updated 10/17/2006 8:01:18 PM ET 2006-10-18T00:01:18

Rita Downing is looking for leaves.

She steps out of the car on a sunny fall day, walks to the shore of the Hudson, and surveys the trees on the horizon. They form a broad ridge of green, red and yellow between water and sky.

"Look over the river," she says. "It's almost peak, or pretty near peak."

That's not just Downing's impressionistic opinion. That's the observation of an official New York leaf-peeper.

Downing is one of 60 volunteers around the state who gather information for New York's fall foliage reports, which tourists check online and by phone to guide their autumn outings.

Nearly 30 states around the country offer similar foliage reports, and most depend on folks like Downing, who go out each week from Labor Day to November to check the changing landscape.

Of course, the leaves remain perfect only for a week or two in any given region. By the time Downing reports peak foliage for her area in the mid-Hudson Valley in mid- to late October, the Adirondacks are long past peak. The lower Hudson Valley is nearing peak, and trees on Long Island and New York City are just starting to change.

But Downing accepts the ephemeral nature of her task and emphasizes how much else there is for visitors to do in the area after the colors have faded from the landscape.

Driving around, she points out pumpkins glistening in the sun in a pick-your-own field by the side of the road, and a display of rainbow-colored tie-dyed T-shirts outside the Groovy Blueberry, a store on Main Street in New Paltz. Nearby is the Gilded Otter, a brew pub, and La Stazione, an Italian restaurant.

Accommodations in the area range from an Econo Lodge in New Paltz to the famed (and upscale) Mohonk Mountain House, to bed-and-breakfasts like Stonegate and Fox Hill, both in Highland.

The renowned Culinary Institute of America is located in nearby Hyde Park, and Downing says many graduates settle in the area and open their own restaurants, such as the Highland Cafe. Chef Mark Schmitt's creative menu includes duck-wild rice soup, perfection in a cup at $1.95; a pork, bean and cheddar quesadilla for $6.95, and an enormous $2 chocolate chip cookie.

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Every crossroads seems to lead to an apple orchard where the trees blush with red fruit, or a winery where visitors line up for tastings. While the pumpkins and apples won't be pickable much past Halloween, events and tours at the wineries take place well into December.

At Adair Winery, owner Marc Stopkie poured grapes into a roaring machine that spit out the stems and piped the pulp into a giant steel vat. Blackberry kir, a blend of berries and dry white wine, was offered to guests inside the showroom, located in a picturesque 215-year-old barn.

Downing's stops included the Hudson Valley Rail Trail, where she walked, crunching fallen leaves beneath her feet, to a picturesque bridge that's a favorite subject for artists. She also took in a panoramic view of the valley, steps from the entrance to the Mohonk Preserve on Mohonk Mountain, a popular destination for hikers. Nature walks and other events are scheduled here each weekend. Long after the trees shed their leaves, outings are billed as "ski or hike," depending on the snowfall.

As Downing made her rounds, she ran into others out enjoying the season, like a trio of mountain-climbers loaded with gear heading up Mohonk, and two women collecting tiny red-and-gold maple leaves along the rail trail.

"We make leaf art," explained Lili Panek, who was there with her mother Joan Holt looking for the most colorful and perfectly shaped leaves they could find beneath a brilliantly hued tree that stood out from all the others. "We use them in picture frames. No two frames end up alike." The women sell the frames for $10 at local craft fairs and other events.

Downing, who works in Highland as a real estate agent, began surveying the foliage years ago with her brother, Maurice, when he was a leaf-peeper.

"I just loved the scenery and the whole thing," she recalled. "I'd tag along with him, listening to his musings and ramblings. Was it more than last week, brighter, more colorful?"

Maurice died of a heart attack in 1998. That fall, Eric Scheffel, who coordinates the fall foliage reports for I Love New York, the state tourism office, called and asked Rita to continue her brother's work.

"And that's when I started doing it," she said.

Early each week, Downing and the other volunteers send in reports estimating the percent of trees they predict will have changed by the following weekend; the level of brilliance in the colors (dull, average, bright, very brilliant); predominating colors; whether the coloration is just beginning, mid-point, near peak, at peak or past peak; and information on special events.

Downing readily admits that she is not a botanist; she can't tell you which are the birch trees and which are the oaks.

But then the tourists who use her reports to guide their trips don't really need to know that.

"It's red or green," she says. "Keep it simple."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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