Don’t get leafed behind

For viewing high country fall colors, the time is now

U.S. Highway 550 between Durango and Silverton will be a popular route once again this fall for people wishing to see trees changing in the San Juan National Forest. Today is the autumnal equinox – the official start of fall. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

U.S. Highway 550 between Durango and Silverton will be a popular route once again this fall for people wishing to see trees changing in the San Juan National Forest. Today is the autumnal equinox – the official start of fall.

Fall color followers can get an eyeful in the high country this weekend as aspen and scrub oak turn from green to yellow to orange to brown to rust to red.

“It looks like the best viewing will be between Durango and Ouray,” said Mark Winkworth, the visitor information guru at the San Juan Public Lands Center and the keeper of the U.S. Forest Service’s Fall Color Report website.

Winkworth updates the website – www.fs.usda.gov/sanjuan, click on quick link to fall color report 2012 – as often as possible.

“Between Molas and Coal Bank passes and the north side of Red Mountain Pass should be great,” Winkworth said. “Silverton may be a little past its prime, the same as the mountains above Lake City.”

A little further into next week, Purgatory, Telluride and the Dallas Divide will be coming on, Winkworth said.

Telluride and the Dallas Divide were 40 to 50 percent in color this week. Purgatory is lagging at 30 percent, but should be looking good soon, he said.

The last weekend of the month should see beautiful colors around Purgatory and Pagosa Springs and Wolf Creek Pass to the east.

Change of color is only one facet of leaf study this fall for students in two classes taught by Professor Heidi Steltzer in the biology department at Fort Lewis College.

Two or three times a week, they check foliage on campus to note color change and the date leaves have fallen.

“They’re contributing the data to a citizen science project on the national level,” Steltzer said. “The project, which started some years ago, involves long-term monitoring of 300 species across the country by backyard observers.”

Leaves appear green in spring and summer because they absorb the red and blue light of the spectrum but reflect the green, Steltzer said. In the fall, when the chlorophyll breaks down and the molecule that reflects green is no longer there, the eye sees the other pigments, Steltzer said.

She said it’s possible that drought conditions have robbed foliage of some of its vivid colors this year.

Winkworth does reconnaissance as well as gather tree-color reports from Forest Service employees around the region.

Aspen dominate the landscape in the high country, but in Durango and the Dolores/Rico area, it’s scrub oak that is most attention-grabbing.

The Alpine Loop around Lake City is usually the first to change color, Winkworth said.

Circling the San Juan Skyway – Durango, Silverton, Ouray, Telluride, Dolores and back – is a long drive but is bound to be rewarding, Winkworth said.

“You should see some nice color there for sure,” he said.

Anyone who misses the high country show can visit lower-lying river valleys to see what cottonwoods have to offer, Winkworth said.

“There’ll be color around Navajo Lake, along the state line toward Arboles and then into Pagosa Springs from the south,” Winkworth said.

The change of season as recorded by the kaleidoscope of arboreal color could last beyond next weekend, although long-range forecasting involves a lot of guesswork, Winkworth said.

daler@durangoherald.com STANLEY/Durango Herald

U.S. Highway 550 between Durango and Silverton will be a popular route once again this fall for people wishing to see trees changing in the San Juan National Forest. Today is the autumnal equinox – the official start of fall.