With less than a month until the official start of autumn, leaf peepers are already eagerly plotting their fall foliage trips with fingers crossed that they get the timing right. A weekend too early or too late, and you’ll miss the most dazzling colors.
To catch a show of truly blockbuster color, the year has to unfold just right. Ideally, there should be a long-lasting snowpack in the winter, followed by a wet spring and a Goldilocks summer that’s neither too hot nor too humid. And then, autumn must deliver bright, sunny days and cold, crisp nights.
Unfortunately, that’s not how 2023 has played out in many parts of the country, according to Jim Salge, a former a meteorologist at the Mount Washington Observatory in New Hampshire and the current foliage expert at Yankee magazine.
Last summer’s drought will impact this season’s color forecast, along with what Salge calls “significant weather high-impact days” earlier in the year. In New England, there were three of note in 2023. The first was February 4, when an arctic cold front pushed the region into record low temperatures that plunged to the double-digits below zero. The second high-impact day was May 18, when a late spring cold snap put much of the region into a deep freeze, damaging many trees’ new growth. The final high-impact day was July 10, when heavy rains brought historic flooding to Vermont and other parts of New England.
Taken together, those weather events have made for a lot of stressed out trees. “This year, the roots are waterlogged and not allowing for efficient tree processes,” says Salge. “Last year, it was so dry with high levels of photosynthesis that the trees didn’t open up their leaves.” Stress stunts growth, impacts the amount of nutrients a tree can store over the winter and affects how strongly they can put out leaves in the spring. “So the problem just continues to compound,” he says.
In the grand scale, climate change will eventually impact the vibrancy of fall foliage in the future. “Globally, July was the warmest year on record and it wasn’t even close,” Salge says. “And I just think that the data we’re seeing and the warnings that the scientists are telling us are starting to be observed in more and more extreme events, and it is concerning.”
Salge’s job requires taking a holistic look to predict not only where to find the best fall foliage but, just as importantly, when the color will peak. The latter is the tricky part, since peak color is a moving target dependent upon so many changeable factors. He stresses that microclimate is a really big factor. Trees at high elevations will turn early due to cooler nights, while large lakes can hold so much heat at night that those valleys may turn later than surrounding regions.
Here are Salge’s recommendations for U.S. destinations that will deliver the brightest pops of color this year.
Northern Maine, Down East Maine toward Acadia National Park, Southern New England
First to third week in October
New England’s fall foliage season generally lasts about six weeks across the entire region, but only a week or two in any particular spot. If leaf peepers land in a town where the color is less than impressive, they may have to drive a few hours north or south to find those prized Kodachrome vistas.
Salge is particularly bullish this year on Maine, where the best colors move reliably from north to south. “Look for a patchwork of fall colors to develop early across the region, especially with the swamp maples,” he says. (They are also called red maples or scarlet maples.) “Peak color should arrive on time or late compared to historical averages, with leaves that are more pastel than flaming red, but no less beautiful. Color will be long-lasting, then fade and fall slowly.”
Timing is key. “Acadia turns a little later than everybody else, just because it’s coastal,” says Salge. “So for most of northern Maine, go in the first week of October. Aim towards that third week of October for Acadia, that would be prime this year.”
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
Salge also offers a strong color prognosis for the Upper Midwest and the Great Lakes Region. “The foliage should put on a bright show this year, and if a cold front drops down early, it could really kickstart a great season.”
Late September to early October
“After one of the most atypical weather years on record, expect a bright and potentially early season,” says Salge. “The had so much snow this winter and it was so warm this summer. I think they’re in for a nice brief pop of color late September in the Rocky Mountain National Park area.”
After 2022’s “normal” conditions in the Pacific Northwest, Salge says this year is harder to predict. “Colors might be slow to develop this year because of the warm and dry forecast, but could pack a bright punch when they do arrive.” “Their long range outlook is actually cooler than normal, which might make their foliage season a little longer and and a little earlier than normal.”
Catskill Mountains, Ridges of Pennsylvania
Late September to early October
The outlook here is similar to New England, says Salge, due to days of extreme cold last winter. Meanwhile, this year’s unusually warm, wet summer can increase the risk of leaf fungus. “Anticipating a long, late, and somewhat muted season,” he says.
Blue Ridge Mountains, Great Smoky Mountains
Early to late October
Southeasterners should be treated to pretty typical show of color this year. “I think they’re going to have a normal, good year. The weather should be warm and wet,” says Salge, “so I’m expecting a bright and timely season and a really nice, long season as well,” he says, predicting that color will peak in early October in the highest elevations and move into November for the lowlands.
Copyright 2023 Forbes Media LLC. All rights reserved. From https://www.forbes.com. By Suzanne Rowan Kelleher.