Your guide to local leaf peeping: Will the drought prevent aspens from turning golden this year? |

Your guide to local leaf peeping: Will the drought prevent aspens from turning golden this year?

The road to Vaughan Lake lit up in fall 2020.
Katie Berning/Steamboat Pilot & Today

The flecks of deep red and yellow speckled on hillsides means fall is here and it’s hard to say how long the colors will last and how extravagant they’ll be. Some leaves are turning color earlier than is typical, likely due to stress, which isn’t too surprising to Carolina Manriquez, a forester with the Colorado State Forest Service.

“We are thinking the turning will be a little sooner than usual,” Manriquez said. “The changing in color is a chemical reaction that happens when the trees move their sugars down to the roots and are trying to get ready to hibernate and let those leaves go. Before they let the leaves go, they want to get that food back into their roots to store it for next year. Because the trees are stressed, we think it’ll happen sooner than usual, but not too much sooner. Maybe a week earlier than last year.”

Manriquez has been surprised by a few trends, though. In some particularly dry places, Manriquez has seen trees browning, but she’s not sure if they are killing their leaves more abruptly or if the tree is dying.

She’s also noticed that trees in town are changing faster than those on the mountains surrounding Steamboat Springs. Trees at higher elevation typically change faster as the cold triggers the chemical reaction. Manriquez thinks the drought could be the reason low elevation trees are starting to change.

“I went outside my office and I was looking around. What I’m seeing yellow is some of these lower elevation trees,” Manriquez said. “Maybe they’re turning yellow because there’s less water. They’re hotter and drier at these lower elevations. It could be not because of cold, but because of the heat that they’re starting to hibernate sooner than the higher elevation trees.”

The most stressed trees probably won’t change colors. The more stressed trees will change next, followed by a more normal pattern of higher elevation trees first, then lower elevation trees.

The extremely dry year has put some trees over the edge, but it’s also prevented some tree diseases and fungi from taking hold. Aspens are prone to a number of issues since their bark is so thin. Bark is a tree’s main line of defense against pests and fungi.

The deep green of an aspen leaf in the Steamboat II neighborhood has given way to a pallet of colors including yellow and orange as fall started to take its grip on the Yampa Valley.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

A common ailment among aspens is marssonina, or leaf blight, or black leaf spot. Manriquez said she’s seen less of the fungus this year. It results in trees graying and dropping their leaves while still green during the summer, which in turn has a negative impact on fall colors.

“Although we have the drought and we have some trees dying, the trees that are green are looking pretty good,” she said. “The leaves are looking healthier than on a wetter summer.”

An early freeze or heavy storm, like the wind storm that hit Northwest Colorado last September, could halt the chain of events that results in colorful leaves.

Once the color starts to pop, viewers can learn how many aspens there are on a certain hillside. Aspens grow in groves of clones, or exact replicas of the “mother” tree. When an aspen is cut down, or burned, new trees rise from the roots. So there is a discussion over whether a grove of aspens is one tree or many, since the individual stems belong to the same root system.

As aspens change color, the clones all change at the exact same time. Looking at a mountain, leaf peepers can see some trees that are bright yellow, some that are midchange and some that are still green. This means there are at least three trees or groups of clones in that area.

If the drought were to persist for years to come, Manriquez expects more harsh effects. It’s hard to predict exactly how every aspen will react to the drought, but it could result in dieback of clones, which would thin the forests of the iconic tree. A large-scale dieback was last witnessed in 2006-07 with what is known as “sudden aspen decline.” In 2007, the decline affected about 13% of statewide aspen acreage.

“Overall, we should see some aspen decline,” Manriquez said. “But I’m not sure if we’re going to see it here like on (Buffalo) Pass or Dunckley Pass. It might just be some of those marginal sites, less productive sites.”

The Flat Tops Wilderness Area is a prime location for taking in fall foliage.
Katie Berning/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Places to view fall colors

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 one of Steamboat Pilot & Today photographer John F. Russell’s favorites in the fall.

Buffalo Pass: Flash of Gold Trail.

The aspens on Buffalo Pass look even brighter in contrast of the dark green conifers in 2019.
Shelby Reardon/Steamboat Pilot & Today

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 explodes into color in 2018, as seen from Hahns Peak.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot & Today

North Routt: Whether exploring Hahns Peak Village, Columbine or Steamboat Lake, there is an abundance of aspens and other flora. Steamboat Pilot & Today reporter Suzie Romig loves taking the trip up to North Routt in the fall.

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.

#SteamboatSnaps Fall Foliage Photo Contest

Once you’re happy with your shots, submit your photos to the #SteamboatSnaps Fall Foliage Photo Contest at for a chance to win a prize.

The contest will run from Sept. 13 through Oct. 17. Local professional photographers will judge the submissions and the winner will win a prize and be featured in the 2022 #SteamboatSnaps calendar.

Tips for capturing fall foliage

It’s nearly impossible to get a bad photo of fall foliage in Colorado, but why settle for “not bad” when you could capture a stunning photo? There are a few tricks to snapping the perfect autumn shot.

“Light and color are the two most important thing when it comes to shooting fall colors,” Russell said.

Prime lighting will be early or late in the day. Breaking out the camera at noon will result in flatter, less dynamic photos.

Try to capture a variety of textures and scenes. Get some wide shots of the valley, some cross sections of the hillside, and a few close up shots. Russell said leaf peepers and photographers opt for wide shots. To get a nontraditional shot, look for details.

For shooting subjects closer to the camera, it’s best to have a small field of focus, or a smaller f-stop or aperture. For the wider shots, a larger f-stop will ensure everything in focus and crisper than a ripe apple.

When editing, don’t over do it. It’s tempting to bump up the saturation of colors, but it makes the photo look surreal.

“My goal, because I’m a journalist, is always to make it look as close to reality as possible,” Russell said. “I tend to not over saturate photos. Less editing is probably better.”

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