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The turning aspens on Kebler Pass near Crested butte show a full palette of colors Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

While life has felt far from normal in Colorado — a summer of historic wildfires met an unprecedented pandemic — fall color viewing should be close to status quo, assures one of the state's leading experts.

Without regular rains, "we know this probably isn't the perfect year for aspens," said Dan West, the State Forest Service entomologist who every summer monitors Colorado's wooded acreage from aircraft. "But most aspen stands I've been (seeing) still look pretty good, so I'm anticipating we'll have an average season."

Dry conditions stress aspens, jump-starting the process of green leaves turning gold before falling. But no need to drastically alter your annual pilgrimage plans: West expects displays to be at their brightest in mid- to late-September in the north-central part of the state, as usual, with the typical peak occurring later to the south and west.

"Will the average person going up to the mountains notice a shift? I don't think so," West said. "We're talking a few days, maybe a week, earlier."

"Severe" to "extreme" drought has gripped Colorado for much of August, threatening to diminish green-inducing nutrients in aspen leaves and speed up the annual cycle of change. Drought signals a "hormonal trigger," West said, "that basically says, 'I'm gonna start to shut down a little bit earlier.'"

But "day length is really the trigger for fall foliage," he said. "So the drought does kind of increase change, but usually it's not significantly."

The paramount factors remain warm, sunny days and longer, cooler nights. Those days produce sugars while the night's low but not freezing temperatures store the sugars — the ideal combination creates red hues.

Freezes and winds are enemies to the leaf peeper. As are fungi that dim brilliance and bugs that feed on foliage.

West has noted "significant disturbances" in the Gunnison River Basin in recent years, including areas around Crested Butte and Lake City. From flights over Kenosha Pass, a go-to spot in the central Rockies, "it looks like there's quite a bit of feeding from either beetles or caterpillars," West said.

"But honestly, there's gonna be plenty to see I feel like this year," he added. "It'll be a pretty decent season all around, provided the weather plays out."


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