspen, and subsequently more fall colors.”

Where to find fall colors in Routt County

Bear River Corridor: Take Routt County Road 7 out of Yampa to Forest Road 900, one of the most popular gateways to the Flat Tops Wilderness Area. There are aspens aplenty and Alpine lakes in which to catch their bright reflections.

Dunckley Pass: Another access point to the Flat Tops, Dunckley Pass is almost a sure bet for gorgeous colors. The scenic drive down Routt County Road 8 west of Yampa is worth the haul. 

Buffalo Pass: The drive up Routt County Road 38 to Summit Lake is a rough one, but the colors are worth the bumpy ride. All the trails in the area are worth spending time on, especially Flash of Gold, which is named for its autumn splendor. 

Rabbit Ears Pass: Driving or hiking, Rabbit Ears Pass on U.S. Highway 40 is a delight to explore in late September. It’s high altitude, but not so high altitude that peepers have to wait until mid-October to enjoy the colors. 

Routt County Road 62: Get slightly off the beaten path and take a left at the Clark Store while heading up Routt County Road 129. The road is slightly less traveled and leads to the west side of Steamboat Lake.

North Routt: Whether exploring Hahns Peak Village, Columbine or Steamboat Lake, there is an abundance of aspens and other flora.

Closer to town: There are many options close to town but the payoff might not be quite as fabulous. There’s Spring Creek, Fish Creek Falls, Mad Creek, the Yampa River Core Trail, the Yampa River Preserve just outside of Hayden and Chuck Lewis State Wildlife Area along Routt County Road 14.

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