If you have a long weekend during the fall color season, and you haven’t seen the San Juans in full splendor, it’s worth making the long drive to Ridgeway between Montrose and Telluride.

Photo by Tom Ross

If you have a long weekend during the fall color season, and you haven’t seen the San Juans in full splendor, it’s worth making the long drive to Ridgeway between Montrose and Telluride.

Tom Ross: Fall color display near Steamboat jumps the gun

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— Is it just my imagination, or did a couple of million aspen leaves on Mount Werner turn to gold Friday afternoon while I was buckled into my work station?

I poked my head out the back door of the newsroom at about 4 p.m. and was startled by the view of the aspens in Shadows high up in Priest Creek at Steamboat Ski Area.

Fall color seems to be advancing ahead of schedule this year.

I have a particularly soft spot for the aspen trees in Shadows, where some of my most memorable powder days have been spent. When their chlorophyll shuts down for the season and the warmer pigments in the leaves take over, you-know-what can’t be too far away.

It’s not every fall color season that we have lift-served leaf peeping (that’s a New England term, in case you didn’t know), but it’s definitely available this season, if for only two more days.

The final weekend of summer gondola operations at Steamboat Ski Area is today and Sunday. Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for teens, $10 for children and free for leaf-peepers younger than 5.

Of course, tickets aren’t mandatory to enjoy the fall colors, and I’ve got some recommendations for you. Call Steamboat Lake State Park at 970-879-3922 or Steam­­boat Lake Outfitters at 970-879-4404 for a fall color report. I spoke to Joe Binnig at SLO on Friday afternoon and he said the leaves hadn’t started changing just two day ago and now it’s a whole different world of orange and gold.

“I walked outside today and couldn’t believe it,” Binnig said. “They are definitely hitting it.”

That means that it’s time to head up the hiking trail to the summit of Hahn’s Peak to get a spectacular view across Steamboat Lake of the changing colors on Sand Mountain. If you don’t want to expend the energy, SLO will take your family on an ATV tour up Hahn’s Peak.

Closer to home, Buffalo Pass is a hot spot. I cherish the view from Rainbow Ridge looking west as the sun sinks. You’ll know you’re there when you hit the switchbacks. The view takes in overlapping ridges with colorful aspen leaves that can range in color from the familiar yellow to deep orange and almost purple. I’ve learned throughout the years that every fall color season is a little different than the last.

If you don’t have time to get all the way up Buff Pass, park at Dry Lake, cross to the north side of the road and take a quick hike up Soda Creek. Most folks overlook it.

Another fall color fix that doesn’t take much time is to drive through Pleasant Valley (Routt County Road 18 off Colorado Highway 131 south of town). After passing the Sarvis Creek Wildlife Area watch for a photo opportunity at a log homestead cabin with colorful aspens in the background.

I feel like a traitor sending you out of Northwest Colorado, but if you have a three-day weekend and you’ve never seen autumn color in the San Juan Mountains, check color reports at www.my

colorado.org, and if the leaves have changed in the Sneffels Range, drive south of Grand Junction beyond Montrose to Ridgway.

From there, explore San Miguel County roads 5 and 7 off Colorado Highway 62 and Dallas Divide. The views of aspens framing fresh snow on the peaks is like nothing you’ve seen in Routt County.

If you have only one full day for a getaway, one of my favorite spots is the Ripple Creek Over­look on the Flat Tops Scenic By­­way with giant views across the valley to the Mandall Peaks. Drive south of Steamboat to Phipps­burg and turn right on Routt County Road 15 up Hunt Creek to another right on 132 leading into Rio Blanco County and Dunckley Pass. Ripple Creek is down the other side of Dun­­­­ckley and back up the opposite side of the drainage.

If you want some cheap thrills while in the Flat Tops, stop at a sporting goods store before you leave Steamboat and shop for an inexpensive “Cow Talk” elk call.

Hunters use the “Cow Talk” to get the attention of bull elk. With only a little practice, you can talk to the elk, too. They cost $10, and it will be worth every penny if you manage to get a bull elk to bugle in response to your call. I guarantee that eerie sound will make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

Don’t spend the entire weekend in front of football games. The aspen trees won’t wait for you this year.

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