Fall colors getting an early start at high elevations | SteamboatToday.com
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Fall colors getting an early start at high elevations

Some of the aspen trees near the top of Rabbit Ears Pass have just started to take on their autumn colors. (Photo by John F. Russell)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — If it feels as though fall-like weather and changing colors have arrived a little early this year, that’s because they have.

“What I can tell you is sooner rather than later,” Yampatika naturalist Katie Albin said. “Things are changing quickly.”

On Friday, longtime U.S. Forest Service employee Kent Foster was doing work on Buffalo Pass, which is one of the best places in the state to see fall colors.

“Up high, what I’m seeing is a little bit of color,” Foster said. “It feels earlier than usual. Stuff is curing out.”

John Twitchell, a forester with the Colorado State Forest Service, was working in the woods in North Routt County at an elevation of 8,200 feet.

“I think the drought is going to impact the colors,” Twitchell said. “I think it’s still going to be beautiful. It might be a little more muted.”

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, southern Routt County is in extreme drought, while the northern half of the county is in severe drought.

Twitchell said drought causes the trees to become stressed and that can cause them to lose their leaves earlier.

“It might not be a record setter because of the drought,” Twitchell said about the fall colors.

The timing is dependent on other factors, such as shorter days, as well.

“The trees are attuned to how much light they get every day,” Twitchell said.

During fall, a layer of corky cells forms in the stem of the leaves. This layer quickly blocks the flow of minerals and chlorophyll.

Without chlorophyll, the yellow pigments, called xanthophylls, and orange pigments, called carotenoids, are revealed.

They’ve been hidden in the leaves for months by the green color of chlorophyll.

Temperature also is a factor in the timing and vividness.

The perfect ingredients for a fall show are an abundance of summer moisture followed by cool but not freezing nights and warm days.

According to SmokyMountains.com, our region will begin to see patchy colors by about Sept. 17. The organization is predicting the colors to peak around Oct. 8.

Fall drives

Buffalo Pass: This is listed as one of the top 10 places in Colorado to see the changing aspen trees. Head east to the top of Buffalo Pass Road, which is lined with rows of glowing aspen groves. The bumpy road winds up about 8 miles toward the Continental Divide and Summit Lake. To get there, drive east on Routt County Road 38 following the signs to Buffalo Pass.

Rabbit Ears Pass: Just as picturesque as the wildflowers of summer, Rabbit Ears is a fantastic place to see the fall foliage, especially near Dumont Lake. Travel 22 miles southeast on U.S. Highway 40 (Rabbit Ears Pass), then head north on Forest Service Road 315 for about 1 mile.

Seedhouse Road: To get there, drive west on U.S. 40 to Routt County Road 129, then travel about 20 miles north of Steamboat on C.R. 129 to Seedhouse Road, just beyond Clark. Turn right and drive 11 miles to the end of the road at the Slavonia Trailhead to access the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area.

Dunckley Pass: Another suggestion is to head toward the Flat Tops Wilderness Area via the Flat Tops Scenic Byway. Pretty soon, the area will be bursting with the vivid hues of fall throughout the White River National Forest. A drive to Trappers Lake is also a worthwhile option. To get to Dunckley Pass from Yampa, travel 5 miles north on Routt County Road 17 and then 14 miles west on Routt County Road 132/Forest Road 16 to the top of Dunckley Pass.

To go on the Flat Tops Scenic Byway, take U.S. 40 east out of Steamboat to Colorado Highway 131 and turn right. Follow Colo. 131 south to Yampa. Then take the first right turn on Routt County Road 17 and look for the scenic byway sign. Continue over Dunckley and Ripple Creek passes. The byway ends at the intersection of Colorado Highway 13. Turn right and head north to Craig. Take a right on U.S. 40 and return to Steamboat. This is a 168 mile loop and takes 5 to 7 hours.

Routt County Road 62: Drive to C.R. 62 between Clark and Steamboat Lake for a view of the changing aspens in their fall splendor.

Fall hikes

If you can’t find time for a scenic drive or hike outside town, here are a few options for hikes in the area where the fall foliage comes to life.

  • Spring Creek (off east Maple Street)
  • Fish Creek Falls (off Fish Creek Falls Road)
  • Mad Creek (off C.R. 129)
  • Red Dirt (off C.R. 129)
  • Emerald Mountain (off Blackmere Drive)
  • Thunderhead Trail (at Steamboat Resort)

Hunt for the gold aspens outside Steamboat with these suggestions from Diane White-Crane’s book “Hiking the Boat II.”

Gold Creek Lake: Take C.R. 129 to Clark and turn right on Seedhouse Road. Travel 11.9 miles to Slavonia, and park at the hiking kiosk. After signing the register, turn right at the junction of trail Nos. 1150 and 1161. White-Crane advises to be careful crossing Gold Creek and keep a close eye on children due to steep drop-offs around the trail.

Three Island Lake: Turn right past the Seedhouse Campground on National Forest Service Road 443 and continue about 3 miles to the trailhead on the left side of the road. Turn right at the intersection of trail No. 1163 and follow it to the lake in Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area. This trail follows the south fork of the Elk River.

Hahns Peak: Take C.R. 129 north to Columbine, then turn right onto Forest Development Road 490 directly across the street from the Columbine General Store. After driving about 1 mile, keep left for another 1 1/2 miles on 490. Turn left onto 418, and drive to a parking area. The jeep trail uphill is where the hike starts. Keep an eye out for trail No. 1158 on your right. Take this trail to the summit. Do not summit if lightning threatens.

To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247, email mstensland@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @SBTStensland


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