Fall Colors of the Rio Grande

There will always be pockets of beautiful fall color to be found in the mountains and foothills that surround the San Luis Valley and along the Rio Grande and Conejos Rivers.  Generally, the aspen begin to change up river of Wagon Wheel Gap about a week before the mountains that surround the San Luis Valley.  And the aspen in Chama Basin will often turn a week later than those around the valley. 

Aspen aren’t the only colorful show in the autumn.  Rust colored Gambel oak mix in with the lower elevation aspen in the northern part of the San Luis Valley, while all the foothills include a plethora of multi-hued shrubs.  Additionally, the leaves of many of the summer wildflowers will turn a variety of colors ranging from dull maroon to vibrant yellows and oranges.  In other words, if you don’t get stuck on looking just for aspen, you can find spectacular fall color no matter where you go in the foothills and mountains of the upper Rio Grande.

Fall Color Updates & Photo Albums - Falls colors in the higher elevations will begin to show their beauty around the third weekend of September. 

Conejos Peak District      2015 Photos  2016 photos   September 24 - Color change in the Platoro area and north is about 70%. Conejos Canyon change of the colors range from 40 to 45% turned. 

Divide District                  2014 photos   2015 photos  2016 photos    September 21 - Color change is about 90 % in the Creede area 60% in the lower elevations. This coming weekend should be peak for driving the byways.

Saguache District             2014 photos  2015 photos  2016 photos    September 21 - Color change is about 10% in the Poncha Pass area and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Region 2 fall color information

There are a lot of beautiful autumn drives in the upper Rio Grande; here are just a few:

            The Silver Thread Scenic Byway. The diversity of shrubs in the canyon between South Fork and Creede turn a rainbow of colors. The aspen and cottonwood in the canyon tend to turn a little later than the aspen between Creede and Lake City.

            Middle Creek Road and Love Lake. Middle Creek Road takes off from Highway 149 just before Marshal Park Campground and is accessible to sedans up to Love Lake. A high clearance vehicle is needed to drive past Love Lake. Peak fall colors at Love Lake are so bright they hurt your eyes. Excellent reflection shots to be had on calm days.

            National Forest Service Road 250. This trip can be turned into a loop by coming back on pavement. NFSR 250 runs through both Alamosa and Conejos Canyons with Stunner Pass between them. Colorful aspen, willows, cottonwoods and a variety of dry hillside shrubs in the lower section of Alamosa Canyon. Moderate clearance vehicle, such as a crossover, is recommended for this route.

            County Road 41G. This trip can also be turned into a loop. CR 41G follows Carnero and Houselog Creeks and tops out at Carnero Pass. Aspen, willows and low elevation shrubs provide many photo opportunities. This beautiful drive connects with Highway 114, which is also a gem. Okay for sedans if you’re careful.

            These are just a few of the many spectacular autumn drives in our area, there are many more including the always majestic Sangre de Cristo Mountains. 

Why do leaves change color? In the Autumn, the decrease in the intensity and duration of sunlight, as well as cooler temperatures, causes the leaves to stop their food-making process (photosynthesis). The chlorophyll in the leaves breaks down, causing the green color to disappear, and the yellowish pigments, known as carotenoids, become visible. The Autumn foliage of some trees, including aspen, birch and ash, are mostly yellowish colors. The reddish pigments, the anthocyanins, become more visible in the leaf veins and cells in some leaves, such as maples.

Leaves have just as much yellow pigment (xanthophyll) in July when they are green as they do in October when they are yellow. In July the darker green pigment (chlorophyll) masks the yellow color. More info on color changes.

For more information about Fall colors check out these websites: