How to Make the Most of a Fall Foliage Road Trip

When I visited the Berkshires in western Massachusetts in August and Beech Mountain in North Carolina in early September, I had the same thought: I bet those scenic forest views are even Following spectacular when the leaves start to change. And I know I’m not the only one who is delighted with the annual breakdown of chlorophyll that turns roadsides and rolling hills into brilliant pops of reds, oranges and yellows. Summer may be the official road trip season, but fall foliage is big business too.

Poet Robert Frost was born in California, but lived in New Hampshire, taught in Massachusetts, and is buried in Vermont. If you’ve ever been to New England in the fall, you might understand why it was both inspired and overwhelmed by the beauty of its changing surroundings. In his poem The road not taken, Frost wrote: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry that I couldn’t travel both, And being one traveler, I stayed a long time.”

Although the fall color change is mostly a temperate zone phenomenon (areas with hot summers and cold winters), leaf lovers across the country have plenty of opportunities to be wowed from early September through late November. , according to Dr. Howard S. Neufeld, a specialist in biology. professor at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. The red sugar maples of New England may be all the glory, but Neufeld, known as the “Fall Color Guy,” says the golden aspens of Arizona and the high elevation forests of Colorado and from New Mexico offer their own spectacular shows.

Arizona aspen leaves typically peak during the first and second week of October. | Photo: Jeff Fromm

Neufeld says the fall months are Asheville, North Carolina’s busiest tourist season. Once or twice a week starting in early September, he walks the Blue Ridge Parkway and back roads, following the progress of the trees. For more than a decade, Neufeld published his findings in his weekly Fall Colors Report. Although he focuses on western North Carolina, from the Virginia border to the Great Smoky Mountains, Neufeld says weather and temperature are the two main factors that determine the fall color outlook of any region.

“If September is unusually warm, it will delay the colors and make them duller, especially the reds,” says Neufeld. While it is generally believed that an early spring will be followed by an early fall, “anything can be canceled out by what happens in September,” he says. “You can’t really predict the weather more than 10 days in advance. People ask me in July if it will be a good year for fall colors and I just don’t know.

According to Neufeld, the trees of the southern Appalachians, including sourwoods, birches, beeches and oaks, are more or less on track this year, and are expected to reach their peak color from October 10 to 20. Mountainous regions offer prolonged fall color. season (not to mention those multicolored panoramas that I could only imagine in summer). “You could have an 8 week fall color season if you followed it from the peak elevation to the coastal plain,” says Neufeld. “It would be a great road trip. ”

Whether you’re on the road for weeks or just on the weekend, here are some tips from Neufeld experts on how to get the most out of a fall foliage road trip.


red orange and green leaves on a blue sky
Sunny days and cool nights bring out the best fall colors. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

1. Watch the weather

According to Neufeld, most states or regions publish their own fall color predictions, which he encourages people to review before planning a trip. Sunny days, adequate rainfall and cool nights give the best colors. Abnormally hot or dry years can delay or dull colors, and drought can cause trees to drop their leaves before they have had a chance to change at all.

    a panoramic view of a wooded valley with trees in various color changing states
Trees at higher elevations change color first. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

2. Altitude is critical

The leaves start to change first at higher elevations, so even if you missed the start of the fall color season, just lower your elevation until you find trees at their peak. Neufeld says that every 7 to 10 days, the color change wave “goes down another 1,000 feet.” Lookouts offer the best chance of spotting the greatest variety of colors, and Neufeld notes that the southern United States has a greater diversity of tree species than the north: the diversity makes for a fine-grained color compared to to the large splashes of color that you will find in New England.

fallen leaves in red, orange, brown and yellow
A great diversity of tree species makes for good displays of fall color. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

3. Take a hike

“If more people come out to see nature, they will develop an appreciation for it, which is important for conservation efforts,” says Neufeld. While scenic drives such as the Blue Ridge Parkway provide plenty of leaf viewing opportunities, Neufeld urges people to get off the road and take a hike. “The fall colors get a lot of people to see nature,” he says. “It’s a comfortable time of year: the air is crisp and you can hike without worrying about heatstroke. The temperatures can be milder, but they can always change quickly throughout the day, so it’s best to wear diapers.

a twisted tree with bright orange leaves
Morning light makes the best photos. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan
a granite obelisk in a cemetery covered with a red vine
The vines can also change color in the fall. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

4. Go early in the week

Whatever the fall color forecast, destinations known for their brilliant displays are always popular; well-known parking lots and trails fill up quickly, especially on weekends. When it comes to fall foliage, the first tourist not only gets the best parking spot, but also the best photoshoot: when the sun is at a low angle in the morning, the colors appear brighter, and the landscapes are brighter. photogenic. Neufeld suggests channeling Frost and finding the road (or path) less traveled. And look for color in unexpected places: Virginia creeper, which grows on the trunks of evergreen trees, turns bright red in the fall.

a bunch of fallen red leaves
The well-pressed leaves retain their color. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

5. Take a souvenir

Fall is fleeting and fickle, which makes the season so special, but you can make it last a little longer by taking some souvenirs home. The leaves that change color are bound to fall to the ground eventually, so Neufeld says he’s “not worried about people picking up a leaf here and there.” For a DIY keepsake, place the collected leaves between two sheets of newspaper or other absorbent paper and press flat between the pages of a book. Let the leaves dry for about a week and carefully place them in a frame or between layers of plexiglass. They can be brittle, but “the colors tend to store pretty well,” says Neufeld.

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