The natural cycle of foliage is one of the rhythms that sustain the musical score of life. Seldom modest, trees proclaim their leafy program boldly — from their first brave buds, through pale-green youth and blossoming, on to glossy green maturity, and ending, in autumn, in a vibrant farewell trumpeted in rich crimsons, oranges, yellows, reds and golds.
New England seems to own the franchise. Pictures of its hillsides ablaze in color adorn October calendars everywhere, and Vermont and New Hampshire have successfully marketed their foliage as the most brilliant in the nation. But, in fact, nature puts on this spectacular show all across the country.
It’s all about chlorophyll, the pigment that makes leaves green. In September, October and November — as the nights grow longer and the weather cooler — chlorophyll production slows down, unmasking the colors produced by other chemicals in the plants. Gradually, each leafy tree surrenders its green mantle to the bright yellows and crimsons that signal the end of the summer and the start of leaf-peeping season.
Each broadleaf tree has its own fall colors. Maples, the most extravagantly colored of the native trees, produce brilliant crimson reds, glowing yellows and pumpkin oranges. Oaks wrap themselves in dignified russets, reds and browns. Beeches turn a light tan, dogwoods burgundy and purple. Aspens, cottonwoods, poplars, ashes and larches change from greens to golden yellows. What makes foliage watching so interesting is that each forest and woodlot has its own mix of trees, and so its own mix of colors.
Slideshow: Autumn’s awesome rainbow Cold weather comes to New England and Colorado earlier than it does to California, Arkansas and Virginia, so the autumn colorfest moves from north to south beginning in late September and carrying on through mid November. Those who can’t make it to New England in early October can enjoy similar displays of colors in Pennsylvania and Virginia later in the month.
In general, colors will reach their peak in New England and Colorado in late September and early October. New York and Pennsylvania have wonderful colors for most of October. The Smokey Mountains and Arizona get their turns in late October and early November. Of course, higher elevations will color up before the valleys, because they’re cooler.
Some trees change colors on their own species-specific timetable. Oaks have colors that linger long after the maples and birches have flamed out; in fact, many don’t drop their dry, brown leaves until spring. And southern sourwoods start turning crimson while the rest of the forest is quite green. For leaf-peepers, there is a time and a place for everyone.
Here is a selection of five regions where a fall foliage trip will reward you with a vibrant encounter with nature.
New Hampshire and Vermont
Since the depth of fall colors depends on quick changes in the weather, areas like New England with its sudden cold snaps and mix of trees usually produce the most brilliant and varied colors. The White Mountain Trail, one of the most popular foliage routes in New Hampshire, runs along the Kancamagus Highway from Lincoln through North Conway, then north along U.S. Route 302 through Crawford Notch to the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, and on to Franconia Notch. To avoid some of the crowds, many leaf-peepers head farther north and drive through Pinkham Notch, Berlin, Lancaster and Gorham.
From Bretton Woods, take the cog train up Mt. Washington for an unforgettable chug through New England’s autumn colors.
As in New Hampshire, Vermont’s prime color season falls during the first three weeks of October. At that time, state Route 100, which runs up the center of the state, is packed with tourists, as are the towns of Manchester and Dover. For a more relaxed tour, head to the Northeast Kingdom in late September and drive along the small roads north of St. Johnsbury, zigzagging north toward Burke Mountain and Newport.
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Southern West Virginia
The hard-to-reach southern corner of West Virginia has phenomenal autumn colors and equally spectacular terrain along New River Gorge. The colors hold for most of October and include an artful blend of browns, reds, oranges and golds. A 53-mile stretch of this ancient river is now protected by the National Park Service as a free-flowing waterway.
The New River Gorge Bridge is the world’s second-longest and second-highest steel-arch bridge (in other words, it’s really spectacular). The bridge is opened to pedestrians only once a year, on the third Saturday in October (this year, October 15). This Saturday event turns into one of West Virginia’s biggest parties. On other weekend days in October, you can take a foliage-viewing ride aboard the New River Train, which traverses the old Chesapeake & Ohio rail line from Huntington to Hinton.
Nearby, the Gauley River, which is fed by water releases from the Summerville Dam, is ranked as one of the 10 best places in the world to go white-water rafting. The local B&Bs provide quaint and comfortable lodging.
Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Missouri
This waterway park, which protects 134 miles of the Current and Jacks Fork rivers in southeastern Missouri, is surrounded by the Mark Twain National Forest. The colors here are more subdued than those found in New England, but the scene is nonetheless breathtaking.
The mild October weather here makes foliage watching a unique experience because the watchers can take to the rivers. The water levels are low, so canoeing is safe and easy, leaving plenty of attention to spare for the pleasing dark reds, browns and oranges of the bordering forest. Floating past the color-lined riverbanks on a hot autumn day is a tranquil, almost surreal experience.
Those traveling through the region by automobile have many excellent views as well. Just follow the roads that crisscross the riverway, and wind through the different sections of the national forest.
The heart of foliage country in Colorado is Crested Butte and Gunnison. The remoteness of the region keeps crowds in check and provides a more natural experience than you get in Aspen, which is crowded, or on the tour buses that head for the Maroon Bells in droves. Come with a four-wheel-drive vehicle to tackle some of the most spectacular mountain roads.
Because of its elevation, Colorado has an early season, normally peaking in the last two weeks of September. That’s when the aspens turn a lush goldenrod color that soon blankets the Rockies. Some mountainsides are covered in an endless array of golden tones; others are punctuated with expanses of evergreens, weaving a natural tapestry of hunter greens and rich golds beneath the rocky peaks.
One of the best routes for Colorado fall foliage is from Gunnison to Crested Butte, then over Keebler Pass and on through the Ruby Range. From this point drop south on state Route 133, then take state Route 92 east to the Black Canyon for dizzying views of a spectacular landscape. After crossing a spectacular bridge over the canyon, you can loop back to Gunnison on U.S. Highway 50.
Arizona: San Francisco Mountains and Coconino National Forest
This surprising foliage region, north of Flagstaff, puts on its main display of colors from mid September to the end of October. The high concentration of maples mixed with aspens, cottonwoods, elms and willows, makes for a striking contrast between brilliant crimsons and undulating yellows and golds.
A suggested route for foliage begins just north of Flagstaff in the San Francisco Mountains. U.S. Highway 89 and U.S. Highway 180 both run north from Flagstaff. Take either one past Arizona Snowbowl, a ski resort, then follow the Forest Service signs between the two highways to Peaks Loop or Schultz Pass Drive. Or head to Sycamore Canyon. The ski resort itself has a wonderful chairlift ride that gives a splendid aerial view of the leaves.
South of Flagstaff, take the Verde Canyon Railroad for a ride along the wall of the plunging canyon, through barren deserts, and on to an expanse of forest blanketed in copper, bronze and gold leaves. Or take U.S. Highway 89A, the main automobile route through this changing landscape.
These above-mentioned foliage regions are only some of the wonderful areas where trees put on their spectacular show of colors. The Sierra Nevada Mountains are adorned with a wonderful blend of yellows and greens and when combined with the beauty of Lake Tahoe provide inspiring vistas. The forests lining the shoreline of the Great Lakes in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota display the full range of autumn colors. And New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia all claim extraordinary panoramas.
Wherever one resides, there are accessible regions that showcase the change of seasons. The Forest Service’s Fall Color Hotline can guide you to good foliage spots as the autumn color display progresses across the country. Call the toll-free number (800-354-4595), or check the Forest Service Web site.
Charles Leocha is nationally-recognized expert on saving money and the publisher of Tripso. He is also the Boston-based author of "SkiSnowboard America & Canada." E-mail him or visit his Web site. Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting Leocha's forum.