Autumn is upon us! But the fall colors might be a little less bright in some areas of Southern Colorado this year.

Shanna Lewis/KRCC News
Some of the first aspen leaves changing off of Hwy 165 in the Wet Mountains west of Pueblo on the last weekend of September, 2021.

The third week of September is usually pretty good for leaf peeping in the high country. But forester Alex Rudney with the U.S. Forest Service in Chaffee County said this year an unusual outbreak of a certain type of moth called the Large Aspen Tortrix this past spring damaged aspen leaves across tens of thousands of acres in southern Colorado.

“It's a little hard to predict a whole mountain range worth a color with something that's impacted it that I've never seen (so widespread) before,” he said, “but my suspicion is that it will be less brilliant than it would have been without that.”

The leaves grew back, Rudney said, but they are thinner than normal and it’s not clear what caused the outbreak.

There may be some areas that weren’t affected by the moths, he said. The color change is just beginning at very high elevations, around 11,000 feet, which is normal timing. It can change quickly though, he said, depending on temperatures and weather conditions. As it gets later in September, one of the areas he said might have good colors is State Highway 165 between Rye and Lake Isabel in the Pike San Isabel National Forest, west of Pueblo.

State Highway 50 over Monarch Pass also has good potential leaf viewing areas, according to Rudney, as do Cottonwood Pass and Aspen Ridge in Chaffee County.

Other trees can put on good fall displays as well. “While most people come to see the aspens,” he said, “oak can be very nice too.” State Highway 12 going west from La Veta is a possible area to spot changing oak leaves.

Cottonwoods, which grow in the lower elevations in valleys and river areas, are usually the last trees to change colors. “So if you've missed peak season in the high country,” he said, ”you can always hit the cottonwood areas later in the fall in mid to late October and see some pretty brilliant colors as well.” Cottonwood trees often line the Arkansas River and other waterways.

Regardless of where you go looking for changing colors, Rudney said, “It's always an adventure. You go looking for the nice colors and you never know what you'll find. So come on out and take a look.”

You’ll see beautiful scenery even if the colors aren't what you hoped for, he said, so it’s never a wasted day, and he reminds leaf peepers to come prepared for changing weather conditions in the high country.

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