Fall colors on the way in Garfield County | AspenTimes.com

Fall colors on the way in Garfield County

Ryan Summerlin
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Aspens near the Flat Tops were in full-blown fall colors, and the area's vegetation is starting to turn a little early this year.

Some recent low temperatures may be launching the local vegetation into the brilliant colors of fall a little early this year.

Typically, the leaves begin to turn in mid- to late September, so the season might be on track for color changes a couple of weeks early, said Doug Leyva, timber and fuels program manager for the White River National Forest.

The length of the days, temperature and soil moisture are the biggest drivers of the fall colors.

“We all learned about chlorophyll in school; plants absorb sunlight and produce sugars to feed themselves,” Leyva said. But a couple of other chemicals are at work producing the orange, yellow and red colors of fall leaves.

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The plants start cutting off production of chlorophyll as days get shorter. But what’s left behind in the leaves is carotenoid, which produces the yellow and orange colors.

Some plants have leaves that turn bright red, which comes from anthocyanin. Especially in towns, you’ll see the bright red leaves of the maples, Leyva said.

Oak brush will turn a rust color that’s between orange and red. Some brush species, dogwoods and willows are often the first to change.

Aspens, being connected to one another through their root systems, tend to change orange and yellow together. One interconnected grove will begin to change colors together, while another that isn’t connected may take longer, Leyva said.

Elevation plays a role in the timing of the change, with higher-elevation trees generally turning before the lower-elevation plants.

Areas of the Maroon Bells and Flat Tops are expected to be changing already.

The Roaring Fork Valley has a big range in elevations with a lot of plant diversity, said Kate Jerman, White River National Forest spokeswoman.

Over the season, the veins of the leaves start to close off, eventually to the point that the leaves fall from the trees.

This is a critical time for the forest ecosystem, as the leaves drop off and decompose into an organic layer, which Leyva called “nature’s compost pile,” that’s beneficial on multiple levels: feeding microbes, increasing the soil’s water-holding capacity and forming habitat for small animals.

Last season was pretty lackluster for fall colors, said Jerman.

But so far, this year has seen conditions that are known to make the autumn colors pop, Leyva said.

White River National Forest sees a good amount of fall tourism, Jerman said. The Maroon Bells are the go-to spot for fall leafing, but you’ll almost certainly be battling the crowds, she said. This time of year produces some of the biggest numbers for riders on the bus to the Maroon Bells.

If you’re looking for something that’s a short drive from Glenwood Springs, Jerman recommends Four Mile Road through Thompson Divide or Grizzly Creek Trail in Glenwood Canyon.

Coulter Mesa via Three Forks Trail north of Rifle will be about 11/2 hours driving but also will get you far away from the crowds, Jerman said. Here you can also find hiking, biking, camping and fishing.

From Rifle, head north on Colorado 13, turn right on Garfield County Road 325 and drive through Rifle Mountain Park until the road becomes Forest District Road 832. Where the road splits, take a left to the Three Forks trailhead.

In Coulter Mesa and Thompson Divide it’s recommended to wear blaze orange because of hunting season.

For a full-day trip, drive north of New Castle on Buford Road, which will take you through aspens and conifers in the Flat Tops area in the White River National Forest. You can follow this road all the way to Buford, only about a half-hour southeast of Meeker.

If you’ve got even longer and want to make a weekend trip, head north to Meeker and then east to Trappers Lake in the Flat Tops Wilderness. Trappers Lake is about an hour and 15 minutes east of Meeker. Check out http://www.codot.gov/travel/scenic-by ways/northwest/flat-tops-trail for good driving instructions.

“This setting offers a contrasting backdrop to Trappers Lake, with large rock formations and a large burn scar (from the 2002 Big Fish Fire) among pops of green, rust and gold,” said Jerman. “Trappers Lake is located within the Flat Tops Wilderness and is known as the ‘Cradle of Wilderness,’ a place that foreshadowed the 1964 Wilderness Act, where development of any kind was banned by the Forest Service.”

Call 970-878-4039 or visit http://www.recreation.gov to check availability with the district if you’re planning to camp in this area.

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