fall

The view from the Telluride Gondola on Tuesday. (Photo by Eric Ming)

Every year, Wendy Basham, co-owner of Telluride Toggery, charts customer behavior across Telluride’s “seasons”: from winter on the ski slopes to big summer concerts to the festivals of autumn.

“We’ve got it down,” Basham said. “We analyze everything. It’s been especially interesting to see over the past five years, as tourism in Telluride has increased.”

Whether it comes to changing colors or visitor’s spending habits, the same phrase applies to this autumn, Basham said: “It’s been one of the best seasons ever. The warm weather has given everyone plenty of time to get out and enjoy the colors, and the tourists are just blown away. They’re beside themselves.”

Toggery sales associate Ali Ault added that autumnal festivals inspire people “to come in and shop” because the Town of Telluride itself — and not, say, a particular musical act — is the destination.

“At summer festivals, people are busy all the time,” Ault said. “They’re at concerts during the day and at night.”

By contrast, now’s the time of year when people, not musicians, are on tour, and the destination is great stands of aspen on Wilson Mesa, Last Dollar Road and Owl Creek Pass. “I’ve seen a lot on my drive over the past week-and-a-half” into Telluride from Rico, the Butcher & the Baker employee Sarah Eckles said. And for that matter, she’s seen them in the restaurant, where customers inevitably, even at 7 a.m., “want the pies” the shop sells to take with them on their forays above town. Jim Harris, a fishing guide at Telluride Outside, says the guide service “has talked to hundreds” of leaf-peepers over the past couple weeks. On Tuesday afternoon, at least two Jeeps from Telluride Outside were out on tour, escorting visitors on steep, golden-tinged forays along Imogene Pass, according to Harris. The changing colors have required staffers in the Telluride Visitors Center to field numerous phone calls “asking about the leaf status and how it relates to last year,” employee Margarita De Pagter said. “The colors changed about two weeks later this year, compared to last. They’re peaking right now.” And over the next few weeks, De Pagter added, “a lot of businesses, and the gondola, will be shutting down.”

The brilliant colors are likely to abate even before then. According to meteorologist Michael Charnick in the National Weather Service’s Grand Junction office, a “very strong cold front” is due to arrive in Telluride sometime between 7-9 p.m. Wednesday night, with the possibility of rain.

“The real chance for precipitation arrives Thursday morning, between 5-9 a.m.,” Charnick added. “At that point, it will have been very cold for several hours, and a band of snow will come through. The high peaks around town may get a couple of inches; down in the grassy valley, a half-inch of snow could accumulate, and snow may stick to local roads.”

Thursday night will be very cold, “maybe down into the upper single digits,” Charnick said. Temperatures are expected to moderate this weekend, but in the meantime, “It will feel quite dramatic. It will be a rude awakening,” to both humans and plants. “Pull your flower pots in,” Charnick said.

As for this region’s brilliant aspen, they have already begun to wind down for winter. The changing colors — pigments of yellow carotenoid, gold xanthophyll and red anthocyanin — are signs that photosynthesis is over. Their leaves are as good as gone. On Tuesday afternoon, Tim and Diana Chetwood of Denver were taking it all in before the cold, following a trip to Lake Powell and a drive through the desert.

“We’ve been here many times in the fall,” she said. “We specifically detoured just to see the colors.”

The Chetwoods had been compelled by the same stretch of road between Telluride and Rico that Eckles has been watching on her daily commute to work. As he put it, “Incredibly inspiring all along the highway.”