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High country in Southwest Colorado offers peak fall colors heading into October

Foliage near Silverton and Ouray popping with yellows, oranges and reds
Fall colors on aspen trees near Coal Bank and Molas passes in the San Juan Mountains are at peak or just past peak this week. A wetter-than-average summer may result in a later-than-normal color change. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

It’s that time of year when there is less daylight and the oak brush and aspen trees begin to glow with fall colors. Parts of the San Juan Skyway are hitting peak fall foliage while trees at lower elevations like Durango, Cortez and Pagosa Springs are just beginning their annual change.

Timing is of the essence when it comes to catching the fall leaves at their peak, and this year may prove to be different from years past.

Mark Miller, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said when the weather is dry, fall colors tend to show earlier, but with an above-average monsoon, lower elevations may take longer to display their fall colors.

Estimate of fall foliage as of Sunday

San Juan Skyway:

  • Durango to Purgatory: Patchy to partial
  • Purgatory to Coal Bank: Near peak
  • Coal Bank to Molas Pass: Peak
  • Molas Pass to Silverton: Peak
  • Silverton area: Peak (slightly post peak)
  • Silverton to Red Mountain Pass: Peak
  • Red Mountain Pass to Ouray: Peak
  • Mancos area: Patchy
  • Dolores to Rico: Partial
  • Rico to Telluride: Partial
  • Telluride to Ouray (Dallas Divide): Near peak

Others:

  • Pagosa Springs: Partial
  • Missionary Ridge: Near peak
  • La Plata Canyon: Patchy

“This seems to be something we’ve noticed,” Miller said. “When it’s wetter, it keeps leaves green longer into the fall.”

The increased moisture reduces the stress on trees, creating longer-lasting and more vibrant colors. It also reduces the number of trees with brown-tinted fall leaves.

Durango-La Plata Airport received 7.53 inches of rain from June to September, which includes the monsoon. By comparison, the average rainfall during that same period is 5.04 inches.

In more arid years, Miller said peak color season tends to be in the middle of September, but because of this year’s moisture, the colors began showing in late September and early October.

Water drops gather on an aspen leave after recent rains in the San Juan Mountains this week. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The leaves change color as a result of lower temperatures and fewer hours of sunlight, which cause leaves to stop the food-making process. Miller said chlorophyll shuts down causing the change in the leaves.

“The sun angle starts to lower and that reduction of light triggers the trees to start changing colors,” he said.

According to the San Juan National Forest Color Report, parts of the San Juan Skyway have already reached peak foliage.

Elevation is a factor. Miller said higher elevations tend to be cooler allowing for the color change to happen earlier in those areas.

San Juan Mountains Association Visitor Information Specialist Priscilla Sherman said aspen trees near Silverton have been peaking for about two weeks. She said Red Mountain Pass is also in peak season for fall foliage, while areas near Lizard Head Pass on Colorado Highway 145 are still relatively green.

Sherman advises visitors not to bother wildlife while looking at leaves.

“A big thing is to keep your distance and not bother their quiet sanctuary place, especially with moose because they can be pretty dangerous,” she said.

Fall colors on aspen trees near Coal Bank and Molas passes in the San Juan Mountains are at peak or just past peak this week. A wetter-than-average summer may result in a later-than-normal color change. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Fall colors along Coal Bank and Molas passes on Monday make for colorful pictures. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Mineral Road north of Silverton is a prominent location for moose, she said.

“Wherever there’s marshy areas with willows, you’re most likely going to see moose these days,” Sherman said. “But we are just cautioning people, they are not friendly and they will charge you.”

For those who want to visit off-road trails to see the leaves, Sherman advises to check weather conditions at the visitors centers in Silverton and Ouray. She said recent snowstorms highlight the need to know forecasts in the high country to avoid becoming stuck in the snow or caught by surprise by a sudden change in conditions.

Sherman said some parts of the Alpine Loop received 4 inches of snow last weekend.

With rifle hunting season beginning Oct. 15, she also suggests visitors be aware of their surroundings while in the forest.

The San Juan National Forest publishes a Fall Color Report that provides information about the foliage change in various regions around the forest. To access the report, visit www.fs.usda.gov/sanjuan.

tbrown@durangoherald.com

Bailey Duran contributed to this report.

Aspen trees change colors Monday on the slopes of Purgatory Resort. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Aspen trees are seen Monday in the mountains near Coal Bank and Molas passes. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Aspen trees are seen Monday near Coal Bank and Molas passes. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Water drops gather on aspen leaves after recent rains in the San Juan Mountains. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Fall colors on aspen trees near Coal Bank and Molas passes in the San Juan Mountains are at peak or just past peak this week. A wetter-than-average summer may result in a later-than-normal color change. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Fall colors on aspen trees near Coal Bank and Molas passes in the San Juan Mountains are at peak or just past peak this week. A wetter-than-average summer may result in a later-than-normal color change. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
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