Fall is here, finally! Better late than never, temperatures are finally dropping and leaves are ready to change. Follow our fall colors in Colorado guide for details on when and where to see the most spectacular autumn foliage in the Denver region.
Fall Color Leaf Science
Have you ever wondered, what exactly causes the leaf color to change? Is it the days getting shorter and nights getting longer? Is it the drop in temperature?
Turns out, it’s a little bit of both. Dan West, a Colorado State Forest Service entomologist, explains that leaf change is first triggered by a change in the length of day and then progresses with help from cool temperatures and sunlight.
Change in chlorophyll is the key turning point. Large amounts of chlorophyll result in vibrant green leaves that we see during summertime. Cool temperatures encourage leaves to begin separating from the branch, combined with fall sunshine, chlorophyll levels decrease and leaf pigment changes.
These sunny fall days and crisp cool nights are a sweet recipe for fall color. According to the U.S. Forest Service, “During these days, lots of sugars are produced in the leaf but the cool nights and the gradual closing of veins going into the leaf prevent these sugars from moving out. These conditions – lots of sugar and light – spur production of the brilliant anthocyanin pigments, which tint reds, purples, and crimson.”
So there you have it, the science behind your favorite fall colors!
Predicting Peak Fall Color Conditions
Although leaf change is an exact science, predicting peak fall color is not. Inches of rain and range of temperatures vary each year and impact Colorado’s fall color display. In addition, elevation and latitude also affect the timing of fall color and peak leaf change.
When it comes to predicting peak color change, Colorado is divided into three regions: northern, central, and southern. Due to higher elevation and northern latitude, the northern region is predicted to experience peak color change first, followed by central, and finally southern.
Entomologist Dan West is predicting this will be one of the best fall color shows in years. Soil moisture also affects autumn colors, and like temperature, soil moisture varies greatly from year to year. For several years Denver has experienced near-drought conditions going into fall. West believes the winter and spring snow from last season has created ideal soil conditions. Combined with the sunny fall days and crisp nights Colorado is experiencing, he predicts this will result in extra-vibrant fall color conditions.
When Is the Best Time to See Fall Color in Colorado?
Unseasonably warm temperatures in August and September this year have pushed back Colorado’s traditional peak color timeline. But this means you can plan ahead and have a better chance of catching all the spectacular color change!
The northern region of Colorado is expected to show peak color during the last weekend of September and the first weekend of October. Don’t worry, the rest of the state is predicted to show color all month long! Fall colors will peak between October 5 and 19 in the central region and may extend all the way through October 26th in the southern region.
Where Are the Best Locations to View Fall Colors in Colorado?
Colorado has no shortage of breathtaking fall color landscapes. No matter where you live, you won’t have to go far afield to take in the gorgeous leaf change displays. Here are some of the best viewing points and destinations for a fall color day trip or weekend getaway:
Within one hour of Denver:
- Guanella Pass
- Peak to Peak Highway
- Rocky Mountain National Park
- Winter Park
- Kenosha Pass
Located in the Front Range west of Denver, Guanella Pass is one of the most stunning places in central colorado to view fall color. Part of the Colorado scenic byway, the dirt path through Guanella Pass is rustic and charming, a perfect short escape from the city. The main draw during fall is the towering golden Aspens.
Want to take in the fall colors on an adventurous day hike? Head to Rocky Mountain National Park. The Glacial Gorge trails are very popular in autumn, not only will you get to see fall foliage on the Aspens, but you’ll be rewarded with views of Alberta falls as well. To beat the crowds, plan an early am or late afternoon hike. As an added bonus, there are trails of varying lengths and difficulty stemming from this trailhead. All trails lead to scenic views!
Kenosha Pass is another favorite spot that you don’t want to miss. Also located within the Rocky Mountains, this mountain pass has about 10,00 feet in elevation but there are easy to moderate trails available for hiking. Locals say that this is the best spot close to Denver to see the changing Aspens. Choose your own adventure and hike anywhere from 1- 14 miles on this glorious mountain pass.
Within two hours of Denver:
- Tennessee Pass
- Hoosier Pass
- Grand Lake
The Vail area is home to several scenic drives and noteworthy vistas. Colorado district rangers recommend going north from Vail on Red Sandstone Road to Forest Service roads 700 and 701 and ending at Piney Lake. The Gore Range features changing aspens and reflects beautifully on the lake. Rangers report that this spot is relatively under the radar, a great place to explore without the crowds and enjoy the natural fall wonders in peace.
For a fabulous and short fall hike, head to Hoosier Pass. The Hoosier Pass Loop is just 2.8 miles long but is packed with plenty of fall color. With an elevation gain 668 ft, you’ll enjoy big-sky views and might even glimpse Quandry Peak. Pause on the plateau at the top of the loop and bask in the glory of fall color all around you!
Within 3-4 hours of Denver:
- Rabbit Ears Pass
- Buena Vista
- Maroon Bells Aspen
- Independence Pass
- Monarch Pass
- Grand Mesa
Looking for a dreamy autumn vista for a romantic getaway? Look no further than Maroon Bells, just west of Aspen off Highway 82. Whether you plan to hike, picnic, or retreat in a cozy cabin, you won’t be able to get enough of these views. Known for being the most photographed spot in all of Colorado, Maroon Bells is especially impressive in the fall when the radiant aspens reflect off the lake and frame the snow-capped mountain peaks.
Grand Mesa boasts the largest flat-topped mesa in the world, some 8,000 ft! While this landmark alone is impressive, Grand Mesa National Park is an excellent destination for those seeking peak fall color. Located in western Colorado, you can explore Grand Mesa in multiple ways. For a relaxing drive, take the Grand Mesa Scenic Byway through the park. You’ll get to take in the fall color Aspens at their best, meadows with fall wildflowers, and glittering lakes along the way. If you’d rather have a more immersive experience, book a campsite at Island Acres Campground and stay for a hike.
Which Trees Have the Most Impressive Fall Colors?
Throughout Colorado, Aspens get the most attention for their golden fall color, but what other species are worth watching for this fall? According to the U.S. Forest Service, certain colors are characteristic of particular species. Here are other noteworthy trees to scope out for fall color in your neighborhood:
- Oaks: red, brown, or russet
- Hickories: golden bronze
- Yellow-poplar: golden yellow
- Dogwood: purplish red
- Beech: light tan
- Sourwood and black tupelo: crimson
Early Fall Color Concerns
Do you have trees that peaked in early August or showed signs of fall color in late summer? You probably noticed that your trees leaf change did not match up with the rest of Colorado’s fall color timeline, and this is actually a cause for concern.
Early fall color can be a sign of tree stress. Tree stress is simply any harmful environmental factor such as extreme temperatures, pollution, road salt, poor soil moisture or balance, which results in physical harm to the tree. It is important to recognize signs of tree stress right away because stressed trees are very susceptible to insect and disease attack.
If you are concerned that your tree displayed early fall color or peaked far too soon, contact one of our certified arborists for a professional consultation and diagnosis. When treated correctly, stressed trees can make a speedy recovery. Heading into winter, you want your trees to be as strong and healthy as they possibly can be!
Tree Care to Promote Fall Color
Tree disease and insect infestation can seriously mess with your tree’s fall color display and overall health. Trees that are treated and well-maintained are healthier and can show off their leaf colors to the fullest. Proper watering, fertilizing, and pruning are all important parts of tree care. To promote your trees’ ability to offer their best fall color, consult with one of our licensed arborists to craft a custom tree healthcare plan. Schedule a consultation and craft your custom tree healthcare plan for year-round healthy and happy trees!