The Autumn Equinox in the San Luis Valley

It happens on time every year! But, not exactly at the same time. What the heck, is, ‘it’? I threw in those commas to slow readers down and contemplate for a bit. In the course of our 365.25 day yearly tour around the sun (that extra quarter of a day each year is what makes us need to throw in an extra day every four years in February to catch up to the Earth’s actual full revolution), the earth tilts at ever changing angles to direct sunlight independent of our 24 hour axis rotation that gives us night and day. Simple, yet complex and let’s all life survive on our spaceship Earth. If our planet did not rotate, the dark side of the Earth away from the sun would be frozen solid at absolute zero and the sunny side would be burnt to a crisp as if someone had left the oven on all night and forgot about the bread baking! Black cinder buns anyone?

What exactly is the Equinox? Similar to the recent solar eclipse where the new moon passed in front of the sun for around two minutes, the sun passes over the equator as the Earth revolves and only ‘hovers’ at that spot for a brief moment. In September this movement of the sun over the Equator starts fall in the Northern Hemisphere and spring in the Southern Hemisphere. The reverse happens on March 21 every year.

Enough planetary physics. What happens here in the San Luis Valley around the September Equinox? Less sunlight leads to cooler nights as the ground has more time to release heat to the atmosphere. Cooler nights make changes to pigments in plants. In deciduous trees that lose their leaves every fall, like aspens, cottonwoods, willows and oaks including other plants, the chlorophyll that we see as green goes away and other pigments called cyanine, carotene, xanthophyll’s and anthocyanins that we see as yellows, oranges and reds are unmasked and give us spectacular color contrasts against either blazing blue skies or against dark gray clouds of autumn cold fronts. Aspen groves contrast so well against storm clouds it’s as if they are plugged into an electrical source giving off their own bright light. Though we don’t think of plants as intelligent creatures, it could be easily argued that they are very smart knowing when to turn off the green, turn on other colors, conserve energy, and then drop their leaves for winter!

Without further ado - here are good spots to see September into October colors. Fall starts up high and recedes downward. Currently, the high mountain aspens are rapidly changing but will hold their golden and occasionally reddish orange colors into October. The Conejos River Valley on Highway 17 and La Manga and Cumbres Pass on the backroads to New Mexico have numerous aspen groves awash in colors. Later in October into early November when the aspen leaves are ‘finished’ the willows and cottonwoods along the rivers and streams take over the show!

West toward Wolf Creek Pass, numerous aspens are ablaze in color and especially the west side of Wolf Creek headed toward Pagosa Springs, about 75 miles from Alamosa, offer spectacular views from several designated lookout points. Toward the headwaters of the Upper North Fork of the Rio Grande on Highway 149, explosive expanses of aspens can be found. Off the beaten path on dirt roads offer even more surprises of colors. On the east side of the SLV, aspen groves can be seen but the best colors require hiking into the narrow canyons on the trails to be rewarded for colors that cannot be seen from any roads. North Crestone Creek trail is a good one! Don’t forget to have fun, perhaps even splash your way through the clear cool waters of low flowing streams.

How to get there? As the Chevy Club was recently in town, my favorite had to be the 1931 sky blue roadster with the wooden ‘suitcase’ strapped on back. Nothing says road trip and leaf peeping like that car! Imagine the original owner of that car back in the 30s cruising our mountain highways and byways. Let that dream go and get out there armed with camera, binoculars, a picnic lunch and go see Mother Nature’s annual color show. Admission FR