ASPEN — The first snow of the season dusted the Elk Mountains above Aspen on Saturday, providing an early glimpse of winter as chill sneaked into glowing aspen forests. For the last two weeks, aspen trees in the Roaring Fork Valley have exploded in dazzling hues, ranging from neon yellow to pale red.
Some groves peaked earlier than others in drainages in the Roaring Fork Valley and yet thousands of visitors continue to pour into the valley hoping for their moment to witness nature’s annual show; an artful display that longtime locals say is much brighter this year than usual. A vibrant palette still lingers in the valley, with aspens and scrub oak splashing floor-to-ceiling color across the forest.
The quaking aspen leaves begin their autumnal transition from green depending on weather, elevation, latitude, and the amount of sunshine they absorb. Fluctuating sunlight, precipitation and temperatures provide a level of unpredictability for high country color chasers. A windy rainstorm can strip entire mountainsides of color overnight. A dry fall can leave aspens colorfully quaking for many weeks.
Aspen was known as Ute City prior to 1880. The silver-mining town changed its name, as legend holds, based on the abundance of aspens climbing the valley’s slopes and mountains. The Aspen Daily News, in March 2, 1950, quoted silver miners who said they re-named the town after Aspen Mountain due to “the large number of quakenasp which grew upon it.”
From there, the town grew with banks, schools, churches, and an opera house rooted in the steady flow of silver pouring out of the Smuggler Mine. Eventually the nascent ski area at the end of the valley began drawing high-profile visitors and a new flow of wealth began flowing into town.
The quaking aspens, with their root-connected, miles-wide groves making them among the largest and oldest living organisms on Earth, continue their seasonal transition year after year, oblivious to the changes on the valley floor. This autumn’s brief, yet spectacular explosion of colors, once again reminds us that change is imminent and inevitable.