The Audacity of Autumn

Aspens and Fall Foliage in Utah

Dan L., your aspen tree in Soldier Canyon fell over last spring.

You would be proud. It did not grow old and crippled. It was not burned in a fire, smothered in an avalanche, chopped by a beaver or struck by lightning. Your tree died, ironically, while it was healthy: heavy spring runoff carved a wider channel beneath your tree and toppled it over, falling across a stream.

Dan L., I call it 'your' tree even though I doubt you planted it, and I'm almost certain it was not on your land. I call it yours because of the name scratched into it, which elongated with time.

I have hiked by that tree scores of times and in all seasons. Many trees in this canyon bottom have names, but yours was the most prominent.

But Sarah, your tree, nearly 20 years to the day after you declared your love for Greg, still stands. You might not recognize it though, because it has grown and now your names are stretched and darkened in either direction.

But you would be happy to know that, in the meadow in Settlement Canyon where your tree stands alone, hot sun still brings out the smell of gum and wild arugula, and butterflies and bumblebees still hum in the air, and the ground is still a springy carpet of grass hoarded by parsnip, elkslip, Richardson geranium, Engelmann aster, heartleaf arnica and woodlandstar.

Aspen are among the first trees to grow in 'disturbed' areas: aspens take root quickly after floods, avalanches or fires. The grand white-barked trees go so quickly because they share a common root system: rarely do you find a single aspen like you might find a single pine. Instead, one takes root and its roots spread to host more trees. Entire mountainsides can relatively quickly erupt with these trees. Then, when the aspens create a solid canopy, spruce, pines and fir, which demand less sun when they are young grow up and through the canopy. The aspens die back, and the forest takes on a new look.

Aspens are perhaps the most noticeable of all Utah trees that change their colors in the fall, though they are by no means the only ones. Forests of maple, cottonwood and oak turn red, yellow and orange when their leave dry out of when the onset of cool nighttime temperatures prompts chemical reactions that produce the color change and signify the rapid approach of winter.

Because of Utah's varied climates and extreme elevation differences, those wishing to see fall colors have a number of opportunities. Aspens in high-elevation meadows were turning to yellow during the first week in September, and many low-elevation oaks turned orange and red a week afterward. Many cottonwoods in southern Utah are now turning yellow and will continue to do so until November, especially in the far south. Similarly, mid-elevation aspens will continue to change to yellow through October.

However, due to warm temperatures this fall and an extremely dry summer, the color schemes have in many cases been muted or almost unnoticeable. For example, some high-elevation aspens - above 9,000 feet, generally - seemed to lose their leaves as soon as they turned. But even without leaves, the aspens hold what can sometimes be great treasures: the names that have been etched into them over the years.

R. Vasquez, your tree is now surrounded by juvenile Douglas fir, and I fear its days rare numbered. Tony + Richard, your aspen is shouldering the weight of another which has fallen against it. Sam + Jessica, the roots of your trees have become exposed, and an animal has drilled holes into the dirt beneath it.

Where are you now, L. Bevan? Shawn F.? Cami, Frasier and Colette? Bridget loves Malcolm? Jos. K. Smith? N. Griffith? R. Strickland? CC Thompson? J. England? Do you remember, Ralph, the autumn day you scrawled in block letters, 'THS Rules!' No? IT was October 17, 1982. Had the leaves begun to fall yet, or was it an Indian summer, and they stayed?

And where are you now, Jon B., who wandered in Hickman Canyon July 25, 1974. Or were you wandering? And was it you who really scrawled your name in a tree that still stands above a creek still choked with fallen, stripped oak branches? And why did you put your name there, anyway?

But 'C. Provost,' you who had the gall to scratch '1842' on a tree even amateur botanists know rarely grows older than 60 years, I suspect the world long ago became inured to your lies.

Where To See the Colors

As I was saying, owning to Utah's varied geography and topography, you will find color-changing trees in a wide variety of places. Here are some of my favorites:

  • U.S. 89, Logan Canyon, east of Logan
  • State Route 39, Monte Christo Summit, east of Huntsville
  • State Route 190, Big Cottonwood Canyon, east of Salt Lake City, including Guardsman Pass
  • State Route 210, Little Cottonwood Canyon, east of Salt Lake City
  • State Route 92, the Mount Timpanogos loop, north, east of Provo
  • State Route 150, the Mirror Lake road, east of Kamas
  • U.S. 40, Daniels Summit, east of Heber City
  • State Route 31, the Wasatch Plateau, east of Fairview
  • State Route 12, over Boulder Mountain, between Torrey and Boulder (likely the most spectacular of all)
  • The La Sal Mountain loop, east of Moab
  • The Abajo Mountain loop, west of Monticello
  • The canyons of the Escalante River, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, southeast of Escalante
State Routes 14, 148 and 143, the Markagunt Plateau, east of Cedar City

Check out this week's photo gallery.

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