Ready or not, here comes Colorado’s iconic autumn color.

Leaf peepers typically wait until later in September before filling up the tank for trips to aspen groves aglow. But this year, in some of the state’s higher, most treasured parts, the message is out: Don’t delay.

That’s the advice from Haley Balentine at the Crested Butte Visitor Center.

Colorado fall colors: 4 trails and drives for aspen viewing off the beaten path

“I think people are gonna be a little shocked to have to adjust vacation times a bit,” she said.

Over the past week, she said, her eyes widened at what she saw on Kebler Pass, the go-to spot for photographers visiting Crested Butte. Balentine said she also beheld yellow splashes up and down Monarch Pass and Kenosha Pass, the Front Range drive boasting surprise brilliance in photos recently posted to social media.

“It was super surprising,” Balentine said. “I’ve lived in Colorado my whole life, and it usually doesn’t start turning until maybe the second or third week of September. It’s definitely like three weeks early.”

Less surprised is Dan West, the State Forest Service entomologist based in Fort Collins.

“Drought conditions are highly correlated with fall colors,” he said.

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Pikes Peak
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Maroon Bells
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Near Wolf Creek Pass
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Fall photo
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Quail Lake

The shorter days and cooler nights famously spell the turn of aspen leaves as they lose green-inducing chlorophyll. Moisture, or lack thereof, is also a factor. Without it, the trees are stressed, the gold an indicator of their leaves ready to drop sooner.

Sunshine is but one of many factors.

“A drier summer with some periodic moisture often results in more vibrant fall colors,” said Kyle Patterson, spokeswoman for Rocky Mountain National Park. “Certainly the cooler days we have had in the last week are probably contributing as well to the early color changes that visitors are noticing.”

With the varying weather patterns he’s tracked across Colorado, West said, displays “could be a mixed bag.”

“This year, it totally depends on where you’re going,” he said.

He said he’s heard reports of gold spreading around the upper portions of the Grand Mesa, confirming his expectations of early change around the Southwest.

The phenomenon is an economic driver for mountain towns. “We start getting calls in the beginning of the summer: ‘When is color season gonna hit?’” said Heidi Pankow at Ouray’s visitor center. “It’s about impossible for us to predict.”

Fortunately, she says, there are plenty of elevations to explore, the higher reaches seeing the burst first. Between the woods around town, Red Mountain Pass winding above it and the many other aspen-covered passes through the San Juan mountains, “we don’t have a lot of people terribly upset, even if they miss the peak,” Pankow said.

Around the Collegiate Peaks, people are reporting displays in the high country. But “the big show is still a couple of weeks out, I think,” said Cal Orlowski, recreation specialist at the Salida Ranger District.

April Kali, of the Buena Vista Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center, said she saw bright patches during a recent drive. She said she hoped peak viewing would be later in September, as usual, during the chamber’s annual OHV color tour.

Hundreds from around the country are signed up, and rescheduling is not an option, Kali said. “Unfortunately, the leaves don’t communicate with us.”

Seth is a features writer at The Gazette, covering the outdoors and the people and places that make Colorado colorful.

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