Fall colors in Colorado: Southwestern parts of the state in peak

The climax of the fall color change in Colorado’s high country seems likely to begin this weekend or early next week, observers in the southern part of the state are predicting. And in some areas, it has already arrived.

Leaf-peeping season in Colorado begins in early September, moving from north to south and from high to lower elevations. Some of the best viewing this week has been in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, where the impact of elevation has played out vividly between Silverton and Durango. Silverton, at 9,300 feet, was peaking last weekend. But in Durango, 40 miles to the south at 6,500 feet, trees just started to turn this week.

Alicia Laws, events coordinator for the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, noticed the difference after riding the train up from Durango last weekend. After spending the night in Silverton, she was treated to an amazing sight at sunrise.

“I don’t even know if I could describe it,” Laws said. “The clouds were laying low, the sun was on Silverton Mountain — always the last hill to change — and it was almost like camo with oranges and yellows and a little bit of red. Because it was so warm this summer, the reds were really spectacular this year. Here in Durango, I woke up (Tuesday) morning and I noticed there were yellow trees — like overnight, we’re in fall colors. I think we still have a few more weeks in Durango, but as far as Silverton, it’s ending.”

A similar scenario played out a little farther north in Telluride and Ouray.

“We are creeping to peak right now,” Jon Miller, shop manager at Jagged Edge Mountain Gear in Telluride, said on Tuesday. “This next week or so is going to be really, really good. There’s still a lot of green out there, so it’s going to be good for a bit. Peak, I think, is going to be early next week.”

Telluride sits at an elevation of 8,750 feet. In Ouray, 10 miles to the northeast and nearly 1,000 feet lower, the leaves were just starting to turn this week according to Arianna Whitmire, a server at the Full Tilt Saloon.

“I’d say like a quarter, maybe,” Whitmire said. “We have some yellows, a lot of green still, some reds thrown in. I think next week might be a good time for a peak, I would guess.”

In the Wolf Creek Pass area 60 miles to the southeast of Ouray, the colors are spectacular.

“It’s resplendent,” said Becki Helmstetler, who works in the ticket office at the Wolf Creek ski area at an elevation of 10,300 feet. “It’s in all of its glory. It’s beautiful.”

Helmstetler commutes to the ski area from South Fork, which is 20 miles to the north and 2,000 feet lower.

“It’s starting to turn (in South Fork), it’s getting pretty,” Helmstetler said. “Up here, it’s just reached its peak.”

The San Juan Range is a long way from Denver — 150 miles as the crow flies, and a lot longer by automobile — but many consider it Colorado’s most dramatic mountain terrain. A famous sign overlooking Ouray calls it the “Switzerland of America,” so if you have the time to head down there in the next few days, you probably wouldn’t regret it.

Here’s this week’s official fall colors report from the San Juan National Forest:

“The entire San Juan Skyway is exploding with colors right now. The area of Purgatory, north to Ouray, then down to Telluride and Rico area is all near peak or peaking. The snow on the higher peaks makes for even more spectacular scenes.”

Not to be a buzz kill, but here’s a warning: A storm system predicted to reach Colorado’s mountains Tuesday and Wednesday may cause a lot of trees to drop their leaves.

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