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Awesome Autumn

Oct 15, 2013 04:44PM ● By Scott Blackwell

Fall foliage drives in NM

There is a legend born of some October campfire, told and retold by Native Americans each autumn for generations. Hunters in the heavens, the story begins, killed the Great Bear and his blood dripped down to the earth coating the leaves on the trees with a crimson red. The hunters then cooked the bear over an open fire and as the fat melted away, it too fell to earth and colored the leaves it touched bright yellow.

That, the storyteller concludes, is why the leaves change each fall.

Human fascination with the colors of autumn is as old as the giant redwood and as unyielding as the mighty oak. Across the country each fall, millions of travelers set out on private expeditions to take their place in the grand theater of nature. Some drive. Some walk. Some take bike rides down red-and-gold-lined timber paths.

New Mexico and Southern Colorado offer some of the country’s most spectacular examples of autumn’s pageantry, and viewers by the thousands turn out for the show.

Why Do Leaves Change Color?

In the most un-autumn-like fashion, the textbook explanation is not nearly as colorful as the story of the Great Bear. However, it does provide an interesting insight into why leaves do just what they do every year. Contrary to popular opinion, the change is not the result of frosty temperatures but of a natural chemical process within a leaf. Chlorophyll, which gives leaves a green color, absorbs energy from sunlight and transforms it into sugars and starches – food for the tree.

When sunlight hours decrease and light becomes less intense in the fall, the leaves stop making food and the chlorophyll breaks down, taking the green color with it and revealing the natural yellow pigmentation. Sugars trapped in the leaves can cause it to turn red. On an individual tree, leaves exposed to sunlight might turn red while those in the shade will likely remain yellow.

If that explanation does not add to your enjoyment of the fall spectacle, start a toasty campfire and tell the bear story. Better yet, go explore the colorful woodlands yourself. Following are detailed directions to some of the most beautiful tours in the Southwest.

Albuquerque/Santa Fe
Right here in Albuquerque, Rio Grande Nature Center State Park is in the middle of one of the world’s largest remaining tracts of cottonwood Bosque, home to hundreds of native cottonwoods and black willows, which begin to change color in late September to early October. 

Celebrating 25 years as a state park in 2007, this day-use area includes several large wetland ponds, five miles of trail, a visitor center with exhibits and a native plant garden. It also hosts a refuge/recovery center for injured wildlife. 

Guided trail walks during this time of year, full-moon walks and a number of educationally based interpretive programs and events are frequently scheduled at the park. A haven for 270 species of birds, many begin to make the park their temporary residence as they journey south during their annual migration in October and November.

Hikers around Santa Fe know all about the Aspen Vista Trail, a woodland walk situated in the shadow of the area’s towering ski area. During the fall, the aspens on the trail display vivid crops of yellow, green, red and gold that fall to earth and cover the hikers’ paradise with a colorful, crispy seasonal rug.

Visitors who desire a close-up view of autumn’s change of scenery can drive through some of the region’s most gorgeous offerings, pull into a roadside parking area and take a lengthy stroll among the breathtaking aspens.

To reach the trail from Albuquerque, take I-25 north to Santa Fe. Enter the city at the St. Francis (Hwy. 84/285) exit, turn right on Paseo de Peralta, left on Washington and right on Artists Road (follow signs to the ski area). A pull-off parking area on Artists Road signals the entrance to the Aspen Vista Trail.

For information about the trail or other scenic hikes in the area, call 986-6901.

Foliage Drives

From just north of Albuquerque all the way to Silverton and Ouray, CO, the region offers a wealth of scenic, tree-lined drives primed with a gorgeous array of fall colors. Take a camera, pack the car with a few other essentials (the weather is unpredictable this time of year) and head for the high country.

Colors can change as early as mid-September in Southern Colorado, and last until the end of October in New Mexico, but every year is different. Consider calling ahead to find the most colorful areas before heading north. The National Forest Services Fall Color Hotline at 1-800-354-4595 provides the most comprehensive information on peak turning times and directs you to some of the most spectacular areas.

Following are some of our favorite roadside views of autumn.

The Enchanted Circle

The ideal overnight excursion, this scenic journey winds from Taos to Questa, Red River, Eagle Nest, Angel Fire and back to Taos. In fairness, it’s a trip that can be made in one day – but why would you want to rush when you can spend your time admiring the brilliant colors and linger for a while? Be prepared for winding roads, though paved and in good condition. This scenic route has plenty of opportunities for lunch, shopping and sightseeing at towns and villages along the way. 

From Albuquerque, take I-25 north to Santa Fe, exit at St. Francis then keep traveling north to Española on 84/285. Follow State Road 68 to Taos to begin your tour. Since this is a circular tour, it doesn’t matter which direction you travel. The roads are: 522 between Taos and Questa; 38 from Questa through Red River to Eagle Nest; and 64 back to Taos. 

To get farther off the beaten path, depart Red River and take a side trip up the Red River Valley on 578.

Los Alamos/Jemez Mountains

A shorter trip can be found in the route through Los Alamos and the Jemez Mountains. From Albuquerque, take I-25 north and exit at St. Francis (Hwy. 84/285), driving through Santa Fe. At Pojoaque, take 502 west and climb the 2,400-foot ascension toward the Jemez Mountains and Los Alamos. 

It’s worth a stop at Bandelier National Monument to see spectacular Native American ruins carved out of volcanic cliffs.

Need a driving break? Make a stop in Jemez Springs, a quaint village with unique shops. Then head out on Hwy. 502 to Trinity Drive. 

From Trinity, turn left on Diamond and stay in the right lane, going farther into the Jemez Mountains. Since these mountains are generally not as high as some of the ranges in the Enchanted Circle, the colors change more slowly, often extending past October. Follow State Road 4 south toward Jemez Springs then descend to San Ysidro. Finally, take 550 into Bernalillo, and I-25 south will take you back into Albuquerque. 

Raton Area

At Sugarite Canyon State Park near Raton, in Northeast New Mexico, stroll with the colorful backdrop of area flora along the trails in the park. Named one of the “Top 10 State Parks” in Camping Life magazine four years ago. The park’s mining history during the coal camp era has been depicted in the 2006 documentary, “Walking Home Along the Trails of Sugarite”, which won a national Telly Award. The Coal Camp Interpretive Trail winds through the ruins of the Sugarite coal camp in view of plenty of changing leaves.

Take I-25 North, exit 452 at Raton (about 230 miles), follow NM 72 east for 3.5 miles, and go north on NM 526 for about two miles.

Down South

Caballo Lake State Park and neighboring Percha Dam State Park, near Truth or Consequences, turn into prime bird-watching locations during migration season, especially since they’re just south of the popular Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge.

And they’re all about 150 miles south of Albuquerque near I-25. Bald eagles and snow geese are just a few of the dozens of birds that frequent the park. Willows, oak and native cottonwoods grow along the lake. The parks, along with Elephant Butte Lake State Park, were designated as “Important Bird Areas” by Audubon New Mexico because of the quality habitat for nesting, migrating and wintering birds. The native Cottonwoods, Oaks and Willows that surround Caballo and Percha provide a beautiful backdrop of color along the Rio Grande Rift Valley.

Leaves begin to turn color in mid- to late October. Caballo is 16 miles south of Truth or Consequences via I-25 exit 59 and NM 187. Elephant Butte is five miles north of Truth or Consequences via I-25 exit 83. Percha Dam is south of Truth or Consequences off of I-25.

Chama/Pagosa Springs

Much of this region straddling the New Mexico-Colorado border practically glows with fall color in October.

Many of these routes are on maintained gravel roads. An autumn favorite is Blanco Basin. From Pagosa Springs, drive south on Hwy. 84 for 8 miles to the Blanco Basin turn-off. Follow the road to the head of the Basin and to many magnificent views of the Continental Divide, Square Top Mountain and Oil Mountain. For an even more spectacular side trip turn onto Castle Creek Road, cross the Rio Blanco and proceed to the end of the road at Fish Creek. The views are more than inspiring. Roads are all-weather and suitable for conventional vehicles.

For a top-of-the world view from the Continental Divide, head north of Pagosa Springs on US 160. Turn north of the highway at the summit of Wolf Creek Pass, follow the road to the transmitter site. A spectacular vantage point and a picnic area are provided at the topographical crest of the mountain. 

The route to Cumbres Pass and Chama offers exceptional views of the changing leaves. From Pagosa Springs north on US Hwy. 160, cross Wolf Creek Pass to Park Creek Road. (approximately 51/2 miles from the summit.) Turn south on Park Creek Road and proceed to Elwood Pass and south to Platoro. Upon reaching Colorado Hwy. 17, turn right and cross Cumbres Pass. You will follow the route of the Cumbres & Toltec Narrow Gauge Railroad to Chama. A portion of the route crossing Elwood Pass might not be suitable for conventional vehicles, but check the weather conditions first. For information, call 1-800-252-2204.


This Southern Colorado jewel is 31/2 hours from Albuquerque and worth the drive time. Take I-25 north to Bernalillo, then 550 to Bloomfield. From there, take 544 to Aztec and finally US Hwy. 550 to Durango. The drive from Durango to Durango Mountain Resort and then on to Silverton is as beautiful as the end destination. Golden aspen, deer roaming the valley and the snowcapped San Juan Mountains will fill your journey. From Durango, head north on Hwy. 550. But remember, dirt roads are a no-no in most rental-car contracts. And you may not want your own vehicle in the mud if rain or snow is forecast.

Just west of Durango is La Plata Canyon. This trip features remnants of old mining towns and far-reaching views of La Plata Mountains.

From Durango, head west off Hwy. 160 to Hesperus and turn right onto La Plata Canyon Road. For information, call 866-294-5191 or 800-525-8855.

Further & Farther

The San Juan Skyway, or "Road to the Sky" is a 223-mile all-day excursion through the San Juan Mountains and rolling hillsides that house ancient Pueblo ruins. From Telluride, explore the loop that takes drivers through Cortez, Durango, Silverton, Ouray, Ridgeway, Placerville, Cortez and Mancos. Plan on a leisurely eight-hour drive: what's the point if you can't pull off, stretch your legs and expand your mind. This Scenic and Historic Byway is one of six All-American Roads recognized for outstanding scenic, geologic and historic sites. For more, information, visit