Predicting Peak Fall Color In Colorado

Autumn Photography in Colorado
Autumn Color Near Crested Butte – September 29th, 2014

As the calendar trickles into late September, us landscape photographers here in Colorado begin our annual ritual of planning our fall photography trips. There are several variables we must take into account and I’ll try to explain as best I can what I’ve learned over the years.

First things first. I often hear folks talking about how good the color is or isn’t going to be. Many folks will say different things and the fear of missing out takes hold to a great degree.

We need a good starting point, but there’s not always a true representation of what will actually happen and when it will occur is more or less a guessing game. I do know this much. Autumn comes at the same time every year. Some years it lasts longer, some years the color is better than others. I know of no way of predicting it with any accuracy other than by the calendar, latitude and altitude.

There are several interactive websites around the internet that will give you a general idea of fall color progression, but they aren’t exact. Here’s a link to one of them. I wouldn’t rely on a single prediction map though. I’ve checked several different versions and they aren’t quite predicting the same results. But, they will give you a starting point for making plans.

Another good tool for analyzing the state of color change are webcams. They can give you a quick look at conditions around the state. There are a ton of active webcams too. Here’s a link to one of the websites of webcams around Colorado. Do a Google search to find more.

In my experience, color in the mountains generally begin changing around the 20th of September. The rate of change may vary slightly due to the weather and other conditions, but normally Northern Colorado is beginning to show some color around the third week of September. That change will move South in latitude as the days tick by. I normally see the central Rockies begin to show noticeable change around the last week of September, and the San Juans and Southern Colorado begin popping around the first week of October. You may also find US Forest Service websites for specific conditions in specific areas to be helpful. Here’s a link for the San Juan Mountains. Weather conditions in any area will determine how long that color lasts. Windy conditions and rough weather can strip trees of their leaves quickly. Determining peak color is a hit and miss proposition.

Altitude also plays a big role in when peak color occurs. Altitudes above 10,000 feet will always change color first and I guesstimate that color moves lower in elevation by about 1,000 feet per week no matter the latitude. I’ve seen everything above 10,000 ft stripped off by high winds before color at 8,000-9,000 feet fully comes in, so watch the weather reports for the areas you a expecting to visit.

Another thing to realize is that color can be different on different sides of the same mountain. Crested Butte comes to mind here. Color on the East side of Kebler Pass can be peaking and really vibrant, but drive over the pass to the West, and you can find that it’s quite patchy. This isn’t unique to Kebler Pass though.

Another area that is popular is Kenosha Pass. It seems to me that Kenosha pass has it’s own schedule, normally showing peak color well before the rest of the central Rockies. I’ve seen Kenosha Pass peak out by around September 22-25 many years. It also has a tendency to blow off quickly too. Hit Kenosha Pass early if you want to get a day drive in to check color. By the time the rest of the central Rockies get to peak, Kenosha Pass can be done.

Another area that always seems to be a little ahead of the rest of the state is between Kremmling and Rocky Mountain National Park.

This brings us to the question “what is peak color?” I use my own definition, which is basically the time when all the leaves are still on the trees and it’s showing about 50% or more color change. I like to see green, yellow, red, orange. Some leaves haven’t turned yet but the color is actually more varied. Some folks go by how many of the aspen trees are fully yellow. The problem for waiting for most of the foliage to have turned is that higher elevations are typically stripped of leaves. I don’t like to photograph the stripped trees if I can avoid it. You are either too early or too late. I prefer to be too early. I plan to be there a little before peak, as that gives me something to work with and I can estimate the progression as the days on location tick by, allowing me more flexibility in deciding where to work.

So here I am about one week out from the heart of my upcoming trip and I’ve been watching the reports and talking with my travel companions. We always worry about what we’ll find, but I’m comfortable in the knowledge that this isn’t the first time I’ve been on an autumn photography trip and by looking through the photos of previous years, I have a fairly good idea that we will find what we are looking for. We’ll use our drive to the intended location to observe conditions across the Continental Divide and we’ll adjust accordingly.

You may find certain tools useful on your autumn photography trip. I always bring a portable Garmin GPS with me. It allows me to mark spots on a map for easy navigation to scouted areas and it can provide me with a good estimate of travel time and distance between locations. It also allows me to determine accurate elevations. If I’m driving around at 9,000 feet and there’s color above me, I’ll know roughly when to expect to color to move lower. If I’m seeing good color at 8,000 feet or above, I can expect color above 10,000 feet to be peaked and maybe trees stripped. Most GPS systems built into automobiles are lacking and though useful for road trips, they don’t typically give you enough information.

Another tool that is quite useful is a DeLorme Atlas and Gazeteer, a must for me. I use it religiously when on the road.

Lastly, check the news websites for the areas you intend to visit. Many of them will regularly report the color conditions. It may be a day or two past due, but it can help sometimes.

The big question while on the road is almost always, where are we going to eat tonight?