Fire and drought have dominated Colorado headlines in recent months but despite the severe impact of both, this year's aspen viewing is set to rival last year's spectacular display.


Dan West, Colorado State Forest Service entomology program specialist, said — barring unforeseen weather events such as strong winds or unusually cold temperatures — he expects the aspen show to be about on schedule and right on par with last year.


"The drought conditions might affect the aspen turning by a few days but I expect we will not be far off normal peak weeks,'' West said.


West said normal peak aspen viewing starts in the northern part of the state, with higher elevation aspen starting to turn in mid-September and the show reaching its peak in late September.


He said the show gradually moves south with peak viewing in the southern part of the state in mid-October.


West said fires burning across the state are having minimal impact on aspen stands — but they will impact where people can see fall colors.


Areas to avoid: Cameron Peak Fire will limit aspen viewing, hunting in Northern Colorado


Road closures around the Cameron Peak Fire west of Fort Collins have eliminated the area's best aspen viewing areas in the upper Poudre Canyon and along the Laramie River Road and Pennock Pass Road.


"In some areas it will look different this year because of the fires, but it looks like we are going to get a great show that will make it worth going out and taking a look,'' West said.


We'll share some key hikes and drives for catching the show this year in a moment, but first, let's look at the science behind the fall tradition.


What makes for good aspen-viewing colors


West said daylight length plays the largest role in when leaves change and that sunny days and cool nights make for the best color.


Here's how it happens.


In spring and summer, leaves serve to feed the tree nutrients. This food-making process takes place in leaf cells containing chlorophyll, which gives the leaf its green color. This chemical absorbs sunlight that serves as the energy used in transforming carbon dioxide and water to carbohydrates, such as sugars and starch.


Along with the green pigment are yellow to orange pigments, carotenes and xanthophyll.


In fall, because of changes in the length of daylight and temperature, the leaves stop the food-making process. The chlorophyll breaks down, the green color disappears and other colors such as yellows and oranges become visible.


Other chemical changes bring out the red anthocyanin pigments in leaves.


"What is predetermined is the yellows and oranges in leaves,'' West said. "What is not predetermined are the reds. Reds are determined by the sugars trapped in the leaves. If we get sunny days and cool nights that is a perfect recipe for those beautiful reds that people look forward to seeing in the aspen.''


West said what we don't need is windy conditions and freezing temperatures that will cause leaves to fall off prematurely.


And if you ever wondered why the leaves of aspen can be different colors among the same group, it's because aspen grow in clones, according to the U.S. Forest Service.


Aspen spread primarily by sprouting from an expanding root system, creating groups of trees, or clones. While these clones are genetically identical, one factor in how and when a tree changes color is the balance of various chemicals in the plant. This is partially genetically determined and varies between clones. These differences make it possible to see hillsides with aspen leaves in varying colors.


A line in the forest: Fight against Cameron Peak Fire takes new tactic


Best fall color viewing closer to Fort Collins


Poudre Canyon


Colorado Highway 14 is closed from Rustic to Gould, negating the best aspen viewing found in the upper Poudre Canyon. You can still find color in the lower section of the canyon with cottonwoods and willows turning bright yellow and three-leaf sumac turning orange-red.


Wyoming Highway 130


An aspen-viewing alternative to those lost in the Cameron Peak Fire is this paved road that takes you into the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, which also offers aspen-viewing hikes. You also can use this highway to access North Park in Colorado, where there are more aspen viewing opportunities.


Peak to Peak Highway


This drive on Colorado Highway 7 from Estes Park to Central City/Black Hawk takes you along the eastern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park and offers excellent viewing. Drive this in the morning, as the majority of the aspen are to the west and will be lit up by the morning sun.


Rocky Mountain National Park


The higher elevations of the park usually offer the first color of the season. A good loop drive is to take the slower and less crowded gravel Fall River Road up and take the paved and more crowded Trail Ridge Road down. Stop at the Alpine Visitor Center, which offers spectacular views and lunch options. Hidden Valley Play Area on the lower part of Trail Ridge Road is one of the best viewing spots. Aspen are not overly abundant in the park, but there are streaks of color throughout.


Remember, you need a timed entry reservation to access the park unless you arrive at the park before 6 a.m. or after 5 p.m.


How to do it: Fall in Rocky Mountain National Park means aspen and elk


Where to go aspen viewing in Colorado


Kebler Pass


The drive: 30 miles on Kebler Pass Road (technically Gunnison County Road 12) just west of Crested Butte to Colorado Highway 133. The road is a mix of pavement and gravel.


Why go: This area boasts the largest aspen grove in North America, which makes it arguably the best aspen viewing in the state. You drive miles through a tunnel of aspen with golden leaves carpeting the road. And if that’s not enough, on the west end of the road are panoramic views of the West Elk Mountains, which when conditions line up can offer up golden aspen, dark green pines and the white of the season's first snow.


Side trip: At the west end of this drive at Colorado 133, head north to Marble to see the iconic Crystal Mill and its backdrop of golden aspen.


Information: gunnisoncrestedbutte.com/press/fact-sheets/fall-drives-fact-sheet


Maroon Bells


The drive: It's about 42 miles southeast of Aspen. Drive on Colorado Highway 82 and look for the turnoff or take the bus.


Why go: It's said the Maroon Bells are the most photographed mountains in North America, and fall only brings out more of the beauty. Golden aspen drip down from the two towering mountains that exceed 14,000 feet, with all the beauty reflected in Maroon Lake. You can take in the view either from the lake or hike numerous trails to get a closer look. This place is usually crowded, so either get there early or plan to take a shuttle bus to the area.


Side trip: Duh, Aspen.


Crack the code: What you need to know about RMNP's timed entry system


Dallas Divide


The drive: Take Colorado Highway 62 west from Ridgway. You can add to the scenery by taking Colorado 62 to Colorado Highway 145 south to Telluride.


Why go: Dallas Divide is only one of many must-stop spots along this aspen-laden drive. Majestic 14,157-foot Mount Sneffels is a constant, and Lizard Head Pass offers a beautiful spot to view 14,252-foot Mount Wilson before you arrive in touristy Telluride.


Side trip: This stretch is part of the spectacular 236-mile San Juan Skyway, which takes you past Telluride, Mesa Verde National Park, Durango, Silverton, Ouray and back to Ridgway.


Information: codot.gov/travel/scenic-byways/southwest/san-juan-skyway


Grand Mesa Scenic Byway


The drive: This 63-mile paved road leaves Interstate 70 about 45 miles east of Grand Junction and heads up Colorado Highway 65 on the Grand Mesa to Cedaredge.


Why go: As you gain in elevation to the top of the world's largest mesa, cottonwoods, scrub oak and aspen color the landscape. Take the Land's End Road for a panoramic view of the Colorado River and Grand Valley 6,000 feet below your 11,000-foot perch. Aspen-ringed lakes add to the mix.


Side trip: Fall is prime time to visit the numerous wineries in and around Palisade and Grand Junction.


Information: coloradodirectory.com/maps/gmbyway.html


Buffalo Pass


The drive: This 43-mile gravel Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest road can be accessed either from Walden or Steamboat Springs.


Why go: The reward for some ruggedness is fewer fellow aspen peepers and spectacular views along the aspen-lined road. This area is also the wettest place in Colorado, so there are plenty of beautiful lake hikes. It's also a hot spot for all-terrain vehicles.


Side trip: Steamboat Springs is always beautiful, but fall brings out the best in this laid-back ski town, where you can visit Fish Creek Falls and Strawberry Park Hot Springs.


Information: www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/regions/Rocky_Mountain/BuffaloPass/index.shtml


La Veta Pass


The drive: This 50-mile drive on U.S. Highway 160 takes you from Walsenburg to Fort Garland.


Why go: This southern Colorado drive takes you to 9,400-foot La Veta Pass, where golden aspen mix with the dark greens of pines. A bonus is the stunning views of the Spanish Peaks and Sangre de Cristo mountains that tower above the San Luis Valley floor. For a more personal view of the aspen, the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad, which runs through October, offers fall foliage rides.


Side trip: The 82-mile Highway of Legends Scenic Byway takes you through some of the oldest settlements in Colorado. Just up the road from Fort Garland is Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.


Information: spanishpeakscountry.com


Avoid the drive: Bustang now takes visitors to Estes Park


Guanella Pass


The drive: This 22-mile scenic byway between Georgetown and Grant turns from paved to well-maintained gravel road. From I-70, take the Georgetown exit and follow the signs.


Why go: Though the aspen show is grand here, prepare yourself to enjoy the show with many other leaf peepers. The pass reaches 11,670 feet before winding down to the small town of Grant. Views of 14,264-foot Mount Evans and 14,060-foot Mount Bierstadt are beacons in the distance.


Side trip: Historic Georgetown is a cool, quaint little town to browse around, and it is here where you can climb aboard the historic Georgetown Loop Railroad. Nearby Kenosha and Boreas passes also have excellent aspen viewing.


Information: codot.gov/travel/scenic-byways/north-central/guanella-pass


Flat Tops Trail


The drive: 82 miles between Meeker and Yampa, with about half paved and half gravel, but passable with two-wheel drive vehicles.


Why go: The Flat Tops Trail is one of the best aspen viewing drives in northwest Colorado. The aspen viewing in the White River National Forest is punctuated with many beautiful lakes, with Trappers Lake among the jewels. Some of the best aspen viewing is in the Dunckley Pass area, but there are plenty of aspen to go around as you drive through this ranching- and mining-rich remote area.


Side trip: Trappers Lake Lodge along the route is certainly worth checking out for a western lodging experience.


Information: codot.gov/travel/scenic-byways/travel/scenic-byways/northwest/flat-tops-trail


Top Larimer County aspen hikes


Fern/Cub Lake


These easy trails at the west end of Moraine Park Road in Rocky Mountain National Park offer the best of both worlds: plentiful aspen right from the start and some of the best elk bugling in the park.


Remember, you need a timed entry reservation to access the park or arrive at the park before 6 a.m. or after 5 p.m. when a reservation is not needed.


Glacier Gorge


Be forewarned: this trailhead/parking lot along the Bear Lake Road in Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most popular areas of the park. For a parking spot, you will need to arrive early in the morning — and for good reason. How can you beat the view of golden aspen leaves while taking in spectacular Alberta Falls? There are a number of trails leading from this trailhead varying in length and difficulty.


Remember, you need a timed entry reservation to access the park or arrive at the park before 6 a.m. or after 5 p.m. when a reservation is not needed.


Mount Margaret/Lady Moon


The trailheads of these two hikes are found across from each other along the Red Feather Lakes Road (Larimer County Road 74E) just east of Red Feather Lakes.


These are family-friendly trails with each offering intermittent aspen stands and little elevation gain. The Mount Margaret Trail heads north of the Red Feather Lakes Road for 3.7 miles one way. The Lady Moon Trail heads south from the road for 2.6 miles one way.


Lory State Park


Located just west of Fort Collins, this is your closest option to see aspen. The best aspen viewing is a loop hike starting at Arthur’s Rock Trail, connecting to the Timber Trail, Westridge Trail, Howard Trail and Mill Creek Link Trail back to the Arthur’s Rock parking lot. The better aspen viewing is in the upper reaches, though you will find other color sprinkled throughout the hike.


Where to get more information


For updated fall color viewing in Colorado and across the country, visit smokymountains.com/fall-foliage-map.


Reporter Miles Blumhardt looks for stories that impact your life. Be it news, outdoors, sports — you name it, he wants to report it. Have a story idea? Contact him at milesblumhardt@coloradoan.com or on Twitter @MilesBlumhardt. Support his work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.


This article originally appeared on Fort Collins Coloradoan: Your guide to Colorado's best aspen viewing in 2020, from drives to hikes