The mountains can be a beautiful place to see the reds, oranges and yellows light up the hillsides every autumn, but only if you catch them in time. And if it seems like fall colors have arrived a bit earlier this year, you’re right.
They are here about two weeks early because a dry winter and monsoon stressed the forests surrounding Durango, said Julie Korb, a professor at Fort Lewis College in the environmental biology department.
Gretchen Fitzgerald with the San Juan National Forest said she is noticing the aspens, oak brush and Rocky Mountain maples change color sooner this year, especially around Missionary Ridge and Silverton.
And the leaves aren’t only changing sooner – they’re changing faster, Korb said. Fitzgerald said she has noticed that during wet autumns, leaves will stay on the trees longer.
“The message would be to get out and look at the fall colors this weekend while you have a chance,” Korb said.
The San Juan National Forest fall color report shows several areas north of Durango reaching their peak.
Why do the leaves change? The simple answer is because the leaves are dying. But the process by which trees shed their leaves is a bit more complicated than that.
It all starts with the temperature and the length of days, Korb said. Those two factors are telltale signs that winter is on its way – and the trees can sense it. The fact that temperatures have been stagnant in the past few weeks and the days haven’t become much shorter seems to leave the drought as the logical reason for why leaves are changing now, Korb said.
The leaves change color because they stop photosynthesizing, a process by which the plants turn sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into energy and oxygen. The photosynthesis process happens in the chlorophyll of plant cells, a part of the organism that absorbs all colors of light except for green. That’s why trees look green in the summer.
But when plants go dormant, the chlorophyll in them stops photosynthesizing and absorbing all the light that it once had. The lack of chlorophyll in the leaves as they die reduces the green hue the plants reflect, leaving only the carotenoids in the leaves that reflect yellow, orange and red colors, Korb said. Those carotenoids, which are always in the plant, are the same as those in lemons, carrots or tomatoes that give those fruits and vegetables their yellow, orange or red colors.
The pigments the leaves turn depend on a couple of things, Korb said: genetics of the plants and environmental conditions around the plant as it changes. Chokecherry shrubs often turn bright red, Fitzgerald said, and snowberry shrubs turn yellow.
Are they changing early? Short answer: yes.
The drought conditions that have plagued the region in the past 12 months are causing trees to go dormant sooner, therefore changing their leaves earlier. North- and east-facing slopes are likely to change color later than trees on southern and western slopes, because northern and eastern sides of mountains get more rain than others, Korb said.
Part of it is also attributable to temperature, which is why trees at higher elevations are changing earlier than those at lower elevations, Korb said. That’s why areas like Missionary Ridge and Silverton are already displaying vibrant colors while most of Durango’s trees remain green.
Best places to view fall colorsThe Durango Area Tourism Office has a few suggestions, although it depends on how you want to get around.
For a nice drive, check out the Million Dollar Highway, La Plata Canyon or Hermosa Park Road. If on a color-sighting drive, the Colorado Department of Transportation urges drivers to use caution as more cars fill the roads for this very purpose.
Feel like walking? Try Purgatory Flats Trail or Elbert Creek Trail. Want to do it on two wheels? Take Engineer Mountain Trail, Log Chutes Trail or the Haflin Creek Trail.
Fitzgerald said she likes the area around Silverton and the U.S. Highway 550 corridor, especially between Silverton and Ouray. Missionary Ridge is also a nice spot, she said. The 2002 Missionary Ridge Fire left room for thousands of acres of aspen trees. Korb said she loves the drive up to Telluride.
Is this a sign of an early winter? Nope. It’s a sign of a dry winter and summer.
“Really, this is being brought on by the drought, so it has no relationship with what could be happening in the future,” Korb said.
If an early winter was on its way, Korb said, we would notice. Plants and humans both use temperature and length of daylight to tell when winter is coming – plants don’t have a secret sixth sense to predict future temperatures, Korb said.
Are fall colors a boon to businesses?The fall colors are a huge draw for tourists in the region, and with the vegetation changing sooner, the tourism industry in and around Durango is booming, said Frank Lockwood, executive director of the Durango Area Tourism Office.
This year’s trend, which is so far anecdotal, continues a seven-year uptick in fall visitor numbers, something that Lockwood said shouldn’t be affected by the fast-changing trees.
“My hunch would be we’re going to have a strong fall,” he said. “Our fall has become stronger every year.”