Saturday, September 13, 2008
Tom Ross' column appears Tuesdays and Saturdays in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
Find more columns by Tom here.
Steamboat Springs I fell in love with the last switchback on Buffalo Pass Road in late September 1979.
The color of the aspen leaves that autumn was so intense it was intoxicating. And the variety of hues that could be seen from the overlook was so remarkable that we named the spot "Rainbow Ridge."
At the time, I didn't understand that clumps of what appear to be individual aspen trees are actually single organisms comprising many trunks. This phenomenon is most easily observed in fall, when one clump of orange-tinged leaves, standing out from the more typical golden leaves, makes it easy to spot a stand of clones. It's true - aspens most often engage in asexual reproduction.
At Rainbow Ridge in 1979, we saw several tints of orange and even one stand of trees whose leaves were deep purple.
That first season in Steamboat, I assumed that every autumn would deliver the same aspen show. But that hasn't proved to be the case.
In some years, the leaves were attacked by blight and turned dingy early in the season. Other years, an intense windstorm claimed the leaves long before their time. And in some autumns, the intensity of the color show just wasn't the same as in other years.
That's why it's important this time of year to look at the calendar and promise yourself that between Sept. 22 and Oct. 3, you'll make time for a road trip.
For many years, I thought the fall aspens on Buffalo and Rabbit Ears passes were all I'd ever need. That was before I discovered the panoramic view of Himes Peak from Ripple Creek Pass on the way to Trapper's Lake.
The scale of that landscape is vast compared to the views closer to Steamboat. And when I got my Fujichrome Velvia slides back from the lab, Himes Peak was reproduced in a lush lavender that set off the gold of thousands of aspen trees.
The only comparable view I've glimpsed in Routt County is that of Sand Mountain from high on Hahn's Peak.
A person could spend a decade admiring the fall colors in Northwest Colorado without venturing farther afield. But you would be missing out on all that autumn in Colorado has to offer.
If there is one iconic image that represents the Colorado high country, it is the view of the Maroon Bells reflected in Maroon Lake outside of Aspen. But don't let the fact that you've seen a hundred dazzling photographs of the scene keep you from witnessing it in person.
Photographers who set their tripods up at Maroon Lake in 2006 made the best shots anyone has yet seen of the Bells. A heavy snowstorm coated the peaks and graciously left the leaves on the trees.
Personally, I find that autumn color in Colorado is always elevated by fresh snow. It makes bald rocky peaks jump out of that impossibly blue sky. Fresh snow transforms the blue-black of evergreen trees, giving the landscape a painterly feel.
If you've ever driven from Steamboat Springs to Crested Butte in autumn, you know how beautiful that trip can be. But if you've always gone via Leadville, Buena Vista, Monarch Pass and Gunnison, you're missing out on the scenic back road.
It's time to drag out the road map and plan a trip over Kebler Pass with a little side trip partway down Ohio Pass. You can easily make the trip in a day, but you'll want to stop so many times that you might want to get a very early start.
From Steamboat, drive south on Colorado Highway 131, then west on Interstate 70 to Glenwood Springs. Exit in Glenwood Springs and drive south toward Aspen on Colorado Highway 82. Instead of continuing up the Roaring Fork Valley, get off the highway in Carbondale and continue southwest up the Crystal River on Colorado Highway 133.
It's worth lingering in Redstone and Marble, but don't stay too long. You still need to climb McClure Pass before you get to the 30 miles of dirt road that transit Kebler Pass.
Just past Paonia Reservoir, look for a left turn on Gunnison County Road 12, which winds over Kebler Pass all the way into downtown Crested Butte. If you're lucky, there will be clean snow on the West Elks to serve as a dramatic backdrop for perfectly isolated stands of aspen. And farther down the road, you come to the dramatic views of Mount Owen and The Dyke from Cliff Creek.
Prime time for fall color is right around the corner, but it will pass you by and winter will set in suddenly unless you break away and relish the best time of year in the Colorado Rockies.
Kebler Pass is closed during the long Colorado winters.