High Country Colors Begin: Southwest Colorado

Mountain meadows at Lizard Head Pass, Colorado.

Mountain meadows at Lizard Head Pass, Colorado.

It’s the best time of year again: Fall. Autumn. Time for perennial (multi year) deciduous plants to get ready for winter. And for annual (one year) plants to die, having done all they came forth to do in a single glorious season.

Streamside willow colors, Lizard Head Pass.

Streamside willow colors, Lizard Head Pass.

In the Colorado Rockies, there’s no better indicator of how things are going in this regard than the high country. It starts up there, and works lower in elevation as October, then November, approaches. And this year has been a banner year in terms of rainfall. It’s been a great growing season, and now the cool nights and warm sunny September days are setting up quite a show of color if it continues like this for two or three more weeks.

Willow leaves in my campsite's mountain stream.

Willow leaves in my campsite’s mountain stream.

Why? Because the green in plant leaves is caused by chlorophyll. Interestingly, the green of spring and summer masks other colors in the leaf. In the fall, the coolness of the nights signals the approach of winter. And the trees begin to ease back on the manufacture of chlorophyll. Less green, more other colors, like yellow, gold, and sometimes oranges and reds.

Fireweed, Dolores River. It colonizes burned over areas, and goes out with a blaze of red at season's end.

Fireweed, Dolores River. It colonizes burned over areas, and goes out with a blaze of red at season’s end.

So to see how things might be progressing, I headed up into the San Juan mountain range of southwest Colorado. What was even sweeter was that rain showers were in the forecast. Love those clouds mixing it up!

At Lizard Head Pass, I first stopped because its namesake peak was playing peek-a-boo with the clouds. The San Juan National Forest on one side, the Uncompahgre National Forest on the other.

The spire of Lizard Head Peak peeking through the clouds.

The spire of Lizard Head Peak peeking through the clouds.

I found a nice campsite in a high mountain meadow below Sheep Mountain. A fine 360-degree view. I was beside a babbling mountain brook. That sweet music. The willows along its banks were already gold. Much more so than the aspen forests, which were maybe 5 percent turned to yellow. However, the tundra up at timberline, and the meadow grasses and forms, were already golden with touches of red. The small plants signing off before the aspen forests would take the main stage.

Sheep Mountain, as sunset time nears.

Sheep Mountain, as sunset time nears.

Rain showers off and on; more music on the steel roof of my vehicle. At one point before sundown a heavy squall breezed through. It looked more like sleet than rain, but if so it didn’t stick on the ground.

Rain/sleet squall livens up the scenery for a while.

Rain/sleet squall livens up the scenery for a while.

For fall colors, cool weather is perfect, but really cold weather isn’t. That’s because if there’s a sudden hard freeze, or an early snow, the trees drop their leaves quickly, almost in unison. Thanks for another summer season, they say; see you in the spring. Gotta go.

Some aspen colors up close, Dolores River.

Some aspen colors up close, Dolores River.

So I’m hoping this cool but not hard-cold weather lasts for a while. I intend to savor whatever happens, though, week by week. Until the last leaf falls.

© Copyright 2015 Stephen J. Krieg

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