There’s nothing like getting out into the countryside on a sunny autumn day and immersing yourself in the brilliant colors of the changing trees. But different areas hit their peak—when the leaves are most vibrant—at different times, depending on their climate and elevation. So, a fall foliage trip does require some planning.
Before we discuss when leaves change color, let’s examine why they change. Leaves are saturated with chlorophyll cells, which absorb sunlight and convert it into glucose, a vital food source for trees. Chlorophyll is also what provides the green pigment in leaves. During the fall, when the days are shorter and trees get less sunlight, chlorophyll production begins to slow down and give way to other compounds present in the leaves.
These compounds are known as Carotenoids, such as Beta-Carotene, and Anthocyanins. Beta-Carotene is very common and it naturally reflects yellow and red light, which produces that signature orange autumn color. Anthocyanin produces red hues in leaves, while Flavonol provides shades of yellow. These compounds are always present in the leaves, but it’s not until chlorophyll decreases that their true colors can shine.
Factors like temperature, precipitation, and soil moisture can all affect when leaves shed their summer skin. But the National Weather Service does compile data based on historical trends to predict when specific areas will reach their peak leaf and observation times.
The Rocky Mountain region, stretching all the way from the Canadian border to northern New Mexico, boasts fall foliage that rivals its stunning views. Because of its elevation, this region peaks earlier in the season, typically around the week of October 1st. Whether you hike or drive through, there’s an abundance of autumn beauty waiting for you in the Rockies.
Most people associate fall colors with the New England region, and rightfully so. The Northeast’s rolling green hills transform into a sea of reds, oranges, and yellows. And seeing historic covered bridges, barns, and cabins against this backdrop is a picture of pure Americana that evokes a Norman Rockwell painting.
According to National Weather Service data, the first half of October is the ideal time to take a fall vacation in New England. The northern section—Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine—start to peak around October 1st, while the states that lie a bit to the south—New York and Pennsylvania—really hit their stride during the week of October 8th. And the following week, October 15th, is typically when Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut really burst into full color.
There are a number of other outstanding destinations to consider for autumn trips too, including California—where you can drive along the coast, visit wineries during harvesting season, and enjoy spectacular national parks. Head down to New Orleans to experience the Big Easy without summer humidity, or check out autumn hues in the beautiful Great Smoky Mountains.
Or, take a trip overseas where you can enjoy fall colors and see the sites without the crowds of the summer season.