Interactive Foliage Map
Some consider it to be the most incredible time of the year. Gorgeous colors vibrantly encoring the end of summer as the trees put themselves to bed for the long sleep of winter. The Great Smoky Mountains floods with thousands upon thousands of annual visitors all hoping to acheive a breath taking view of the beautiful renaissance of nature. The phenomenon is commonly called autumn colours or autumn foliage in British English and fall colors, fall foliage or simply foliage in American English. In some areas of Canada and the United States, "leaf peeping" tourism is a major contribution to economic activity.
The Science Of It All
It all starts with photosynthesis. Leaves typically produce their vivid hues of green from spring through summer into early fall through the constant creation of Chlorophyll. As we all learned in 5th grade science, Chlorophyll is the key component in a plants ability to turn sunlight into glucose, which in turn feeds the trees. Many millions of these Chlorophyll cells saturate the leaves, ultimately making them appear green to the eye.
Did you know?
Without the presence of Chlorophyll in the leaf, the bright golds, reds, yellows, and browns would be the natural colors seen year round.
The Changing Colors
Chlorophyll is not the only player in the fall leaf color game. Present in other leaves and trees are the compounds known as Carotenoids and Anthocyanins. As the Fall days begin to get shorter and shorter, the production of Chlorophyll slows to a hault, eventually giving way to the ‘true’ color of the leaf.
Why do leaves fall?
The beauty of nature is sometimes found in the profound ‘intelligence’ it exudes. Perennials, which includes trees, must protect itself in order to get through the harsh, freezing temperatures of winter. If trees did not shed their leaves, their soft vegetation would certainly freeze during winter time, damaging and no doubt killing the tree.
In order to cope with the gruling winter temperatures, trees slowly close off the veins that carry water and nutrients to and from the leaves with a layer of new cells that form at the base of the leaf stem, protecting the limbs and body of the tree. Once the process of new cell creation is complete, water and nutrients no longer flow to and fro from the leaf - this enable the leaf to die and weaken at the stem, eventually falling gracefully to the ground.
I trust in nature for the stable laws of beauty and utility.
Spring shall plant and autumn garner to the end of time.
- ROBERT BROWNING
What happens to the fallen leaves?
Earth, among other things, is fantastic at recycling. Whether through the water cycle, or the slow process of decomposing plants and trees back in to rich soil, the Earth wastes very little.
When leaves fall to the ground, they begin to break down and eventually create a rich humus on the forest floor that absorbs dew and rainfall. This nutrient rich ‘sponge’ acts as a continual source of nutrients and water for trees and plants, helping to promote life and plant health in the next spring season.
It is not difficult to conclude that while the falling of the leaves protects the trees through winter, it’s likely that trees would not survive as well without the rich layer of dead leaves through the warm spring and summer months. In this way, trees natural cycle provides health and sustainability for itself year after year.
Join In On The Fun!
Acadia National Park, Maine
Acadia National Park is brilliant even on a gray, dreary day—and in October? The boulder-strewn coastline, dense deciduous forest, and iconic Cadillac Mountain glow in autumn colors. Expect a bit of traffic along the 27-mile Park Loop Road—the secret’s long been out that the park’s main route is lined with picture-perfect observation points. For more intimate experiences with Acadia, detour onto unpaved roads; or better yet, park the car for a bit and cycle, hike, or venture on horseback on the carless “carriage roads” that zigzag through the heart of the park. Autumn is a time for family and fun.
Green Mountain & Shires of Vermont Byways, Vermont
New England leaf viewing is at its finest in Vermont, where wilderness claims 75 percent of the land. With more maple trees than anywhere else in the region, you can hedge your bets on the brightest of colors on nearly every highway and country road. To see the best-of-the-best foliage, travel late September to mid-October between the mountain ridges of Waterbury and Stowe on the 11-mile Green Mountain Byway in northern Vermont, and along the Shires of Vermont Byway between the Taconic Mountains and the Green Mountains in southeastern Vermont.
Kancamagus Highway, New Hampshire
The Kancamagus Highway (or the “Kanc” as locals call it) is northern New Hampshire’s venerable claim to fame, a scenic 35-mile stretch of Route 112 through the White Mountain National Forest, erupting with vibrant, changing leaves over multiple elevations between late September and mid-October. The scenic drive is void of gas stations, restaurants, hotels, and the like, allowing nature to take center stage. Breathe in the fresh air and fill your Instagram feed with envy-inducing pics. Also, pack a picnic lunch to enjoy at one of the route’s many waterfalls such as Sabbaday Falls or Rocky Gorge.
Route 97, New York
Route 97 winds along the Delaware River, and our favorite stretch is between the towns of Callicoon and Port Jervis. The road has just enough curves and straightaways to make it fun to drive, and the views are all vibrant foliage and the lovely wide river. There’s plenty to do if you want diversions along the way: Callicoon is home to the Callicoon Wine Merchant, which serves a lovely charcuterie platter, and there’s the relatively new and charming Café Adella Dori, which makes great coffee and homemade breakfast and lunch. Farther south is Narrowsburg, where you can get a wood-fired sourdough pizza at the brand new Laundrette; the well-curated antique shop Maison Bergogne; and Nest, which is one of our favorite home stores—the owner Anna has the best eye. There’s even a lookout point on their Main Street where you can usually spot bald eagles. Closer to Port Jervis is the Hawk’s Nest overlook, pictured, where you’ll have a high point to take some pics of the epic
If you're looking for a low-key way to enjoy the vivid shades of autumn, consider riding the rails. It's a stress-free, family-friendly experience that allows you to focus on Mother Nature's colors, rather than fidgeting with your GPS. Some trains offer box lunches and snacks or catered fine dining, while others let you bring your own food. There's often historical commentary by guides on the vintage train routes, and some excursions stop for layovers in small towns where you can shop or grab a bite. A few things to remember: Reservations fill up fast, especially for peak leaf-peeping season. Typically, cars are assigned but seats are not, so arrive early. And some cars are open-air, so dress accordingly. Here are some of our favorite scenic train rides to view fall's glorious colors across the country: