Aspens in Flagstaff

Golden Aspens in Flagstaff Add Color to Autumn in Arizona

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.

But I don’t have to drive too far to see spectacular fall foliage. We can visit Flagstaff and its surroundings as a day trip from Phoenix any time. About two hours from us, we can drive up the Kachina Peaks (better known as San Francisco Peaks), where I can enjoy my favorite trees in their bright golden glory.

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Aspen in October. Snow Bowl, Flagstaff

Our Yearly Pilgrimage

Every year since we moved to Arizona, we make it a point to go up to Flagstaff during the first few weeks of October. This is the time when the autumn foliage is usually at its peak there, and the timing doesn’t change much year by year.

We usually watch the “leaf-o-meter” or the Coconino National Forest’s website to find the best time to go, although over the years we became experts in guessing. Still, we check, since they do a great job posting about the best time to experience the colors. When the time is right, we get in the car and drive.

About two hours later the bright yellow leaves greet us.

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Walking through an aspen grove in October

Pine trees, as well as aspens, fill the mountains around Flagstaff. Lower, in town, we spot a few maple trees, but the biggest attraction at this elevation is still the aspens.

Every year is a bit different though.

Sometimes it rains, which makes it even more fun for us. It might sound odd to most people, but for us desert dwellers, rain is a real treat, especially in October.

On years with more rain, the leaves are brighter and last longer. On very dry years, not so much. Though you can still see colors, they are not quite as bright, and fall off sooner. Aspens are still beautiful, though.

But no matter what, every year during early to mid-October the aspens in Flagstaff show off their brightest colors, from deep gold to bright pale yellow and lime green, and every other shade in between.

A Bit About Aspens

I’ve always been fascinated by aspens. Their white, smooth bark and their bright green/bright yellow in autumn leaves make them unique among trees.

Aspens in Russia

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. Lovers, politicians, good guys or villains, no matter who they were, they all ended up walking in an aspen forest at some point during the movies.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a Russian movie, but I feel that they used their landscape’s best feature, aspens, more than just as background, but more as a character. Every major scene, relevant to the storyline was set there, and the setting moved the story – very slowly – along.

Aspen forest.
Aspen forest.

When I visited Russia in my early twenties, I understood why. In Belorussia (White Russia), we drove miles upon miles through never-ending aspen forests. Straight silver barks surrounded us, on both sides of the road, and bright leaves fluttered in the occasional breeze. Driving through this landscape there during a time when they had restrictions on gasoline (and everything else), ours seemed to be the only car on this flat, straight road, surrounded by aspens. I still dream about that forest.

As immense as that aspen forest was, it is actually not the largest or oldest colony in the world. The largest and oldest one is much closer to where I live now.

Pando, The Oldest and Largest Aspen Colony in the World Is In Utah

Turns out that the oldest and largest aspen colony is in the Fishlake National Forest, in Utah. We visited it this past summer, and enjoyed spending some time there. Out of the way, few people live there and even fewer visit it.

Called Pando, this colony of genetically identical trees, clones, comprises about 47,000 trees. They all share one single root system. Also known as the “Trembling Giant”, Pando is around 80,000 years old.

This aspen colony seems to be immortal. After all, it’s been alive for 80,000 years. But leave it to us to destroy it. When we meddle with nature, things tend to go bad.

Normally, as the oldest trees die, young ones replace them. It has been like this for millennia. But lately, the new growth is grazed off by mule deer and cattle. Cattle should be an easy fix; just don’t let them graze in the National Forest.

The other problem is that we hunted predators almost to extinction, and while in the old days wolves and bears used to control the deer population, neither one of these predators live in the area any longer. So deer have free range.

Aspen colonies are so hard to destroy though. So I’m hoping that it would just go dormant if needed, and wake up after we learn to treat nature with respect.

Aspens are some of the oldest living things on Earth

A few years ago I sat through a ranger talk at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon when the topic was aspens. That’s when I learned some amazing facts about these trees, that’s when I heard about aspen colonies. These trees are even more amazing than I ever imagined.

aspen colony in Flagstaff
Aspens in October

They seem to teach us about survival, about immortality, considering even some of the younger ones are between 5,000-10,000 years old.

So how is it possible for an aspen colony to be 80,000 years old? No other tree we know of is quite as old. Aspens, as young as they seem, might be ancient. No, not the individual trees; it is their root system that is virtually immortal. Individual trees might be very young.

Clones and Colonies

Aspens rarely grow from seeds. Most of them sprout from their roots, much like a potato plant, and some even clone themselves.

Cloning means that new trees grow from the lateral roots of another tree. So when and individual aspen dies of old age (about 150 years), the rest of the colony is still alive, and a new tree 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 of the same color are clones. These colonies of clones might occupy less than an acre or up to one hundred acres.

Aspens Survive Forest Fires

Because of their ability to clone, aspens survive forest fires. The individual trees burn and die, just like any others. But since the root system is healthy, protected underground, they can sprout new trees as soon as the fire stops.

I suspect this is the main reason we have so many aspens in and around Flagstaff. Here, rangers battle multiple fires each season and lose large areas of evergreen forests. Where the evergreens burn, aspens are the first trees to come back alive. In fact, aspens seem to like forest fires. When the tall pines that kept them shaded burn, they are exposed to more sunlight, helping them thrive.

So, they should (and hopefully will) eventually survive the grazing cattle and deer, too. I think the bigger problem is that these grazings don’t stop like forest fires. After a fire, even if a large part of the aspen forest is destroyed, the new growth has a chance to mature. With grazing off the new growth every time, no new trees can grow, which leads to thinning of the forest.

Lockett Meadow, Our Old Favorite

Years ago we used to go up to Lockett Meadow to see the aspens in and around Flagstaff. It is the best place to enjoy the burst of color of large colonies of aspens in the area.

Only reachable by a four-wheel drive though, Lockett Meadow is at the end of a narrow, extremely steep, dirt road. Though we can no longer drive up since we gave up our SUV, we still all remember the hikes we took in the middle of large aspen forests.

The lack of four-wheel drive was not the only reason we changed the site of our yearly pilgrimage. Years ago , a huge forest fire destroyed most of the side of the mountain where we would drive up there. Since then, we find it too sad to drive through the devastation in the vicinity.

We haven’t been on the dirt roads 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. Slowly, the pines will grow back, as well. It’s taking a very long time, though. I recently realized that it’s been over ten years since that fire, but the forest here is very slow to regrow. Flagstaff and its surroundings don’t get much rainfall.

Yet, Locket Meadow is still wildly popular. Even more so than in the days we used to drive up. Now, they have to limit access to “only” 100 vehicles. I remember seeing no more than ten… I understand the draw though; Aspens in Lockett Meadow are spectacular.

But, over the years, we found other places to enjoy aspens, too. Earlier in the season, we sometimes drive toColorado, where we spend time in Silverton,then continue on the so-called Million Dollar Highway to Ouray.

We still drive up to Flagstaff every year though. The trails in and around Snow Bowl, as busy as they get, still offer a great way to enjoy the spectacle of aspen colonies in their golden glory.

Our Favorite Trails Around Snow Bowl

Driving up towards Snow Bowl we stop along the way, at least at the Aspen Corner for a short walk, if we find a parking spot.

But our favorite place became the area just under the ski slope. We discovered a few individual aspens colonies there, each turning a different shade of yellow at the same time.

A few the trails start at the lower parking lot.

The Aspen Nature Loop Trail

We usually start with the Aspen Nature Loop Trail, an easy 1.8-mile walk through an aspen growth, with occasional views of the surrounding peaks.

Aspen Loop Trail Snowbowl
The Aspen Loop Trail in Snow Bowl, in 2018

I love the light, neon-bright color of these aspens, with some barely past a lime-green color. Intertwined with ponderosa pines, this area is more diverse than the aspen colonies in the vicinity.

The trail leads lower down the hill among ponderosa pines and gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains.

Since they are building up the parking lot in the area, the old trail has changed, and now it’s part of a longer, 2.7-mile lollipop trail, starting in the meadow.

It’s not only the aspens that make this trail memorable though. Some of the views of the surroundings are just as spectacular.

Across the Meadow…

Just across the meadow, another aspen colony puts up a different show, with a sea of deep gold. A larger aspen colony, this one changes color earlier. Temperatures are the same on both sides of the meadow, and they both get the same among of sunlight. So why such a noticeable change in color? I am guessing it has to do with them belonging to separate colonies – like different families. There is more than that to it, but it’s the main reason.

Instead of wondering about the difference in color, I set off on the Aspen Nature Trail, crossing this denser aspen grove.

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A different colony across the meadow – on the same day – during a wet year, in 2019.

We always like to spend more time in this aspen forest, since it’s denser than the rest. The short trail is flat, not challenging at all, more of a walk in an aspen forest, giving us all an opportunity to enjoy the sounds, smells and colors of an aspen grove.

Sometimes the leaves fall earlier on this side, covering the ground under our feet, while across the ski slope, they might be only starting to turn a pale yellow.

The trail through this dense aspen forest keeps getting busier each year, especially during the weekends when the colors peak, in early October.

Another Year, Another Autumn Trip

As long as we live in the Southwest, we’ll always find a way to drive up to Flagstaff and its vicinity during the fall season. Being close enough, we can usually time it to be there during peak colors. Or, drive up a few times within two or three weeks, so we don’t miss it. It wouldn’t feel like autumn without it.

Aspens in Snowbowl, Arizona
The bright yellow of aspens mixes with the deep green of pines in Snowbowl, Flagstaff.

Although we have no aspens or other deciduous trees in our backyard, we don’t need to drive far to see a few. It helps when I miss real autumn, with the crisp cool air, distinctive smell and spectacle of colors, ranging from neon-bright yellow through dazzling gold and subdued browns mixed with the deep green of the pines.

Aspens at Snow Bowl in the Rain
Aspens and pine trees in the rain.

Aspens in autumn in Flagstaff, Arizona
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Aspens autumn Flagstaff
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