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Beyond Aspens

Fall Color Show Doesn’t Depend Entirely On State’s Iconic Trees

Aspens are undeniably the signature trees of Colorado, and when you catch them on the right autumn day, with the sun just so, they’re stunning.

They’re also unpredictable, putting on a brief high-altitude show that may only last for a few days. By the time you hear about a gorgeous stand of them, and go there, the leaves are fading or fallen.

But why suffer this annual aspen angst? There are cottonwoods, scrub oak, a variety of shrubs and even weeds that also flame up before they flame out.

Cottonwoods are easy to find, often strewn along streambeds (which often means highways), and other low-lying areas. The leaves sometimes wander from that brilliant gold into shades of orange and even scarlet.

Want to know where to find the best fall colors? Ask any serious photographer.

Todd Caudle has been photographing Colorado landscapes for calendars and books for 30 years and has his own publishing company, Skyline Press.
He is a fan of the aspen, but regrets that many leaf-peepers forget about the rest.

“Right here in Colorado Springs, there are great fall colors in the Garden of the Gods – mostly scrub oak and other shrubs,” he says.
He also loves the colors on the Phantom Canyon Road and the Shelf Road between Canon City and Cripple Creek, both byways lined with narrow-leaf cottonwoods as golden as any aspen tree. Set against rock walls, with a blue sky, they are particularly stunning.

One of his favorite places to shoot fall colors is Kebler Pass, the back road from Gunnison to Crested Butte. Besides having the state’s largest stand of aspens – glorious when you catch them at the right time – they’re complemented by brilliant patches of scrub oak.

If you’ve missed the aspens in northern or central Colorado, head south for some still-stunning fall views. The Wet Mountains near Westcliffe and Wetmore can put on a great show, he says.

Fall colors don’t necessarily follow the north-to-south pattern, however.

“It seems to happen in pockets,” he says. And it isn’t all over just because it snows somewhere. “I’ve shot cottonwoods as late as Nov. 1 in some places.”

Stewart Green, photographer and author of a number of adventure and driving guides to Colorado, says one of the best fall color drives is the Scenic Highway of Legends, the back road from Walsenburg to Trinidad.

“The Highway of Legends around the Spanish Peaks is gorgeous in mid-October, well past the aspen peak, when all the cottonwoods along the Cucharas River around La Veta are golden,” he says. “Past La Veta the highway climbs to a left turn on a dirt road (364/46) over Apishapa Pass. The lower part of the road south of the Spanish Peaks is also beautiful with changing cottonwoods in the canyons below the peaks.”

Another personal favorite of his is the Unaweep-Tabeguache Scenic Byway, which follows Colorado Highway 141 from Whitewater south of Grand Junction to Placerville, “a gorgeous low-elevation drive through cliff-walled canyons filled with towering cottonwood trees.

“Each segment of the drive is different–Unaweep Canyon is perfect with orange scrub oak on the broad canyon floor; the Dolores Canyon south of Gateway is a slice of Canyonlands, with changing cottonwoods below the towering cliffs; and the deep Dolores Canyon below the road farther south (is) lined with cottonwoods below the historic flume.”

Both Caudle and Green like the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Green says the south rim “makes a good short stop in October when the dense copses of scrub oak along the rim are changing to orange and red.” Caudle says the north rim has its own beauty, too, with lots of multi-hued scrub oak and other bushes.

If you’re determined to find aspens, Green suggests: the section of US 550 over Red Mountain Pass between Ouray and Silverton; the Dallas Divide west of Ridgeway; Owl Creek Pass east of Ridgeway; Colorado Highway 145 west of Telluride over Lizard Head Pass with spur drives up to Ophir and to Alta Lakes and Colorado 65 over the Grand Mesa.

Still unsure where to go? Call the U.S. Forest Service hotline at 800-354-4595 or go online to their website, www.fs.fed.us/fallcolors. They have the latest reports.