The fall season means Starbuck’s pumpkin spice lattes, Tory Burch knee high boots and taking a road trip to the best places to see the leaves change colors.
Fall officially begins September 22, but leaves can start changing color as early as Labor Day weekend. Here’s an ultimate guide for navigating this annual event.
WHAT IS FALL FOLIAGE?
Leaves are instrumental in providing food for trees. Leaves contain a green pigment called chlorophyll that’s used in photosynthesis, the process where leaves absorb the energy from sunlight to transform carbon dioxide and water to sugar.
Leaves also contain yellow and orange pigments, carotenes and flavonols, but can’t be seen because of the constant creation of chlorophyll cells during the warm weather and sunny days of summer and spring months. But when the seasons change, with less sunlight and colder weather, chlorophyll breaks down and is harder to replace. Then these other colors can be seen.
There are also some tree species, such as red and sugar maples, that contain red and purple pigments called anthocyanins, that develop in late summer and fall. The changing leaves produce the best fall colors.
WHEN IS PEAK SEASON FOR FALL FOLIAGE?
When does fall foliage start? There should be an app for that. But because there isn’t, the next best thing is the interactive tool at SmokyMountains.com. It’s been producing this predictive fall foliage map for about a decade.
The map notes that nothing can be 100% accurate as the perfect time can change depending on the weather. Though it does use reliable data points and data sources and the meteorological forecast to estimate the best time for leaf peepers to see peak foliage for the entire United States by county.
It’s safe to say that this fall foliage 2021 map is instrumental in planning your leaf peeping visit for the best peak viewing times. Consider it your fall foliage report.
Even though leaves may begin to change around Labor Day, they may not achieve peak color until late September or early fall. Leaves tend to change color at higher elevations and northern latitudes first. So let’s start on the east coast.
Fall Foliage in New England
Region of Maine. New England is considered the mecca for observing brilliant displays of foliage. This year the fall foliage prediction map says that prime time viewing in Maine is from the last week of September to early October. And Maine has no shortage of great locations.
In northern Maine there are a few scenic drives from Fort Kent to Presque Isle. At Fort Kent, walk the 3-mile Riverside Trail for seeing great leaf hues. Then hop onto Route 1, “America’s First Mile,” to Main Street in Caribou. It’ll take about an hour and here you’ll find another great small town to see the fall color change. From there, continue on Route 1 to Presque Isle to take a fall foliage tour aboard Molly the Trolley.
In Central Maine, drive the Lakes National Scenic byway. A 35-mile loop on routes 17 and 4 of panoramic views through small towns and mountains along the Appalachian Mountain ridgeline that provides of some of the best photogenic foliage. While here, why not attend Rangeley Oktoberfest in the western mountains.
In Southern Maine, definitely check out the stunning foliage along the coast in Acadia National Park. Follow the 27-mile loop for vibrant reds, yellows and oranges. Couple this with a stay in arguably the top leaf peeping destination of Bar Harbor for more incredible foliage captures.
The Maine Office of Tourism provides a toll-free foliage hotline beginning mid-September and the Department of Conservation offers weekly reports on its website beginning September 15 this year.
New Hampshire. Take your time along the 30-mile Kancamagus Highway (or simply known as “The Kanc”) through Route 112. Possibly New England’s best scenic drive to catch the fall leaf color change. Stop at White Mountain National Forest, Lincoln, and Sabbaday Falls.
Usually at its peak time the first week of October. If you take this drive the first two weeks in October, you’ll have plenty of leaf peeping company.
TRAVELER’S TIP: Jim Salge is a former meteorologist at the Mount Washington Observatory and now reports on all things New England in Yankee magazine. He especially reports on when and where to see the best fall colors. As an added bonus, he captures the beauty of fall foliage in his amazing photography.
Fall Foliage New York State
The state of New York produces its own I love NY fall foliage report issued every Wednesday afternoon. The first report on current conditions for 2021 was already issued and it seems that the summer greens are starting to end in and around Au Sable Forks Adirondack and Catskills, both in upstate NY.
Upstate New York. You can’t miss the Catskills regions. Stop by Hull-O Farms for their annual corn maze and pumpkin picking, go on a local brewery and food tour, and hit the farm stands and food trucks. All these great outdoor activities are offered during peak fall foliage season.
So get outside and have a picnic and don’t forget to ride the Fall Foliage adventure train!
New York City. A great place to see some of the best foliage is in the center of one of the biggest cities in the United States. Central Park is home to over 18,000 trees that transform each year. It’s one of the most visited locations to witness the amazing leaf change.
The Central Park Conservancy publishes an official fall foliage map for the Park. It tells you where types of trees are located and what colors to expect to see. Don’t worry if you can’t pick out the types of trees. The Conservancy guides lead Fall Foliage Walks to help you with this.
The Conservancy suggests the best time to catch the foliage in the Park is late October as peak conditions are affected because of the light and temperature gradient from the surrounding buildings.
TRAVELER’S TIP: If you are not interested in walking, New York offers a fall foliage Hudson River Cruise complete with brunch.
SOUTHERN UNITED STATES
Virginia and North Carolina
The Blue Ridge Parkway spans two states and offers gorgeous fall colors. This road connects two state parks, from Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you will discover some of the most vivid colors found in nature.
Take the Skyline Drive in Virgina at Shenandoah Valley to see a diversity of trees turning. There are a few places not to miss place on the Carolina side. Orchard at Altapass is at Milepost 328.3, where you’ll find live music for their fall foliage festival, u-pick orchards and buy local jams. Pisgah National Forest is at Milepost 407.6, where you can dine at a window table at 5,000 feet overlooking Mt. Pisgah.
Or if you don’t want to venture too far out of the city, just take a scenic drive through Grandfather Mountain at milepost 305 near downtown Asheville.
North Carolina and Tennessee
The Great Smoky Mountains have an abundance of sugar maples, red maples, hickories, birch and oaks which makes for an eye-popping fall landscape. Hiking in these mountains makes for a way to get up close and personal to these impressive leaves.
At higher elevation on the Blue Ridge mountains, the color peaks at the beginning of October. But lower in the valley, at most of the parkway, the color peaks at the end of October.
PACIFIC NORTHWEST AND SOUTHWEST
Follow the 80 miles of rich bright colors on the I-84 through the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area. Not only will you catch bronze, amber and golden hues, but also majestic waterfalls, such as at the famous Columbia River Gorge, but you can also hike, kayak or canoe to get a closer look at the turning of the leaves.
Located in the Cascade Mountains is the Bavarian-themed village of Leavenworth. This town is one of the best locations to view dazzling foliage while engaging in fun things like ziplining, rock climbing and biking near the waterfront.
While here, experience authentic German food and beer gardens and even wine tasting. The town itself comes alive with stunning scarlet, orange and gold leaves.
Come at the end of September to see the colors at near peak and start to come alive and reach full peak around mid-October and into November.
Route 1 or the Pacific Coast Highway surprisingly has an impressive landscape for fall foliage. Stop at Big Sur, Napa Valley and Muir Woods.
WHAT TO WEAR FOR A FALL ROAD TRIP
Some areas will have warm weather during the day and get cooler at night. Some areas can be breezy, especially along the coast. And of course, there’s always the possibility of rain.
You will want to layer and pack rain jacket, hats, gloves and sturdy footwear. Here are a few things I like:
FINAL THOUGHTS ON FALL FOLIAGE
Taking a fall foliage road trip can be done in weekend getaways. Who would have thought that driving country roads and observing the forest floor took so much planning?!
But it’s definitely worth the time and effort to venture on this quest, and even if you don’t live in a place where the foliage goes through this fiery transformation, chances are, you are not that far away from one.
Ready to begin your annual observance? Use Airfare Watchdog to easily book at the best price if you have to travel a little farther to begin your remarkable road trip.
Need a place to stay? Book your hotel stay right now!
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