Catching aspen at their peak color in Colorado can be tricky business. Finding a good aspen spot isn’t hard, but you have to get there at the right moment. They go from green to bare in two weeks, and the timing varies by altitude, clone, and weather. It’s a precious pursuit, and one I wasn’t going to miss out on this year!
My work on Base Camp Denver: 101 Hikes Along Colorado’s Front Range (Imbrifex Books, May, 2019) helped. As I hiked through September and watched the progression, I knew when peak week would be. Then the forecast called for sun and warmth on September 22nd, followed by days of wet, wind, and cold. I had it down to peak day.
I reached into my repertoire and selected Frazer Meadow in Golden Gate Canyon State Park. The park isn’t named for its fall colors, and no gold was ever found there – those are different stories. Part of the story is that nearly all its hillsides were logged at some point. In the late 1800s, it was to supply a nearby mining district with shaft supports, housing, and fuel. Aspen often indicate such a fairly recent disturbance. They do not do well in shade. The trees live for about 50 to 150 years, but their shared, clonal root systems can survive for thousands, even tens of thousands of years. They tend to sprout after a holocaust.
“Couldn’t have timed it better!” I exclaimed as I walked through vibrant yellow trees and arrived at a log structure with its roof fallen in, built by John Frazer in the 1860s. One of the earliest settlers, Frazer left the gold fields for this choice meadow in 1868. He kept two horses and a few cattle, and cut hay by hand. For victuals he harvested timber and drove it to Black Hawk to trade. Logging was the death of John; on the way to Black Hawk one snowy morning in the 1890s, his wagon load’s chain broke and the logs rolled over him.
“Aw, no reds,” I said, gazing across the meadow. Not that I should have complained. The yellows and oranges were on fire, thanks to the abundant xanthophylls and carotenoids present in the leaves all summer, which get eclipsed by chlorophyll. Red is a different matter, brought on by anthocyanins produced in leaves near the end of their cycle. Like the other colors, red shows up best when fall is marked by warm sunny days, a bit of rain, and cool nights with no freeze. Lots of carbs are produced in the leaves at this time and build up when the leaf veins begin constricting. Anthocyanins are synthesized as a result.
We know the yellow and orange pigments help leaves capture light energy. We’re less sure about the purpose of the reds. Wouldn’t it be better, in the waning days of fall, to get the carbs out of the leaves and not produce anthocyanins? Perhaps they act as sunscreen, slowing the breakdown of chlorophyll. Perhaps they help prevent frost injury. Perhaps they yell to insects about to lay their eggs, “Hey! I’m healthy. You’d do well to seek a different host.” One thing for certain is that red aspen are rare. It seems to be a genetic thing; some clones produce anthocyanins, a vast majority do not. The clones at Frazer Meadow apparently do not.
As I took my last photo, the wind kicked up. Leaves flew from the trees. Clouds moved over the sun. I grinned, put my camera away, and began hiking downhill, satisfied I’d timed it well. “Next year,” I vowed, “I’m going to know where some red clones live.”
I didn’t catch red aspen, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t going to catch red fire. Another benefit of living in a place with 9,000 vertical feet is that you get second and third chances with the foliage! After the mountain aspen go bare, weeks proceed of glorious color in the lowlands and plains. Hiking up Bluffs Regional Park in suburban Denver in October, gazing across neighborhoods where deciduous trees have been planted over decades, is a treat. It looks like a pointillist painting! And thanks to conscientious landscaping, about one in seven maples has NO shortage of anthocyanin.