Late Fall Colors on the Colorado Trail

26 Jun
summits of the South Park Range

Although most of the aspen leaves have fallen, there were still swaths of yellow, orange, and even green leaves to be found. In the distance, the summits of the South Park Range are in the clouds

Hike with Art and Sunday T. Dog on October 4, 2009
Rock Creek Trail Head on the Colorado Trail: 39º21’46”N, 105º41’16”W, 9,721 feet
Lunch: 39º22’48”N,105º43’42”W, 9,979 feet
Hiking distance: 5.9 miles

The fall color season was short this year. All the folks came up the hill from Denver, clogging the roads and trails, but the traffic fell off as the leaves fell down, and by the first week of October the tourists were almost gone. The leaves were less fickle, though, with patches hanging on, and some still green, after the majority of their brethren had dropped. One could also find color in bushes and other smaller plants.
The edges of South Park hold vast groves of aspen, and draw much attention in the fall.

aspen leaves pave the Colorado Trail

aspen leaves pave the Colorado Trail with gold

Art and Sunday and I went there to find what leaves were left. The Colorado Trail travels along the northeast edge of the park, making a fine trail to follow in the autumn. From U.S. 285 just east of mile marker 200, on the floor of South Park near Kenosha Pass, we turned east on Lost Park Road (Park County Road 56). At 7.7 miles from U.S. 285, we turned left at a sign pointing to Ben Tyler and Colorado Trails. The Colorado Trail crosses the road about a mile from PCR 56; we parked at the Rock Creek Trailhead just a few yards farther on.

We found a cool day, with the temperature around 40 degrees; luckily there was little breeze to cool us off further. The skies had been sunny as we drove, but they slowly filled with clouds, and by the time we got to the trailhead, there was an overcast sky. We picked the trail leading west, toward Kenosha Pass; a sign not far from the road told us the pass was six miles away.

blossom gone to seed

A blossom gone to seed waits for a wind to blow the seeds away

The trail led down a small valley edged with bristlecone pine and spruce, and occasional stands of bare aspen. This valley led to a larger valley, which the trail crossed. At the bottom we found a creek and a sign that read, “Johnson Gulch.” Up and down the creek we found brown, orange and fading green bushes growing in the wet ground near the creek. A little-used road came and went up Johnson Gulch, while we went up another small valley, following the trail west. A blue bird waited for us on sign ahead, a sign that kept us on the Colorado Trail at an intersection with an unnamed path.

The valley went toward the ridge east of Johnson Gulch, and the extra elevation gave us some views behind us. Down Johnson Gulch, we could see the rocky point on North Tarryall Peak, and to the east, the many rocky points on top of the highest of the Kenosha Mountains, and unnamed 12,429 foot peak. The sun shown through the clouds onto parts of this peak most of the day, teasing us with hope for a really good photo.

 red leaves on a  current bush

The red leaves on a current bush, its branches a loose jumble, makes for a lively spot of still life on the white and yellow background of this aspen grove.

The muted autumn colors were all along the trail. Current and wild rose bushes showed some of my favorites, often making a spray of red leaves on the yellow background of dried grass or fallen aspen leaves. As we approached the top of the little valley, we found views looking north and west across South Park. In the foothills nearby were the mostly bare aspens on the edges of the valleys, while the ridgetops were covered with conifers, dark green under the overcast sky. From the other side of Kenosha Pass, we heard an occasional pop! pop! of gunfire, reminding us that it was hunting season.

The trail came out the top of the little valley, and continued up the ridge westward, going through a wide meadow. This gave us even clearer views across the Park. Farther yet, we went into the forest, this one mostly spruce, with a healthy sprinkling of bristlecone pine and aspen. The floors of conifer forests tend to have less undergrowth than aspen groves, and the conifers do a better job of quieting the wind. When the wind blew through the aspens nearby, it carried the falling leaves into the conifers, and there they fell, in places covering our path. People say the aspens turn gold, but they’re really yellow, occasionally with an orange glow. After the leaves fall they turn brown on the ground, but if you find them soon enough after they’ve fallen, they are truly gold. We were lucky to find several stretches of golden trail winding through the spruce.

the bushes in Johnson Gulch

the bushes in Johnson Gulch have turned a burnt orange; the high peaks of the Puma Hills are in the distance, Farnum Peak is on the left

We sat down for a spot of lunch, and looked over the map. After going up the little valley, the Colorado Trail had turned north of west, roughly paralleling Johnson Gulch. For our return trip, we left the trail and went over a low ridge due east, to follow Johnson Gulch and the old road in it back to where it crossed the Colorado Trail.

The bit of bushwhack was no problem, any steeper slopes being easy to avoid, and the cow paths easy to follow. Once over the ridge we found a fence marking the boundary of private property in Johnson Gulch; again, it was easy to head east along the north boundary, then south on the far side of the gulch. This bigger valley sheltered the leafed trees and bushes, so more leaves were in the branches and there was more color on the edge of the pine and spruce forests. We wandered down the gulch, slogging through a few boggy spots and jumping a couple of small streams on our way back to the trail and the trailhead.

 Sunday in mid-air

I caught Sunday in mid-air as she jumped a small tributary to Johnson Gulch.

Many fall days are overcast, and if you’re walking after the majority of the leaves have fallen, it might seem a drab trip. But keep looking, there’s still color to be found.

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