Image: Maple leaf
Robert F. Bukaty  /  AP
A maple tree shows its fall colors on Friday in Woodstock, Maine. A vast network of county foresters, volunteers and others contribute their observations to state tourism officials, who in turn work up "foliage forecasts" published online and elsewhere to let leaf-peepers know where to find the best fall foliage.
By
updated 9/20/2010 10:02:08 AM ET 2010-09-20T14:02:08

Jon Bouton does his leaf-peeping from his car, traveling Vermont's bumpy back roads in a 2001 Geo Prizm.

When the sugar maples, ash and poplars begin to show their colors, the Windsor County forester sends e-mails to the state tourism office, describing where the colors are brightest and what roads to drive to see them. His counterparts in Vermont's other 13 counties do the same twice a week, their reports eventually combined into an online "foliage forecast."

Bouton, 59, is part of a small army of foresters, park rangers, volunteers and attraction

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operators in foliage-rich states whose observations point the way.

"If we're driving somewhere, we're looking," he said.

Fall foliage is a multimillion-dollar business for tour operators, inns, restaurants and attractions who cash in on the rush of camera-toting visitors. Nowhere is it more vibrant than in New England, where a predominance of maple trees produces a dazzling display of red, yellows, oranges and browns and everything in between.

In Vermont alone, visitors spend $374 million a year in the September-to-November season. Lucrative though it is, the fall isn't as big for the state as ski season and summertime, tourism department spokeswoman Erica Houskeeper said.

Finding color
Typically, the foliage season runs from the end of September to mid-October, when chlorophyll in the leaves breaks down because days are getting shorter and nights colder.

If you go ...

Forecasting the colors is not new, but the Internet has boosted its immediacy and given leaf lovers new tools for going where the color is. Visitors can get foliage forecasts from state-run telephone hotlines that advise where to go and online — in words, maps and photos.

In North Carolina, the state Division of Tourism's "Leaf Peepers" program puts forecasts online and on a telephone hotline beginning Sunday. In Tennessee, the Great Smoky Mountains Association posts a web page the observations of a volunteer. In Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains, the regional visitors bureau posts color-coded maps online.

"The technology allows us to do quicker, more accurate foliage reporting, which is absolutely essential for our fall visitors," said Jeanne Curran, a spokeswoman for Maine Department of Conservation, which relies on park rangers for leaf reports.

The forecasts come from volunteer spotters who deliver reports about what roads to drive, which kinds of trees are turning and when the peak periods of color will be. Those, in turn, are posted on websites in words, photos and colored maps.

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"Best Bets: Route 108 through Smugglers' Notch between Stowe and Cambridge is showing early color, as are Routes 242 and 100 near Jay Peak, Route 114 between Lyndonville and Canaan, and Route 2 near Danville," read part of the forecast from Vermont's tourism department this week.

Official 'leaf peepers'
New Hampshire, which gets observations from three dozen designated "leaf peepers" from chambers of commerce and lodging properties, offers foliage text alerts for those who want them, as does Massachusetts.

Among the eyes: "White Mountain Mike" Duprey, 58, a public relations representative and group tour coordinator for the White Mountain Attractions Association. Twice a week, he gives updates on his part of New Hampshire that are then incorporated into the state tourism department's foliage forecast.

While it's in his interest to report blazing colors, he says he never exaggerates.

"We really are honest, to a fault," he said. "We're more cautious, because we know — each one of us — that the worst thing would be to give a report that's more optimistic and then get someone up here saying, 'I read that foliage report and it wasn't anywhere near as colorful as they said.'"

Massachusetts uses park rangers who e-mail their reports twice a week.

"It's not based on predictions, it's based on actual observations," said Betsy Wall, executive director of the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism.

Bouton, the Vermont forester, acknowledges he puts a positive spin on his reports — by not giving negative ones.

"I'm more likely to say nothing than I am give a negative report," he said. "But if I say this road should be a good place to take a look, it would be."

As for this year's foliage forecast, experts say the summer's hot, dry weather could make for more muted colors, an earlier start, both — or neither.

University of Vermont plant biologist Abby van den Berg, who has done research on leaf colors, said some data suggest a small amount of physiological stress can result in more brilliant colors.

"The real bottom line is that there's no great way to predict these things," she said. "It's pretty much impossible, especially over a large scale."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Celebrating fall

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  1. Floating colors

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  2. Fall frolic

    A big dog frolics with a little dog in the yellow leaves of a central Minsk park. (Viktor Drachev / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Presidential mums

    Mums are in bloom in Lafayette Park in front of the White House in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Frosty fringe

    Colorful fall leaves are covered in a morning frost in a yard in Moreland Hills, Ohio. (Amy Sancetta / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Falling for fall

    The autumn rainbow surrounds Kegon Falls at the outlet of Lake Chuzenji in Japan's Nikko National Park. The waterfalls, which are one of Japan's highest, are a major tourist attraction in the fall. (Akiko Matsushita / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Sky's the limit

    The autumn colors of these towering aspens near Buena Vista, Colo., leap out against blue sky. (Nathan Bilow / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Gold rush

    Orange and gold leaves frame Shiprock, a dramatic rock formation near the San Juan River in New Mexico. (Xavier Mascareñas / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Reflecting change

    A bright orange and red-speckled leaf shows what autumn really looks like, close-up. (Robert F. Bukaty / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Old and new

    Early foliage appears by The Old Meeting House in East Montpelier, Vt. The red, orange and gold foliage that attracts millions of visitors to northern New England each fall has been especially vivid this year, thanks to lots of early summer rain. (Toby Talbot / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Lazy days

    A man lies in the sunshine in St James's Park in London, England, enjoying one of the last warm fall days. (Dan Kitwood / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Still waters

    The evening sunlight illuminates trees with leaves that are beginning to change color besides a lake near Warminster, England. England, particularly in the south, is enjoying a spell of dry weather, allowing the beginning of the autumn foliage colors - brought on by shortening daylight hours and cooler weather - to be fully appreciated. (Matt Cardy / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. View from the top

    A couple take in the view from the ocean lookout ledges on 1375-foot Mount Megunticook, at Camden Hills State Park in Maine. The state's forest rangers, who have been tracking fall foliage for 50 years, are now using personal data assistants to send in fall foliage reports from the field. (Robert F. Bukaty / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Smiles and umbrellas

    Belarussian teenage girls play with umbrellas during a drizzly autumn day in Minsk park in Belaruss. (Viktor Drachev / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Rosy-fingered dawn

    The sun begins to rise over the Somerset Levels looking towards Pilton near Glastonbury, England on a crisp fall day. (Matt Cardy / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. He can see his breath

    A deer bellows as it forgages for food in the early morning sun as cooler temperatures bring on the autumn season at Dunham Massey in, Altrincham, England. Shortening daylight hours and cooler weather brings on the rutting season for red and fallow deer herds. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. To the cosmos

    People stroll in a cosmos field at Showa Kinen Park in Tokyo. Visitors can enjoy more than 5,500,000 cosmos, which reach their peak late in the season, until November 3. (Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Harvest time

    An Amish farmer and three children bring in a cart full of harvested corn stalks at a farm in Middlefield, Ohio. (Amy Sancetta / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Seeing red

    The Green Mountain Railway passes the Bartonsville Covered Bridge as fall colors creep in to the area's foliage. (Winslow Townson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Piercing the fog

    Even a thick fog can't hide the bright red leaves on this tree off a lake in Highlands, N.Y. (Mike Groll / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Hay, look!

    A "hayman," made from hay bales and pumpkins, presides over Marini Farm in Ipswich, Mass. (Lisa Poole / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Autumn and winter battle it out as New England's bright fall foliage meets with an early snow in Franconia, N.H. (Jim Cole / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Season's bounty

    Brightly colored tomatoes and a few beans sit in a box just after being picked from the University of Delaware's Garden for the Community in Newark, Del. (Steve Ruark / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Paddling their own canoe

    With the autumn foliage lighting up the background, a group paddle their fishing boat to shore at Cottonwood Lake, near Buena Vista, Colo. (Nathan Bilow / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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