Thursday, September 20, 2007

Fall Colors

OK, as of this weekend summer is officially over. Kids are back at school and baseball season is coming to an end. (But gas prices still refuse to come back down from their summer highs!). For those of you lucky enough to live in or near the woods, the leaves on the trees are getting ready to go out with a bang. In other words, it’s fall foliage season, which means it's time for scenic “leaf-peeping” drives along winding mountain roads. Over the next month or so, maples, ash and other deciduous trees all over the country will be enjoying one last burst of glory before succumbing to their winter's sleep.

The most intense scenery tends to be found in places like New England and Appalachia (for example, the picture opposite comes from Mayberry RFD, aka Mt Airy, NC), but you can see fall colors in almost every state. Out west in Arizona, look for the reddening oaks and maples of the forests around Flagstaff, near the Grand Canyon off old Route 66. In California, from now through mid-November look out for the yellowing leaves of the quaking aspens, which stand out against the evergreen forests of the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains, high above one of my favorite roads, US-395. In Colorado, aspens and cottonwoods are turning out along the fabulous Million Dollar Highway.

No matter where you live or travel, there are a number of great web resources that will help you get an idea of where you might go to make the most of this intense natural spectacle. A good starting place is the US Forest Service Fall Color Updates pages. See your tax dollars at work!...

Another place to go is the Foliage Network , which posts up frequently updated reports of color intensity, as reported bytheir newtwork of volunteer leaf-peepers.

As of today (Sept 20 2007), the leaves have started turning at high elevations in New England, and should be peaking from now through the first two weeks of October. The best piece of “fall color” advice I can offer is encouragement to people to GET OUT OF THE CAR! Yes, driving a car can take you past all sorts of beautiful scenes, but if you really want to let it sink in and have something you’ll remember, keep a lookout for “scenic viewpoints” and trailheads and soak up the scenery with all of your senses. (Smell the pines – listen to the winds and the water flowing past – feel and hear the crackling of leaves as you tread over them – etc etc)

Also, thinking practically, try to plan ahead as much as possible – fall color is prime time for the tourism industry, and places to stay etc get filled up fast – sometimes more than year ahead of time, especially in New England.

Here are some more great roads, with a full All-American spread – not just New England:

I. Route 100 around Vermont’s Green Mountains
If you time it right, almost any road in Vermont will offer outstanding “fall color,” but for the quintessential New England experience, head for Route 100, which runs north-south along the spine of the beautiful Green Mountains. The north and south ends of Route 100 are home to Stowe, Killington and other major ski areas with all the attendent development, but the central section still offers the classic combinations of rolling pastures, rustic red barns, white clapboard churches, quaint villages and covered bridges—all backed by spectacular hardwood forest whose maple, birch and other trees blaze with fall color.

For me, the pretteist section of the drive runs through Granville Gulf, more or less the geographical center of the state. 10 miles of never-cut hardwood forests frame the picture-perfect cascade of Moss Glen Falls, just a quick leg-stretch off the highway.

While all this natural beauty highlights the drive, to me scenery is most memorable when touched by civilization, and this drive offers some classic examples (as well as great restuarants and lodging opportunites!...). At the north end stands Vermont’s lovely little state capital Montpelier, where the gold dome of the State House shines against yet more red and gold leaves. A quick jog east along two-lane US-2 will bring you one of Vermont’s prettiest villages, Peacham.

To get back to where we started, zoom back south along I-89 (in Vermont, even the Interstates have spectacular fall color ! ), then loop back west along US-4 to Woodstock, perhaps the plushest and wealthiest village in the country, set along the banks of the Ottauquechee River amidst seemingly endless hardwood forest.

II. Blue Ridge Parkway
New England doesn’t have a monopoly on fall color, and to prove it to yourself take a drive along the nearly 500 miles of gently winding mountain road that forms the Blue Ridge Parkway. Designed expressly to maximize driving pleasure and scenic appreciation, this official All-American Highway runs along the crest of the Appalachian Mountains at the heart of North Carolina, through forests so deep and wild they starred in trhe movie “Last of Mohicans”. While the leaf color may be marginally less intense than it is in New England, the season lasts much longer here, so your chances of catching the peak is much greater. Also, commerical development has been banned from the roadside, so all you can see apart from dense forests and panoramic views will be a few comfortably rustic National Park lodges offering food and drink and a place to rest your over-saturated eyes.

III. High Sierra via Carson Pass
Way out west, we may not have the same range of fiery red fall color maples they have back east, but we do have the golden leaves of the quaking aspen, usually seen against an evergreen backdrop of pines and fir trees. One of the best ways I know to appreciate these massive stands is to drive over California’s Sierra Nevada mountains along Hwy-88, over Carson Pass just south of Lake Tahoe. An added pleasure of Hwy-88 is the abundance of Gold Rush-era ghost towns and mining camp remnants in the western foothills, places like Sutter Creek and Volcano, but as you climb higher and higher into the mountains toward the 8,650-foot pass, you truly leave civilization behind.

The best fall color can usually be found just east of the crest, in the high mountain vastness of Hope Valley, where the angular granite mountainsides are trimmed by extensive groves of golden aspens, leaves quaking in the breeze.

(Great trout-fishing too!)

IV. Zion National Park
You only asked for 2 or 3, but if I could have a 4th candidate for Fall Color favorites, I’d probably opt for the road which winds up to the northern expanse of Zion National Park, sometimes called the Kolob Canyons. Most of the colors here are permanent, thanks to the brilliant red hues of the sculpted sandstone canyons and other rock formations, but in October the reds are contrasted by the golden leaves of cottonwoods and box elder trees. Gorgeous.

V. Last but definitely not least: Michigan's Upper Peninsula
Incredible color, rugged mountains, brilliant fall color -- and much less crowded than New England.


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