Fall foliage might be short-lived
Believe it or not, fall is a season in the High Country. The thing is, you could blink and miss it.
On the Front Range, fall colors are the red carpet to Halloween and autumn is a long-lasting joy as late as November for children crunching through leaves on the way to school.
But in Summit County, if outdoor enthusiasts don’t take the time for a hike or ride in the next week, fall colors will have passed to bare branches.
“In the years I’ve lived in Summit, this is the earliest I’ve ever seen it change (from summer to fall),” said Mary Ellen Gilliland, local author of “The Summit Hiker,” “The Vail Hiker,” and several other books on local history and environment. “The trees started turning at the end of August. It could be the drought that has caused the trees to go into dormancy early to protect themselves. One thing that’s nice about it, is that the change is taking place so slowly this year. I think (fall colors) are going to hang on. Some trees have turned. Others are still waiting.”
Tree specialists for the U.S. Forest Service said the lack of water has caused the aspens to seal off leaves from their branches earlier than usual this year. Forest representatives also predict that fall colors will peak this week, with leaves falling shortly thereafter.
And aspens, despite the most common and noteworthy source of fall colors, are not the only plant species to change from green to yellow to red between summer and winter.
“All broad-leaf plants and shrubs will change colors in the fall,” said Mike Liu, of the Dillon Ranger District and White River National Forest. “Then, even the tundra above timberline, a lot of that is changing color. You’ll see different snow willows drying out and turning red.”
Where broad-leaf trees might be lacking in the High Country, there are lasting wildflowers that often change colors before shriveling into the earth.
“In Summit County, we don’t have many deciduous trees,” Gilliland said. “What we look at instead in the fall on the tundra is the various alpine wildflowers as they turn red, orange, bronze and burnt sienna. The land above the trees is a pallet of fall colors. Lower, the kinnikinnick turns bright red in the pine forest and the rose hip berries are bright red.”
September snowfalls and strong winds add to the brevity of High Country fall color season, and also make treks above timberline much colder than they were in July and August.
Thus, for the trekker or biker who stays below treeline, aspen groves are where to go for autumn colors.
Aspens are one of the most enduring and resilient species of trees in the world, according to scientists at http://www.alienexplorer.com. The aspen doesn’t rely on seeds for regeneration, and can create new trees from its own roots. Aspens are also a rich food source for deer and elk, which often leave their marks on the tree trunks.
“Aspen groves engage your five senses,” Gilliland said. “It can be extremely enjoyable to stop in the middle of an aspen grove. There’s a very musky scent that arises from the falling leaves and from the ground. You can feel the bark of the aspen trees and look at the trunks, at the graffiti from elk gnawing that creates those beautiful patterns. You can look up from the middle of the grove and the contrast of yellow against the blue sky is unreal.”
Catching an aspen grove in the right light is important. As the leaves change, early and late in the day are the best times to catch the sun making them glow, according to Mike Zobbe, local mountain bike enthusiast and vice president for the Summit Fat Tire Society.
“Two things are crucial with aspen colors,” he said. “You have to go out early in the morning or in the evening. If you wear amber lenses (in your sun glasses), it helps to take in all the yellow. When the sun is low in the east or west, it hits the leaves just right. The colors are beautiful right now. The indian summer could last a couple weeks after the first snow.”
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