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Colorado State parks continue to see record crowds

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Photo: Christopher Tomlinson/The Daily Sentinel; Article: Special thanks ALEX ZORN

Fall colors are drawing more traffic to state parks after an already busy year, particularly in northwest Colorado.

Through the first eight months of the year, nearly 2.4 million people visited state parks in Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s northwest region. Through August last year, the visitor count was less than 2.1 million.

After April, the numbers were at about the same point for 2019 and 2020, but once summer hit, Coloradans headed out to the northwest parks in massive numbers.

From April to August, the northwest parks had 300,529 more visitors this year compared to last year.

Some of those parks include Highline Lake, Vega, Connected Lakes, Rifle Gap, Rifle Falls and Harvey Gap.

“In my conversations with state park managers, they, continuing with 2020, saw record visitation over the weekend,” said Randy Hampton, Colorado Parks and Wildlife northwest region spokesperson. “People are still going outside, and visitation continues to be high.”

He said it used to be that the parks would be crowded mostly during peak days like Labor Day and the opening day of rifle season.

“It used to be there were these moments where you knew you would be busy, but now we just see a constant churn with people outdoors. Maybe it’s just because people got told to stay inside for too long,” Hampton said.

“One of the cool things about Colorado is that you can cruise the highways on the weekend and have your breath taken away by the fall colors.”

Typically, the third Sunday of September every year is considered to be Colorado Day, with the leaves changing before the snows hit.

“It’s typically the third Sunday of September; it changes every year, but it’s affected by several factors, mostly temperatures,” Hampton said.

Fall colors generally begin with golden aspens at the highest elevations and narrow leaf cottonwoods in low-lying cold areas as early as late August, according to the San Juan National Forest Service.

Aspens account for 20% of Colorado forests and usually peak near the end of September to early October.

According to the fall foliage report from Sept. 30, Telluride to Ouray is around 60% and Pagosa Springs is closer to 50%.

The degree of coloring can also vary from tree to tree, depending on the leaves’ direct exposure to sunlight.

“Most people are familiar with the aspens, the most iconic, but it’s the lower elevations that get that amazing color in the oak brush when it goes through an orange and red phase,” Hampton said. “If you can get those rare areas of oak brush and aspen, you get the full rainbow of colors.”

David Boyd, spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management and White River National Forest, was in Aspen last weekend and said it was peak sesaon in that area.

“It’s a major tourist thing for people all over the state to go leaf peeping,” he said.

Boyd said the fires had little impact on it because Hanging Lake and areas near the Grizzly Creek are not popular spots for that.

Colorado National Monument spokesperson Arlene Jackson said Ute Canyon is typically the best spot to catch the color change on the monument.

“It’s not like going up on the mesa. Ours are more small drainages where you have a few cottonwood trees that pop yellow compared to the red of the canyons,” she said. “You have to do a little more exploration and find those small pockets of colors is how I would describe a fall drive through the monument.”

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