The Hunt for Red September

It’s that precious time again! The aspens in Colorado’s Front Range are blazing in color. As I write this on September 14, groves at 10,000 feet and above are peaking.

Hikers enjoying the aspen east of Kenosha Pass on the Colorado Trail
Photo by Pete KJ

Last October, I promised I’d find out where some red aspens live, and report on them this year. We’re talking about groves that sport anthocyanins. Unlike the yellow and orange pigments which are present in leaves all summer, red-glowing anthocyanins are produced only in autumn in response to bright light and excess plant sugars. In the case of aspens, red is elusive. Most groves don’t go red at all, and those that do don’t do it every year.

Color tends to be most intense when autumn starts out warm and sunny and gradually cools without freezing. I knew I had a decent shot of catching some good red this year. I just needed to find out where red-tending groves grew. Only a couple of google clicks, right?

I confess. As soon as I began my homework, I ran headlong into my aversion to overthinking and over-planning when it comes to getting outside. I love to keep it simple and just DO it! I knew that Kenosha Pass, southwest of Denver on US 285, was aspen mecca. I also knew from monitoring the mountains during my weekly rambles that this week would be peak week there. That’s all I needed to know. Rather than google, I went to look for the dang red aspen myself.

Kenosha Pass at 9 am, Thursday Sept 13, 2018
Photo by Pete KJ

As always, I arrived at the crack of dawn and, as usual, I had the trailhead to myself (well, there was one other car). I headed eastward from Kenosha Pass, marching in solitude through somber stands of aspen in faint early light, enjoying a lesser-appreciated aspect of the aspen chromatograph: green-hued trunks which are themselves capable of performing photosynthesis, and do it before leaves grow and after they fall. Then the sun surmounted the rise, lit up the hillsides, and…well, there is no way to really describe it. You just have to be there.

I am happy to report that if you hike five miles east from Kenosha Pass, you will descend into a valley where a number of aspen turn red, especially at their tops (you’ll get some within a shorter distance going west, but it’s not as nice of a hike). Yay! Mission accomplished, right?

Not quite. On my way back, during the last couple miles to the car, the onslaught began: a continuous stream of hikers coming to enjoy the aspen. I got back to Kenosha Pass and it was positively a mob scene: hundreds of vehicles, and more arriving every second. On a Thursday. I can’t imagine what it will be like there tomorrow (Saturday).

Red aspen viewed from Abyss Trail
Photo by Pete KJ

Because aspens are like the air we breathe in Colorado’s mountains—they’re everywhere—I knew I couldn’t recommend Kenosha Pass with a straight face to anyone who doesn’t love to get up a 4:00 am. There is simply no need to go where everyone else is going in order to enjoy them, and even to see red. I got back to my car and thought, “Where else?”

I reached into my mental bag of nearby hikes, and the answer appeared: “Abyss.”

I’m talking about the Abyss Trail (Hike #83 in my upcoming book, Base Camp Denver: 101 Hikes in Colorado’s Front Range). The trail begins 5.5 miles up the wonderful Guanella Pass Road, which branches from US 285 prior to Kenosha Pass and wraps the western flank of the Mount Bierstadt/Evans massif on its way to Georgetown. The trail’s name is funny in that it sounds so harrowing. The Abyss itself is a dramatic cut in the earth between Mounts Bierstadt and Evans, and is reached at over a dozen miles in. Prior to that, the Abyss Trail offers mile after mile of the most gentle and pleasant walking a hiker could wish for, with no bikes (unlike Kenosha) since it’s a Wilderness Area, through a majestic valley that is a similar altitude to Kenosha and is chockfull of aspens.

At 3:30 pm I re-laced my boots at Abyss Trailhead. For me, pretty much the only thing better than hiking really early in the day is hiking late. This is especially true when catching aspens in their autumnal glory, as the slanting sun lights them up and makes them absolutely magical. And of course, for some strange bizarre reason, most hikers call it a day by mid-afternoon and leave me to enjoy the trails in solitude just when they’re getting really, really good.

The first two Abyss miles are through mostly lodgepole forest. There I met a dozen or so people who were on their way out. After that, I did not see a soul.

At two miles, you’ll cross Scott Gomer creek and enter said aspen valley. Here is where you must prepare yourself to be blown away, especially if you’re hitting it on peak day like I was, which was September 13th in 2018. And yes, in this valley there are a few special groves that go red. You will see fine examples up on the left-hand hillside, beneath graceful cliffs of Geneva Mountain. But keep on hiking through the gentle valley—it’s hard not to, the trail is so easy and the aspen are so amazing, your feet just propel you forward—and you will walk straight through plenty of red.

Keep going! At just over three miles, you’ll re-cross the creek and do a bit of uphill. The huffing and puffing is completely worth it, because at 4 miles you’ll arrive at some ponds in a meadow where the grass is so soft and cushy it will put you to sleep amidst the blazing aspens, beneath Bierstadt.

Of course by the time you read this, and maybe even before I’ve finished writing it, the aspens will have peaked and their leaves will be gone. But there’s always next year! All you have to do is monitor the internet to keep track of when twenty thousand people will be going to Kenosha Pass, and bookmark this blog page. Or don’t bookmark this page, and just remember, “Abyss, Abyss.”

Red aspen along Abyss Trail
Photo by Pete KJ

Pete KJ

Pete KJ

Pete KJ began explorations at age three in the wooded ravine that was his backyard in Seattle. He also began a lifelong writing habit. Backyard expanded as Pete stomped all over the Cascades and Olympics as a youth, and headed onward to the Pyrenees, Alps, Himalayas, and Andes. Peace Corps service in Africa cemented his deep desire to always be out in the world, and when he finally sat in a cubicle as a chemical engineer, it was in places like Puerto Rico and India. Long absent from cubicle, he moved on to raise kids, travel the world with them, and write about it (and also write three novels). Career brought Pete to Colorado in the 1990s, its gravity and beauty pulled him back. Pete's "Base Camp Denver: 101 Hikes in Colorado's Front Range" will be published in April, 2019 by Imbrifex Books.

2 thoughts to “The Hunt for Red September”

  1. That is really a great title! And the photos are pretty swell. Wish I could be in the high country right now to walk among the Aspens.

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