Vail passes: Kebler Pass a show of aspens and wildflowers
No major roadway passes near this area, and Kebler Pass is open only during the summer, but it is well worth the time to explore. The well-graded dirt road, County Road 12, cuts through the largest stand of aspen trees in Colorado. In the summer some of the best wildflower gardens in the state grace the east side of the pass near the town of Crested Butte.The Raggeds Wilderness, in White River and Gunnison national forests, creates the magnificent view north of the Kebler Pass summit. Jagged, knife-edged ridges formed from intrusive volcanic dikes lend meaning to this wilderness area’s name. The pleasantly named Oh-Be-Joyful pass, creek and valley are on the eastern side of the wilderness area in the Ruby Range near the town of Crested Butte.The original Kebler Pass road followed a Ute Indian trail. It was a private road before being taken over more than a hundred years ago by the state of Colorado. The state improved the road in 1930. It travels from Somerset, in the North Fork Valley near Paonia Reservoir, to the town of Crested Butte, and is named for John Kebler, who was president of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. It operated coal mines throughout much of southern Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, as well as limestone quarries and mines for other materials that were important in the steelmaking process.Homesteaders used Kebler Pass Road frequently to transport the potatoes they grew to the towns of Paonia and Hotchkiss. Cattle and sheep were herded along the road to railroad freight yards for shipment to the Denver stockyards. In 1893 the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad replaced Kebler Pass Road with tracks and began providing service to Crested Butte and to the mines around the summit of the pass. Kebler Pass, a town located at the pass’s summit, served as a rail station.
The Colorado blue spruce is the state tree, but it is the quaking aspen that is the best known and most easily recognized tree in Colorado. The “gold rush” occurs every fall as millions of people are lured to the high country to view the beautiful colors of changing aspen. This member of the poplar family, which grows at elevations ranging from about 6,000 feet to almost 11,500 feet, can be found in all of Colorado’s national forests – but nowhere in Colorado can one see as many acres of aspen as on the drive over Kebler Pass.Quaking aspen, populus tremuloides, gets its scientific name from a characteristic of the leaf. The heart-shaped leaves have a fine-toothed margin, and the petiole – the stem that attaches the leaf to the tree – is flattened. The flat petiole causes the leaf to quake or tremble in the slightest breeze. Many legends revolve around the belief that the tree trembles in the presence of man. The color change in the high country starts in the middle of September and lasts into October, depending on temperatures and weather conditions. On a clear, cool September day, the combination of blue-gray and pure white of snow-capped peaks, yellow to red-colored aspen, and rich blue skies can easily cause a sensory overload.
All the gold, yellow and red colors seen in aspen trees in the fall are present in the leaf throughout the spring and summer, too, but the predominant green chlorophyll necessary for food production overshadows them. When the length of the day decreases and temperatures drop in the fall, chlorophyll production slows down and eventually stops. The trees then begin to absorb the chlorophyll and leave behind the other pigments: carotenoid pigments, which produce yellow, orange, and brown colors like those in carrots and corn; and anthocyanin pigments, which produce the reds found in cranberries and red apples. Eventually, the dying leaves flutter to the ground in a rain of gold. Temperature, the amount of seasonal moisture, and the amount of rain and snow in the fall all impact the time, duration, and intensity of the color changes. Adequate, but not excessive, summer moisture, cool nights without a freeze, and an absence of fall rains and snows produce the best fall shows. Aspen trees grow in a unique way called “cloning.” What begins as one aspen becomes a whole grove when that tree’s root system sends up “suckers,” or shoots, which become new trees. This cloning produces huge areas of trees that all share the same root system. When you look at a grove of aspen trees, you are actually looking at one gigantic organism, all with the same genetic makeup connected to the same underground root structure. When fall begins, all the trees change colors at nearly the same time. This creates large expansive areas where all the trees are about the same color. This is even more obvious in the spring when all the trees in the stand grow leaves at the same time. Native tribes used aspens medicinally. They made tea to reduce fever using the bark, which contains a chemical similar to aspirin, and used a white powder found in the outer bark as sunscreen.Today, people use the wood of the tree for things like lettuce crates and wood chips. The wood grain makes beautiful ornamental items. Because it is a soft wood, it is not good for structural purposes. Animals make use of the aspen tree, too. Beavers use aspen bark for food, and the wood and twigs for building dams and lodges. Elk, moose, and deer eat the bark, twigs, and foliage.
Aspen are sun-loving trees. They tend to grow in disturbed areas – often places where fires or logging operations have opened the forest floor to full sunlight. As a grove grows, the branches on the lower parts of the inner trees do not receive enough sunlight and therefore do not produce leaves. These branches die off and fall from the tree, leaving a characteristic mark like the silhouette of a flying bird. The tree continues to grow straight up, losing more branches. This produces a tall thin trunk topped by a crown of leaves. Eventually the tree reaches a height where nutrients, picked up from the soil by its roots, can no longer efficiently reach its top. The interior wood then begins to rot, and the tree begins to die. The maximum age of these trees is a little over 100 years.Because the aspen trees shade the floor of the forest, no new aspen can grow beneath them. They are therefore replaced over time with shade-loving trees – in this region, that’s generally fir or spruce. Eventually the spruce and fir trees become the dominant vegetation. The aspen will return if fire or logging destroys the forest and produces open areas where they can grow in full sunlight.Most of the huge expanses of aspen across Colorado are actually the result of logging activity or fires caused by careless miners over a hundred years ago. Today, environmental consciousness is reducing logging activity and man can now prevent as well as fight forest fires. This is actually leading to a decline in the number and size of aspen groves across the state. There has been a seemingly unrelated die-off in aspen groves across the Rocky Mountain West in recent years, the cause of which is not fully understood.
Rick Spitzer is the author of “Colorado Mountain Passes: the States Most Accessible High Country Roadways,” which is for sale at The Bookworm of Edwards for $21.95. Parts of the book will be serialized in the Vail Daily every Sunday this summer.