Aspen season in Santa Fe is explosive and brief. The change happens overnight out of the corner of your eye. One chilly September morning when skiers awake from dreams of dusting off their boots the mountainside is awash with gold. The aspen have turned, winter is coming.
The quaking aspen, Populus tremuloides, is a member of the poplar family and has the largest reaching range of any tree in North America. Here in New Mexico it is one of the very few deciduous trees providing fall color. The magic of aspen is not solely contained in their stunning visual hues. The leaves of the aspen whisper on the wind, thrumming out a message for all to hear. Their bark shimmers with gold and green imbuing one with a hushed sense of mystery. Being among a grove of aspen fosters a sense of community and connection. The roots of the trees snaking beneath your feet invite you to dig down and smell the warm fertile earth.
When you look at a stand of aspen you are looking at a single interconnected organism called a colony in which each individual tree is a clone. While aspen can reproduce sexually with flowers and seeds, their main method of propagation is cloning. Each year healthy aspen trees send out runners off the existing root system. These shoots then grow rapidly into new aspen. Where there is a bare sunny patch in the forest floor a shoot will sprout extending the life of the colony. This is the reason that stands of aspen are often seen clustered together with no other species of tree mingling in between.
While an individual aspen tree lives to a maximum of 150 to 200 years, the life of the colony is unknown. The oldest colony of aspen in the United States is in Utah and has been nicknamed Pando, Latin for I spread. The age of this colony is estimated by some to be 80,000 years. Because the source of the aspen’s life is underground, a grove can withstand fire, drought, or any above ground disturbance by conserving its resources below. Culling old or unhealthy trees and sprouting new ones provides the colony with a timeless look upon the hillside outlasting generations of beast and man.
Here in Santa Fe the largest stands of aspen can be found winding their way up to the ski basin along Hyde Park Road. There are plenty of scenic overlooks and trail heads along the way where you can pull over, take pictures, and enjoy the sights and sounds. The most popular of these pull offs is Aspen Vista. It is clearly labeled with a large parking area and is about 12 miles up the mountain. The trail is wide with a gentle upward slope suitable for all ages. Picnic tables and restroom facilities are available.
For more of a bird’s eye view of the fall foliage the ski basin is running one of their chair lifts up the mountain among the leaves. Check out their website for information on times and prices.
Make time in the next week to get out and see the aspen. Choose to go on an all day excursion or just a quick drive up the road on your lunch break, these beauties are not to be missed. But hurry, their colors won’t last long. And, don’t forget your jacket. The breeze is getting chilly.