Aspens are some of my favorite trees in the autumn. Living in the desert, surrounded by cacti, I don’t get to see autumn colors in my backyard. However, not far from us we have some of the best sites for aspens, in the mountains around Flagstaff, Arizona.
Our Yearly Pilgrimage
Every year since we live here, we make it a point to go up to Flagstaff during the first few weeks of October. It is usually when the leaves peak.
We can enjoy fall in all its beauty, and it only takes a day trip. We usually watch the watching the “leaf-o-meter” to find the best time to go, then we take off for Kachina Peaks. About two hours later the bright yellow leaves of the aspens greet us.
Pine trees, as well as aspens fill the mountains around Flagstaff. Lower, in town, we can spot a few maple trees, but the biggest attraction at this elevation are still the aspens.
Every year is a bit different, though.
Last year it rained, which made it even more wonderful for us. I know it sounds odd to most people, but for us desert dwellers, rain is a real treat, especially in October.
I’ve always been fascinated by aspens. Their white and smooth bark, and their bright green/bright yellow in autumn leaves makes them unique among trees.
I grew up watching old Russian movies, which inevitably had a few scenes set in aspen forests. In fact, most of what I remember of all of those movies were different characters walking through aspen forests and talking. They could be lovers, politicians, good guys, villains, no matter what, they all ended up in one of those forests at some point.
Later on, when I visited Russia, I understood. We were driving through Belorussia (White Russia), among miles upon miles of aspen forests. Aspens were on both sides of the road, and nothing else. We seemed to be in the middle of this forest forever, looking through the while barks. I felt like I was in one of the movies I grew up watching. It was the most beautiful part of that country, my favorite moments there.
The Oldest Aspen Growth
Turns out that the oldest aspen colony is not even in Russia, but right in our back yard, in Utah. It has a name, Pando, and it’s around 80,000 years old. I learned about all that later.
Pando is an aspen clone colony in the Fishlake National Forest in Utah. I haven’t been there yet, it is on my list of places to visit. Pando is over one hundred acres large and has about 47,000 individual aspens. But wha tis really mind-boggling is its age. Where was Earth 80,000 years ago? Younger clone colonies are still between at 5,000-10,000 years.
Interesting Facts I Learned About Aspens
A few years ago I sat through a ranger talk at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The topic was aspens. I learned a few amazing facts there, and later on I researched a bit more. These trees are even more amazing than I ever imagined.
So how is it possible for an aspen colony to be 80,000 years old? No other tree can be quite as old as that. Aspens, as young as they seem, might be ancient. No, not the individual trees, it is their root system that is virtually immortal.
Aspens rarely grow from seeds. Most of them sprout from their roots, much like a potato plant, and some even clone themselves.
The cloning is the most amazing part of this process. It means that new trees grow from the lateral roots of another tree. So even when an individual aspen dies (they don’t live more than about 150 years), the rest of the colony is still alive while new ones sprouts from the same root. The clones are identical, but differ from aspens that belong to another set of clones.
This explains the fact that aspens turn color at different rates at the same elevation, even in the same forest. We notice patches that turn color the same time, but others next to them, don’t. The patches with the same color are clones. Clones might be less than an acre or up to one hundred acres large.
Aspens Survive Forest Fires
Because of their ability to clone, aspens are able to survive forest fires. Not the individual trees, they burn just like the rest of them.
Did you ever notice that after a forest fire aspens are the first trees to grow? Their roots are safe from the fire underground, and as soon as the fire is over, new clones shoot up towards the sky from them. Talk about survival of the species.
Locket Meadow, Our Old Favorite
Years ago we used to go up to a place called Locket Meadow to see the aspens. It is the best place to see large colonies of aspens. It could only be reached by a four-wheel drive, on a very narrow dirt road on the side of the mountain. Along the way we enjoyed beautiful views of Sunset Crater. Up in the wilderness, the trails go for miles among aspens and pines.
We no longer have an SUV, but that isn’t the main reason we changed the place we visit this time of the year. A huge forest fire destroyed much of the side of the mountain where the dirt road goes up and it is just too sad to drive through the devastation until we reach Locket Meadow. We haven’t been on the dirt roads that we used to love so much since. I’m guessing though that in time we will see more aspens on the side of the mountain where it used to be covered by pine trees. Then slowly the pines will grow back, as well. It will take a very long time, though.
Trails Around Snow Bowl
So now we just go up towards Snow Bowl and stop along the way. Our favorite place has become the area by the ski slope. There are a few aspens growths there, each with a different shade of yellow.
A few of the trails start at the parking lot. The aspen loop is an easy one-mile walk through a smaller aspen growth.
For a real treat we cross an open grassy area, and enjoy being in the middle of a larger aspen colony, with barely discernible trails crisscrossing it.
Sometimes the leaves fall earlier on one side, covering the ground under our feet, while across the ski slope, they might be only starting to turn yellow.
Another Year, Another Autumn Trip
We always have a wonderful day up among the aspens, enjoying not only the beauty of these amazing trees in autumn but cooler weather, clouds and rain. I can’t wait to get back.
I feel very fortunate that we are able to do this as a family tradition.