The Reds of Autumn

While yellows, golds, tans, and rusts are the most frequent autumn complements to Rocky Mountain National Park's blue skies and expansive green of evergreen forest, many park inhabitants provide a dash of red to the scenery. Red berries are common below treeline. Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) and rose hips (Rosa woodsii) are bright red and provide important autumn food for hungry bears, squirrels, and other animals fattening up for winter. Rose hips contain very high levels of vitamin C and were used as food and medicine by Native Americans in prehistoric times.

Brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis ) are spawning now in many park streams. Brook trout, like brown trout, are autumn spawners, unlike cutthroat trout and rainbows that spawn in the spring. Male brookies are generally the most colorful, but both females and males have bright red undersides this time of year. They are very easily identified by the bright white lines on the leading edges of their fins. Males are currently aggressively defending their nests (called redds) and their females. One of the easiest places to see brookies in the park is in the inlet and outlet streams at Sprague Lake.

Another contributor to the autumn reds is the very lovely waxflower (Jamesia americana) named by famed botanist John Torrey after its discoverer, Edwin James, the botanist, geologist, physician, and chronicler of the second year of the 1819/1820 Major Stephen Long expedition to the Rocky Mountains. James also discovered limber pine (Pinus flexilis), chiming bells (Mertensia ciliata), and mountain maple (Acer glabrum), all of which occur in the park. Waxflower is the park's only representative of the hydrangea family (Hydrangeaceae). It is a woody shrub that produces single, white, five-petaled flowers from May through August, depending on altitude. It is a long-time Colorado native - 35 million year old fossils of the same or nearly the same plant have been found at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in southern Colorado. It grows on rocky hillsides and crevasses in montane and subalpine areas. In Rocky Mountain National Park it turns a lovely shade of red throughout the areas where it occurs.

Last updated: March 31, 2012

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1000 US Hwy 36
Estes Park, CO 80517


(970) 586-1206
Through winter, the Information Office is open 8:00 am–4:30 pm Mon–Fri. Recorded Trail Ridge Road status: (970) 586-1222.

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