An early cold snap and drought conditions that have persisted throughout the summer have caused many aspen trees in New Mexico to change colors early.
Many of the favorite local places to find fall color may have already hit their peak.
The golden aspens along the Enchanted Circle through Taos, Angel Fire, Eagle Nest, Red River and Questa; and the exploding maple colors in hiking through Fourth of July Canyon near Tajique may not quite have the expected blaze.
But fear not, as finding some fall color is as easy if you head south.
As a matter of fact, Saturday, Oct. 17, and Sunday, Oct. 18, Cloudcroft celebrates its annual Aspencade Tours (coolcloudcroft.com/aspencade) in a wonderfully socially distant event.
“You follow the lead car up Sunspot Highway, and it explodes in color,” said Cindi Bradshaw, manager of the Cloudcroft Chamber of Commerce. “There are a few maples but it’s primarily aspen.”
The lead driver “goes at a really good, slow pace so you can see everything, take it all in,” she said.
The tour winds through the forest about 5.5 miles to Karr Canyon, where a U.S. Forest Service ranger will give a talk about the Lincoln National Forest, train history and the aspens’ legacy, Bradshaw said.
“It’s a beautiful drive and a lot of fun. Every year, it’s different,” she said. “They mostly talk about the phenomenon of aspen. Every year I go, I learn something new.”
For those who like to get up close to the colors, the Trestle and Osha trails in Cloudcroft are relatively easy excursions that wander not only through aspens groves, but maples and scrub oak, as well, Bradshaw said.
“They’re both exceptionally pretty right around the middle of October,” she said.
In Ruidoso, the Ruidoso River Trail is a paved, 1¼-mile, one-way trail that meanders through Two Rivers Park alongside the Rio Ruidoso.
“You have some cottonwoods and oak and elm,” Deborah Douds, membership director for the Ruidoso Valley Chamber of Commerce. “It’s good for people of all levels. You can take a wheelchair; kids can ride bikes. It’s very scenic and very pretty.”
And the rural roads around the Inn of the Mountains Gods are loaded with fall color, Douds said, with scenic overlooks.
The central southwestern area of the state also has some fine viewing.
N.M. 152, which heads west from Interstate 25 near Caballo Lake, is a splendid drive.
“Colorful cottonwoods line the historic hamlet of Hillsboro,” said Catherine Wanek, owner of the Black Range Lodge in Kingston. “Further west, N.M. 152 winds its way along Percha Creek, towards Kingston, where cottonwood trees turn shades of yellow and gold against the backdrop of the Black Range mountains. In Kingston, a tall Japanese maple turns flaming red in the fall – it’s turning now – as the other deciduous trees in town change from green to yellow, amber and orange.”
For intrepid hikers, the Crest Trail follows along the top of the Continental Divide beginning at Emory Pass.
“A 5-mile (10-mile round trip) hike leads into the Aldo Leopold Wilderness to the top of Hillsboro Peak, at 10,000-plus feet in elevation, where there’s a traditional fire tower,” Wanek said. “Views all along this hike are spectacular, and there are stands of aspen that can be spied from the trail.”
Farther west, a delightful loop road from Silver City heads north on N.M. 15 toward the Gila Cliff Dwellings.
“The drive from Silver City out towards the Cliff Dwellings, you’re definitely experiencing that classic, twisty mountain road,” said Patrick Hoskins, manager of the Silver City Visitor Center. “It’s narrow in spots. For much of the drive there’s no center line. You’ve got the forest or wilderness on both sides of you, so you’re completely surrounded. There are views points along the way. Anderson Vista, in particular, is a great spot to see plenty of color.”
Through the Mimbres Valley along N.M. 35, cottonwood stands are plentiful, and “you’ll see a lot of sunflowers out,” he said.
Those who want to hike along the Gila River will find plenty of cottonwoods turning to a golden hue.