Autumn Part 2

Leaves are falling all around, Time,

I was on my way,

Thanks to you, I’m much obliged, Such a pleasant stay, but now, It’s time for me to go,

The autumn moon lights my way... “Ramble On” - Led Zeppelin

Cannot help but feel so much recently for everyone after being pounded by wind, water, and waves in hurricanes, or, having everything they owned being completely consumed by firestorms! How lucky are some of us to be in the mountains where we may have a few blizzards, occasionally extreme cold, and a forest fire or two, but never as out of control as hurricanes, or the kinds of wildfires that crush California. Weather dynamics in parts of the world are completely in Mother Nature’s control and her wrath can be powerful and brutal.

Enter her softer gentler side. Colorado has two autumns. The first burst of color season that people come to see is mid-September through early October. Amazing contrasts reveal golden aspen groves against the green pines, the high jagged peaks, and the bluest of blue skies. But a series of fast moving storms as the jet stream comes south bring rain into the valleys and snow above tree line on the highest peaks. Unrelenting winds for a day or two rake the aspen trees bare until most of the groves at altitude appear, from a distance, like thousands of naked white sticks pointed to the sky. Though the scene may look uninviting, the trails that pass through them, are actually wonderful. The fallen leaves begin their decomposition to return to the forest soils and emit a unique and pleasant odor. If dry, they crunch under foot, and create a patchwork of art. Streams are running low and cold revealing their rocky bottoms. Autumn Part 2 may not be as colorful but it is still a photographer’s dream or an artist’s canvas. Bronzes, browns, and grays dominate except where renegade trees are ‘late bloomers’ and full of color, still dressed in shades of golds, reds, and oranges. If snow falls in October, it will generally be staying for the winter on the north facing slopes where the cold night temperatures keep the snow frozen even on days when air temperatures may be in the 50s.

A few words about the sun in the fall. The low southern sun angles make for sharp contrasts, offering bright piercing light while creating dark shadows in the deep forests. Adds a storybook effect to enchanted forest. What or who will appear? A ghostly Halloween character like a headless horseman, or an elk, several deer or perhaps even a bear! I’ve seen them all this time of year as the forest trails are less traveled by humans. The sun also does not feel as hot as the summer season, and though it is soothing versus blazing on the skin, wear sunscreen as high altitude sun is high altitude sun. More UV with less atmosphere always. NOTE: These months are hunting season so be aware and wear bright fluorescent colors such as hunter orange or highway worker lime green.

Temperature swings are also amazing. Daytime temperatures on south facing trails may be in the 80s as the dark ground absorbs the sun’s rays but once the sun goes down the temperature goes with it! With the dry atmosphere and less hours of daylight, the process of cooling occurs, whereby the warm surfaces of the ground lose their heat quickly. In the first two hours the comfortable hiking temperatures may drop 20 or more degrees and overnight the temperature swing may be close to 50 degrees! A 70 degree day may have a 20 degree night! When it comes to clothing - ever heard the expression “Layers!” Pack appropriately if planning to be out after the sun goes down.

This time of year is also called Indian summer. The Native Americans called it the ‘season when thunder sleeps.’ Rarely do clouds over the mountains in the fall become menacing thunderstorms like they do in the regular summer months, unless, a cold front is coming in to the mountains. Again, the Indians knew to watch for clouds that would indicate such a change. High cirrocumulus or lenticular clouds (that look like flying saucers) can indicate an incoming front. The Utes would continue to hunt through the late fall until it was time to abandon the valley for the inevitable winter.

How about night skies? One word. Spectacular!!! Depending on the phase of the moon, the Great Sand Dunes may be lit up and easily climbed in the eerie white light, or, during a new moon the Milky Way is so bright it almost looks like a long white cloud across the sky.

Satellites and the Space Shuttle can be seen cruising across the heavens. Great for night photography or simply wandering about.

TRAVEL HINT: The full moon is November 4th. Head to the Great Sand Dunes, bundle up like a penguin, and hit the ‘beach.’ Happy autumn trails!