The rumors are true, and multiple reporters from Westword have seen it with their own eyes: Aspens near Denver are turning...right now!
The arrival of fall colors has come early this year thanks to drought conditions in the Centennial State, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Typically, the leaves on aspen stands don't undergo their shimmering transition from green to golden yellow until the second half of September — or even early October. But this year's lack of precipitation has jump-started that process by two to three weeks.
On its website, the National Park Service explains that aspen leaves turn that gilded color each fall because the trees reach a point at which they are not taking in enough energy (mostly because of dropping temperatures and shortening days) to produce green chlorophyll in their leaves. Once the leaves stop generating chlorophyll, they turn yellow before dying and falling off. This year, that tipping point appears to have been moved up with the unusually low levels of rain and snowfall, especially during early 2018. Remember the abysmal 2017-2018 ski season? The early peak of the Colorado River? Well, low amounts of precipitation in Colorado also mean that aspen stands didn't take in as much water to produce healthy leaves.
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The NPS website continues, “Within days of color change, a layer of tissue forms between leaf stem and twig, shutting off all fluids; the leaves turn brown and fall or are blown off of the tree.”
In other words, once aspen stands “peak” — meaning that a majority of trees reach that golden color — it's usually only a week or two before most of the leaves fall. This past weekend, September 7 to 9, Westword writers noticed aspen stands that had already peaked around Guanella Pass and Kenosha Pass, two of the iconic areas for viewing the fall colors near Denver. If you'd like to see splashes of golden trees around those two locations, head up there as soon as possible.
Exactly when an aspen stand turns color depends in part on elevation and latitude; aspens that are higher in elevation or farther north tend to turn earlier.
To find out if specific state parks have aspens that are turning color right now, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has a tool on its website you can use. Check the "Park Finder" to learn about current conditions. Each park section will provide tips on tracking down the most striking fall colors.