When do the aspen quake?

View of Red River from the Cathedral Grove Overlook at Enchanted Forest. (Chronicle photo by Ellen Miller-Goins)
This story may be apocryphal, but according to Red River locals, a hapless visitor once asked Lovilla Bowser, former owner of Frye’s Old Town, “When do the aspen quake?”

Lovilla’s reply? “At midnight when the owls hoot.”

A better question might be, “why do the aspen quake?”

Botanists say the aspen’s flattened leaf stalk, which is set perpendicular to the surface of
the leaf, have an unusual ability to twist and bend to protect the trees from severe winds. The flattened stem also allows the leaves to quake or tremble in the slightest breeze; hence, their name.

The USDA Forest Service notes, the quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) … excels at sending up new shoots from its base. This results in giant stands of “trees” that are, in fact, one genetic individual connected beneath the ground.

An aggressive pioneer species, aspen colonize burned areas so extensive stands of aspen can be seen where repeated wildfires have happened and typically dominate a site until replaced by less fire-enduring but more shade-tolerant conifers.

(Chronicle photo by Ellen Miller-Goins)
Aspen leaves are smooth and green until they turn brilliant yellow, gold, orange, or even red(ish) in the fall and offer a gorgeous contrast to the dark conifers.

Every fall green chlorophyll production drops in deciduous trees revealing the leaves’ yellow, orange, red, purple, gold and bronze pigments. The color you see depends on the tree, its elevation, temperature and summer rainfall, among other things.

Northern New Mexico can be dazzling in the fall as the trees give their last shout of joy before winter and snow begins to cap local peaks. The great thing is, there are several ways to enjoy spectacular scenery, beginning with these local road trips:

Aspen at the bottom of Bobcat Pass in the Moreno Valley (Chronicle file photo by Ellen Miller-Goins)
The Enchanted Circle around Wheeler Peak is a “no brainer.” This 86-mile trek can begin and end in Angel Fire, Eagle Nest, Questa, Red River or Taos. It takes visitors past some of the finest aspen viewing anywhere with, of course, vistas of Wheeler Peak, Gold Hill, Touch-Me-Not, Baldy, Taos Mountain and more. For more alpine glory, take side trips to the Upper Red River Valley (past the hilariously misnamed “Valley of the Pines”), Taos Ski Valley or Cimarron.

Highway 434 from Angel Fire to Mora takes you past a winding creek amid glorious colors past Coyote Creek State Park to the vast expanse of the historic Mora Valley. For another fall pleasure, stop at Salman Raspberry Ranch to gather all the raspberries you can eat at their “U Pick It Field.” Located at La Cueva, 39 miles southeast of Angel Fire at the Junction of NM 518 and 442, the ranch was once part of the Mora Land Grant of 1835 and is now a National Historic site. Info, 505-387-2900.

Following a visit to Salman Ranch, consider taking the long way on N.M. 518 to Ranchos de Taos to Angel Fire (about 67 miles).

Speaking of N.M. 518, this scenic road happens to be the starting place for the “High Road” trek from Taos to Santa Fe. Follow N.M. 518 in Ranchos de Taos to N.M. 75 into Peñasco. From there follow N.M. 76 through tiny historic towns and spectacular mountain vistas past Chimayo to Española. From there it’s possible to head south straight into Santa Fe, though a side trip through Tesuque on N.M. 590 past Bishops Lodge into Santa Fe is well worthwhile.

The Valle Vidal unit of the Carson National Forest from Amalia to Cimarron (or vice versa) is another great road trip, though unlike the others, this is mostly on an unpaved road. The Valle Vidal is home to a magnificent elk herd and other abundant wildlife. Its vistas of high peaks, forests, and alpine meadows are breathtaking. Directions: Just past Cimarron on U.S. 64, take N.M. 204 to Forest Road 1910, F.R. 1900 and, finally, F.R. 1950 to Costilla. From Questa, head north on N.M. 552 Costilla, then turn east onto N.M. 196 past Amalia onto F.R. 1950 to F.R. 1900, then F.R. 1910 and onto N.M. 204 to U.S. 64 and Cimarron. Info, 575.586.0520.

For another gravel road trek past high country gold, take Mallette Road in Red River to F.R. 54 all the way to the 360-degree views of Greenie Peak, then head down Cabresto Canyon Road to Questa.

Off the beaten path ….

In Angel Fire, the greenbelt Oeste Vista Trail (by the Qwest station opposite Country Club Road) features great views of Angel Fire aspen groves, Monte Verde Lake and Wheeler Peak with benches and picnic tables along the way.

Near Taos, check out the South Boundary Trail (on Hwy 64 in Taos Canyon), a former sheep-driving route along the Fernando Mountains and the always-popular Williams Lake hike outside Taos Ski Valley.

If you like hiking the “yellow brick road” of fallen leaves, Red River hiking enthusiast Judy Miller recommends “Cathedral Grove,” a large stand of aspen off Northwest Passage Trail at Enchanted Forest Cross Country Ski and Snowshoe Area near Red River, as well as Goose Creek and Columbine Trails.

See Trail info below.

Cathedral Grove at Enchanted Forest (Chronicle photo by Ellen Miller-Goins)
(Chronicle photo by Ellen Miller-Goins)
(Chronicle photo by Ellen Miller-Goins)
View from the end of Long John and Northwest Passage at Enchanted Forest (Chronicle photo by Ellen Miller-Goins)
Trail information

Columbine Trail 71 (Moderate-Difficult) – 5.3 miles one way to ridge top – Elevation 7,900 feet to 11,200 feet The trail head is located at the Columbine Campground eight miles west of Red River. At the back of the campground there is a parking area for the trail. The trail follows a route used by miners and prospectors during the mining boom of the late 1800’s. From the trailhead the path climbs gradually through the forest for 1/2 mile and then descends to join the Columbine Creek and crosses the first of four foot bridges. From the bridge, the trail continues along Columbine Creek and gets steeper. After four miles in, the trail crosses an 11,200-foot divide and climbs to a ridge where it joins a network of trails including Trail 69 Deer Creek Trail ,Trail 64 to Gold Hill (9 miles ),Trail 57 to Lobo Peak (10 miles) and Trail 90 to Twining (13 miles). This network of trails makes up the Columbine Twining National Recreation Trail.

Goose Creek Trail 65 (Difficult) – 5.5 miles one way – Elevation 8,800 feet to 11,630 feet To reach the trail head, travel on Hwy 578 approximately two miles until you see Aspen Park on your right. Park here and cross the Red River on the bridge. The trail heads to the left along the river. The trail crosses the creek twice and then follows the right side of the canyon. At about one mile the trail climbs the ridge and enters a small meadow. The trail then travels a short distance through the forest to a larger meadow and climbs along the ridge of the canyon to an aspen grove. At almost two miles in a third larger meadow is reached. Once you are three and 1/2 miles in you will see an old wagon road that enters on the right. After another 1/4 mile the trail crosses the creek and continues on the left side. From here it is approximately 3 miles to the lake which sits at 11,630 feet below the ridge of Gold Hill.

Oeste Vista Trail (Moderate-Difficult) – 4.6 mile loop, combines hiking through deep forest of ponderosa and pinion trees with grand views of Monte Verde Lake, Angel Fire Golf Course and Wheeler Peak wilderness. The trail starts across from the Angel Fire Country Club entrance on Mountain View Blvd. (NM Hwy 434). From the information sign, head east on the dirt road and make a right at the trail sign to the trailhead. After a short and moderately steep beginning, the trail heads south to a picnic table. The trail the winds back around to the north with great views and returns to the parking lot.

South Boundary Trail #164 (Moderate-Difficult) – 20.1 miles at 7,190 feet – 9,920 feet. There are multiple loops and point to point options that incorporate the South Boundary Trail. The actual Trail #164 begins at the El Nogal Picnic Area on US Highway 64 approximately three miles east of Taos and ends on Forest Road 76 near Angel Fire. The South Boundary Trail is an incredible tour of the Sangre de Cristo Range that takes you across ridges, valleys, and over several peaks, through gorgeous conifer forests and incredible stands of aspen. The trail is at its very best in the fall when aspens along the route turn every shade of yellow, gold, and fiery orange. Besides being a wonderfully scenic tour of New Mexico’s Rocky Mountains, this is also one of the state’s best mountain bike rides.

Cathedral Grove (Moderate) – about 2.5 miles one way – 9,800 feet. Enchanted Forest Cross Country Ski Area is three and 1/2 miles from Red River. Start at the base area then head up Powder Puff to Sven Wiik to Little John to Abracadabra to Northwest Passage. You will see a sign for a beautiful overlook of the Town of Red River in Cathedral Grove. Download a trail map and find directions here.