The western slopes of the Sierra Madre range offers an explosion of color each fall.
Rub your hand on an aspen tree, and it will come away powdery white. These ghostly trees with their white bark and black knots or branches have nearly round leaves that are green and supple in the spring and summer. But when the weather turns colder in early September, these round leaves begin to change colors, turning yellow, then bright gold, often deep red.
Just a slight breeze causes these trees to rustle or quake – thus the colloquial names quaking aspen or quakers. Aspen groves can be found all along the Continental Divide from south central Wyoming to Yellowstone, but one place is unique: Aspen Alley.
Located on the Deep Creek Road off Wyoming Highway 70 (the Battle Highway) west of the Continental Divide between Baggs and Encampment, this stand of quakers is unusual. Often aspen trees are short, with twisted trunks and branches, but here they are tall, stately upwards of 50 feet tall. Their branches bush at the top of the trees interlocking over the narrow dirt road to form a canopy. In early summer sunlight glints through the green leaves, but in September it shimmers with a golden-red glow as it filters through a sunshade formed by the quaker leaves.
Aspen Alley is just one of the spectacular displays of quaking aspen in this area of the Sierra Madre and the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. Driving west from Encampment, you will see the first aspen groves just before you reach the forest boundary, five miles west of town. They intermingle with ponderosa pine and spruce trees as the highway winds its way to the Divide, where there is trail access to the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail and Huston Park Wilderness area, and spectacular views of both the Pacific and Atlantic watersheds.
West of the Divide, Battle Lake shimmers below the road and the peaks of Red Mountain. A series of historical markers provide information about the copper mining boom that occurred in this region from 1897-1907. One near Battle Lake explains the connection between Thomas Alva Edison’s development of the incandescent light bulb and a fishing trip on the lake.
As the road descends toward the Little Snake River Valley, the vegetation changes as well. There are far more aspen groves west of the Divide. As you depart the forest and drive toward Baggs, you have a last explosion of color to anticipate: Battle Mountain, covered with service berry and scrub oak, making it a profusion of red, yellow and orange during September and early October.
To view the aspens at their peak each fall, time your trip for the last two weeks in September. You can find out if the colors are “early” or “late” by contacting the Brush Creek-Hayden Ranger District in Saratoga (307) 326-5258. Bear in mind this turning of the leaves happens at the hand of Mother Nature so there is no precise way to predict the best time to see the fall colors. They can be spectacular one day and gone the next in a burst of wind that rustles the leaves from the trees like the bursting of a bag of potato chips.