The long-awaited onset of fall color brilliance has begun in northern Colorado, especially at higher elevations.

Thomas Pemberton of Estes Park Tour Guides, who leads hiking and photography tours into Rocky Mountain National Park, says it’s beautiful in the park even though the change has just begun in nearby Estes Park.

“You have to go to elevation to see the colors, but the minute you get into park, you see those bright golds and yellows,” Pemberton said. “It is the time to visit. I’m seeing super bright yellow golds. It’s not consistent. Certain groves have completely changed their colors and their leaves are about to fall off, while others haven’t changed. The mountainside is covered with yellows, greens. It’s absolutely worth the trip.”

Katie Bessey, who owns the Hahn’s Peak Cafe 26 miles north of Steamboat Springs in the small town of Clark, predicts the peak there will come Sunday or Monday and said the change was sudden this week.

“A gal who works here just came up the road and she’s like, ‘That happened overnight,’” Bessey said. “It really did. Our hillside yesterday, I was looking at it and I was like ‘There’s not too much going on,’ but this morning there really is. It’s been just small stands of aspen that were yellow. We hadn’t really seen orange and red until this morning.”

Some observers have said it seemed to them like the change came late this year, believing that abundant monsoonal moisture this summer was the cause. But Dan West, one of the state’s leading forestry experts, says people may be thinking that because the change came early in recent years.

“This notion that we got some monsoonal flow, so somehow that has delayed things, I think that is probably true relative to what’s happened over the last couple of years,” said West, the state forest entomologist for the Colorado State Forest Service and a teacher at Colorado State University. “We were in severe, extreme and exceptional drought, so that caused trees to change colors early or drop their leaves early.

“I think we’re more on average (timing) because of the monsoonal flows, and that the trees were losing less in the middle of the summer than what we had the last couple of years,” he added.

As with Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park, elevation is playing a role in the Vail Valley. East Vail is higher than Vail Village, and the change is more advanced there.

“East Vail definitely has more vibrant aspens at the moment,” said Ashley Carter, who works at the Colorado Snowsports Museum in Vail Village. “The ones right here on Vail Mountain, we have really good patches but it’s still a mix of green and yellow right now, and we’re starting to see a little bit of red and orange popping. Part of East Vail is probably reaching the peak right now. I live in East Vail and the past two, three mornings as I’m leaving for work, I’m just amazed by how beautiful it is.”

West said the best viewing this weekend should be in the high country northwest of Denver, including the Peak to Peak Highway, Allenspark, Rocky Mountain National Park and all through the Indian Peaks Wilderness. “That whole area looks like it’s going to be great this upcoming week,” West said.

There could be areas further south, at high elevations, that also could peak this week.

“At the highest elevations, it seems this week is probably going to be pretty peak in a lot of locations,” West said. “In talking to people up in St. Elmo, which is a little historic community in Chaffee County that sits at about 10,000 feet, many landowners were saying it seems like it’s just about perfect there, going into the weekend.”

Kenosha Pass is also beautiful right now, but perhaps not what it has been in previous years.

“That typically is a spot you can almost always get great colors,” West said. “This year is not one of them. It has been impacted greatly by a frost event last spring, a snow event that was late, and subsequent insect activity. South of Fairplay is slightly better, and into Buena Vista and Salida, aspens are faring well and colors are right on track. I believe this coming week, that’s going to be peak for them. And, at the highest elevations, maybe they’ve peaked.”

West said typical timing for Colorado’s peak fall colors, which seems to be the case this year, brings the peak to northern Colorado in the last week of September and into the first week of October.

“October is kind of the peak season for that northern stretch,” West said. “Then the beginning of October, into that second week, leads us into the perfect window for the central portion. That second week, into the third week of October, is about when we’d see the peak for the southern portion.”

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