ASPEN - Hints of autumn came early to the mountains surrounding Aspen this year. Then, suddenly, the show was on.
Pockets of aspens in the high country were flashing gold by late August, and the trees on the slopes of Buttermilk were bathed in autumn's glow by the first week of September, leading to predictions of an early display and dispelling worries that drought would cancel the spectacle altogether.
This year's colors are easily about a week ahead of last year's pace, when local mountains put on one of the best shows in recent memory.
The peak weekend could be this one, but it appears that the weekend of Sept. 22 and 23 could be spectacular, as well. Certainly, it seems likely the autumn display is likely to hit its zenith sometime within the coming week.
At the Maroon Bells, where photographers line the shore come fall, the grove of aspens in the bowl at the base of the peaks is hitting its prime, but there are plenty of stands of still-green aspens intermixed with pockets of solid gold elsewhere around Maroon Lake.
The upper Castle Creek Valley south of town is peaking now, according to Martha Moran, recreation staff supervisor with the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service.
"A week ago, it was all green," she said. "It's moving fast. When it is dry, they peak earlier - that's my observation in 30 years of monitoring fall colors."
This year's drought, marked by sparse snowfall and an early, hot spring followed by an unseasonably dry June has resulted in stressed trees within Aspen's "urban forest," according to city forester Chris Foreman. Trees that did not receive irrigation are showing signs of struggle, he said.
The return of rainfall by mid-summer, however, seems to have helped the mountain vegetation. Fears that the leaves would simply turn brown and fall off have not materialized. Lower-elevation mountainsides are bathed in the reds and oranges of Gambel oak and mountain shrubs, while groves of aspen are holding green in some spots and turning rapidly in others. All three mountains surrounding town - Aspen Mountain, Smuggler and Red Mountain - are in varying stages of turning gold, as is Independence Pass.
"The colors are starting to be gorgeous right now," said Foreman. "It's amazing the difference between last week and this week. It really turned fast."
It's often a big wind or snow and rain that spells an end to the fall colors, but Aspen's extended forecast calls for dry weather. A trace of snow briefly painted the Maroon Bells Tuesday morning, after rain Monday turned to snow at high elevations overnight, but those aching for the perfect shot of gold aspens framing snowcapped peaks may be disappointed. Mountains frosted in white aren't yet part of the local landscape.
Things are mighty pretty anyway.