VALLEY— If there was ever a peak week to get out and see the fall colors around the San Luis Valley, this is it. And those vibrant colors aren’t just about aspen trees.
Just about anywhere you go around the Valley and foothills offers up visual treats. There are the distinctive yellows and reds of willows, cattails, alders, birches and massive cottonwood trees that grow thick along waterways— and the brilliant yellows of the rabbitbrush in bloom and burnt reds of the wild rose bushes, both typically found in open landscapes. There are the flaming oranges and reds of native shrubs such as gooseberry, golden currants and three-leafed sumac. Even the colors of the different native grasses are something to behold.
Here are a few nearby excursions spotlighting the Valley’s rich colors. Along the way, stop for lunch in one of the area’s unique restaurants, breweries or local arts and crafts shops.
The Refuge next door
The Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge in Alamosa is chockfull of colors right now.
“The river trail is spectacular this time of year,” said refuge manager Suzanne Bouchaine. “The cattails and dogbane are changing colors and there are still lots of songbird migrants and butterflies galore.”
Visitors can also see bumblebees buzzing around the banana-yellow rabbitbrush, an important late-season food source for foraging bees. “The willows and cottonwoods have also begun to turn.”
While in Alamosa, stop in at Locavores Restaurant for farm-to-table grub and San Luis Valley Brewing Company for a mug or two of some home-brewed suds. In addition, there’s Infinite Art Gallery + Tea House to quench your thirst for the homegrown. Tea entrepreneur Cari Conari exhibits paintings and sculptures by local artists and serves up tea from herbs that have been wild harvested, grown at Rio Grande Farm Park and Cactus Hill Farm Park or purchased form organic and fair-trade sources.
Middle Frisco Creek & Silver Thread Scenic Byway
Local professional photographer John McEvoy said one of his long-time favorite places to capture fall colors on film is Middle Frisco Creek, just south of Del Norte on County Road 13.
“Though I haven’t been up there recently, there’s always a carpet of gold [from the aspens] along the trail,” said McEvoy.
The rocky and continuous climb isn’t for the faint of heart, however. Explorers also could be sharing the trail with mountain bikers, as its one of six single-track trails created by the Del Norte Trails Organizations for recreational mountain biking.
The Middle Frisco Creek trailhead starts at the end of CR 13. Bennett Peak is a long slog, some 13 or so miles round trip. But adventurers can turn around at any time and not feel cheated because the entire trail is filled with wondrous colors. Pack a lunch, water and snacks, depending on how long of a hike is planned.
After ogling the fall colors, stop in at the Windsor Hotel or Mystic Biscuit for a late lunch or dinner. The Windsor is relatively upscale, so plan on reservations and a change of clothes out of the hiking garb. Del Norte’s Three Barrel Brewery serves locally-crafted beer, pizza and salads; while Boogie’s serves more standard fare. If choosing to eat at Boogie’s, be sure to order homemade pie; the chocolate cream pie is especially good.
McEvoy also recommends the Silver Thread Scenic Byway, which takes fall looky-loos on a stunning journey from South Fork to Creede and Lake City.
Local pilots flying over the Rio Grande National Forest from Astronaut Kent Rominger Airport in Del Norte had good reports. “Our pilots report that colors abound throughout the Upper Rio Grande and getting better,” wrote airport manager Jay Sarason in an email Monday evening. “Highway 149 to Creede and Spring Creek Pass, Del Norte Peak Rd., Highway 160, Carnero Creek and Moon Pass… The aspens look to be building to ablaze.”
Catch the well-maintained forest service road over Carnero Creek Pass, 23 miles west of Saguache off Highway 114; Moon Pass is in the same general area. For real-time information on the changing colors, call the local Bureau of Land Management or US Fish & Wildlife Services.
Another exciting route for fall colors is through Alamosa and Conejos canyons, southwest of Monte Vista. Get there by taking Highway 15 to Forest Service Road 250 west.
“The road takes you into Alamosa Canyon up over Stunner Pass and then you drop into Conejos Canyon, which is fantastic,” said public information officer with the USFWS Mike Blakeman. It’s a long drive that takes you along the Conejos River and ends up at Highway 17, which connects Antonito to Chama, N.M. The road and surrounding landscape are rich with aspen, wild rose, willow, three-leafed sumac, cottonwood, birch and rabbitbrush---so an array of colors. Make sure to pack a blanket and picnic lunch for an afternoon filled with fresh air and heart-warming colors.
Along the drive, keep an eye out for boulders and U-shaped valleys left behind by the massive glaciers that dominated the landscape eons ago. Also look for “Jacob’s Lime Kiln” on the east side of the road about four miles north from Hwy 17. The lime kiln was built by settlers in 1899. Other lime-kiln ruins can be found near limestone deposits scattered throughout the San Luis Valley’s bordering mountains. The lime was used for mortar, cement, whitewash, preparing hides for tanning and as a disinfectant.
Explorers will also pass the old mining towns of Jasper and Platoro. There are a few rental cabins in Jasper or drive the full way to Chama and stay overnight. Foster’s Bar in Chama is a must for dinner if you go. Built in 1881, it’s the oldest commercial building in town and open seven days a week.
On the way back consider stopping at the Colorado Farm Brewery, southeast of Monte Vista, for a farm-to-tap beer. The brewery often has a food truck there serving up meals.
After the wildfire
Blakeman suggests getting up into some of the old burn areas for fall colors, “especially the Papoose burn area above Creede,” he said. “There are so many aspens that have sprouted after the burn.” Papoose was part of the West Fork Complex Fire in 2013. Part of that area includes Big Meadows, about 11 miles west of South Fork. “There are all sorts of herbaceous plants that are absolutely stunning as they turn, like the forbs and fireweed that are all over the place and turn a bright red,” Blakeman said.
“That’s what’s so cool about the fireweed. You get about 10,000 seeds on a single plant and those seeds can travel miles and miles.” The seeds have a high germination success rate on exposed soils, like landscape that’s been cleared from fire. “They are the perfect pioneer species and that’s why they come in so fast after a fire; they like that exposed soil.”
There’s also the old Million Fire area. “If you take Beaver Creek Road just west of South Fork, towards Del Norte Peak, you’ll find some really beautiful young aspen stands,” Blakeman said. “The fire was about 16 years ago and those trees are about 20 feet tall now.”
If you have the time and inkling, stop by the Rio Grande Club and Resort to hit a few balls on the driving range. The restaurant there also has a great menu. Other restaurants in town include Ramon’s for Mexican, The Old Firehouse for standard fare and Two Rivers Barbeque.
So much fall color
Here are a few additional ideas to experience the best of fall in the Valley. Remember to take water, food, raingear, a camera, binoculars and a sense of wonder.
Chama Basin (southwest SLV)– late-changing aspen and other vibrantly-colored vegetation
Zapata Falls (east SLV) – large aspen stands
Great Sand Dunes National Monument (east SLV) – rabbitbrush, willows, prairie sunflowers
Elephant Rocks (west SLV) – sage, rabbitbrush, gooseberry
La Garita Creek (west SLV) – birch, rabbitbrush, willows, three-leafed sumac, wild currant
Anywhere along the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (east SLV) – aspen and gamble oak, which turn a luminous burnt red
Caption: Rock formations, cattails and wood’s bush leaves make for a perfect picture./Courtesy photo by Ruthanne Johnson