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The best time and place to see fall foliage in Southwest Colorado

Fall colors are hitting their prime in the San Juan Mountains along Colorado Highway 145 near Rico as the first snow hits the high peaks. (Jim Mimaga/The Journal)
Leaf hunters in Montezuma County still have time before colors peak

It’s officially autumn, and the promise of cooler days, pumpkin spice and beloved holidays are in the crisp Colorado air.

With the anticipation of fall comes the beauty of the spectacularly colored fall foliage in the state. 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.

Over the past few years, the trees boasted fall colors in the San Juan Mountains by Silverton from mid-September and finished early to mid-October around Pagosa Springs, Purgatory and Dolores.

This year, however, there has been increased moisture over the past few weeks which impacts the brilliance of color and the length of the fall foliage.

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

This year, fall colors are expected to last through early to mid-November, nearly a month longer than usual on the Western Slope.

Aspens in the mountains near Coal Bank and Molas Passes on Oct. 2.
Vibrant fall colors and fresh snow on the Rico Mountains creates a nice view from the Horse Creek Trail in the Dolores Valley. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)
Water drops gather on aspen leaves after recent rains fell in the San Juan Mountains. Jerry McBride/Durango Herald
Aspens in the mountains near Coal Bank and Molas Passes.
Aspens near Coal Bank and Molas Passes on Oct. 2.
Aspen near Coal Bank and Molas Passes on Monday are just past peak at the highest elevations.
Aspens in the mountains near Coal Bank and Molas Passes on Oct. 2.

“Generally, fall colors begin with golden yellow quaking aspen at the highest elevations and narrow leaf cottonwoods in low-lying cold areas as early as late August,” said Forester Matt Tuten said in the San Juan National Forest Fall Color Report. “But aspens, which put on fall’s brightest show and account for 20% of Colorado’s forests, usually peak near the end of September to early October, which is typically a few weeks later than trees in most of the rest of the state.”

As of the forest’s update on Oct. 5, fall leaf hunters can expect peak colors from Coal Bank to Molas Pass to Silverton. Peak and slightly post-peak colors are also found from Silverton, over Red Mountain Pass and into Ouray.

Near-peak colors can be found from Purgatory to Coal Bank, and Dallas Divide from Telluride to Ouray.

Leaf peepers have a little more time to view fall colors in area from Durango to Purgatory, Mancos, Dolores to Telluride, Pagosa Springs and La Plata Canyon. Fall colors in those areas had partially changed as of Oct. 5.

While other colors may be taking their time, the report said the “aspens are ablaze.”

“The next month or so looks fantastic for the state of Colorado for leaf colors,” said Colorado State Forest Service entomologist Dan West. “I think we’re going to have a pretty good year as opposed to years past.”

Because of recent precipitation, exquisite red and purple leaves can be expected, West said. The perfect combination of weather to produce these jaw-dropping colors are frequent sunny days followed by cool nights. Because this has been a recent trend, these colors are on the radar in certain areas unless the weather drastically changes, or snow comes early.

To keep an eye on fall foliage predictions, go to the San Juan National Forest Fall Color Report at https://bit.ly/2022fallcolors.

Watch out for wildlife

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.

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.

Tyler Brown of the Durango Herald contributed to this article.