Heat domes, droughts, smoky skies, tropical deluges: After a record-breaking summer of extreme weather events, dare we dream of crisp nights, cozy sweaters and the colors of fall?
“This summer really was a chaotic mix of record wettest and record driest, and fall colors will reflect that,” said Austin Rempel, director of forest restoration at American Forests, a nonprofit forestry organization. The Northeast and parts of the northern Rockies and Southern California had extremely wet summers, while the Southwest had one of its driest on record, he said.
That stress can make trees lose their leaves earlier, but it can also make the leaf color “really pop,” said Tara L. Bal, a forestry professor at Michigan Tech. When leaves and trees are stressed, she explained, “the bright reds and oranges and yellows actually are stronger.”
Just how vivid those leaves are depends on the right combination of cool and dry fall weather starting in mid-September, when colors start to change in the West and Northeast, and through late October, when they are at their prime in the Midwest and the Southeast.
Here are five beautiful places to catch the leaves — and while you’re there, you can peek out of covered bridges, gaze up at waterfalls, ride a tramway or a train, or even try to spot a legendary Bigfoot-like creature known as the Grassman.
White Mountains Trail
Driving the White Mountains Trail, a 108-mile loop that winds through groves of gold birches, bronze beeches, and orange, yellow and red mountain maples, you may find yourself unable to resist stopping in the middle of a covered bridge to peek through the walls.
The Albany Covered Bridge, which crosses the rocky Swift River in the White Mountain National Forest near Conway, N.H., is one of 54 remaining covered bridges in the state. Built in 1858, it features a red roof and weathered brown walls with gaps that let the leaves peep at you.
This year, the peak fall colors along the loop are expected to begin at the end of this month and continue through the second week of October.
The byway also passes by the Mount Washington Cog Railway, built in 1869, which takes riders to the summit of 6,288-foot Mount Washington, offering a panorama of rocky slopes and changing leaves, until Oct. 9 (adults from $51). After that, trains run to lower stations.
The scenic loop begins at the White Mountains Visitor Center in North Woodstock.
Mount Greylock State Reservation
From the study at his farmhouse in Pittsfield, in western Massachusetts, Herman Melville gazed at 3,491-foot Mount Greylock, whose humped shape possibly inspired the white whale in “Moby-Dick.” When the trees on that hump start to change, it becomes more of a gloriously mottled whale.
The mountain’s colors typically peak in early to mid-October, with golds, bright oranges and vivid reds, mainly from tamarack, striped maple and yellow birch. The wet summer may lead to some spotting and discoloration on some leaves, said Nicole Keleher, the director of forest health for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, but she predicted a wide variety of colors overall.
For the best views, drive up Mount Greylock on Rockwell Road, which winds up to the summit, bordered by a thick forest and some overlooks, and stays open until Nov. 1.
At the top, the Veterans War Memorial Tower, a 93-foot lighthouse-shaped granite needle, invites visitors to climb its spiral staircase to a small circular chamber. From eight observation windows there, you can see up to 90 miles away on clear days.
The Overlook Trail, a 2.5-mile loop along the summit ridge, is a favorite of Mrs. Keleher. The trail, which starts near the tower and cuts through dense forest, features an overlook with views of the park and, hidden among the trees, a picturesque pond with an old wooden hut.
Cibola National Forest and Grasslands
The 1.9-million-acre Cibola National Forest and Grasslands includes four “sky islands,” where the golden aspen trees usually steal the show starting in late September. This year, though, they’ll have competition with the Oct. 14 annular solar eclipse, which will be visible over the Sandia Mountains, near Albuquerque.
Typically, peak fall foliage at Cibola lasts through mid-October, said Kerry Jones, a local meteorologist for the U.S. Forest Service. But a drought this summer might delay the peak by a few weeks, giving visitors a little more time to catch the oranges of Gambel oak, yellows of New Mexico locust and those gleaming aspens.
The 2.7-mile Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway, at the northeastern edge of Albuquerque, whisks visitors up rocky cliffs and past mountain peaks sprinkled with reds and yellows, crossing craggy Domingo Baca Canyon on its way to the 10,378-foot summit (adults, $33).
The Sandia Mountains are sacred to many Indigenous groups in the area. Get a taste of the Native history with a visit to the Sandia Man Cave, where researchers have found artifacts and animal remains thought to date as far back as 23,000 B.C. The hike, which leads across a valley overlooking a forest, then along the ledge of limestone cliffs and up a spiral staircase to the cave’s entrance, is about a mile round-trip from the parking lot.
Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest
The Russell-Brasstown National Scenic Byway, a 40-mile loop through the nearly 867,000-acre Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, winds through mountains drenched in the yellows of tulip poplars, the crimsons of dogwood, and the scarlets and purples of maples — with most expected to peak the week of Oct. 24, said Steven Bekkerus, a public affairs officer for the forest.
Deep in those woods, you’ll find two waterfalls to complement the autumn palette.
The 0.8-mile round-trip path to Anna Ruby Falls cuts through a dense forest, crossing rustic bridges, to reach a wooden platform below two waterfalls framed by trees and shrubs. The taller one plunges 153 feet, while the smaller drops 50 feet.
Not far away, a different trail leads to the Dukes Creek Falls, a 150-foot multitiered cascade dotted with boulders. The roughly two-mile round-trip hike descends along a mossy stream to viewing platforms below the falls.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, stop for schnitzel in Helen, a small German-themed town that takes its architectural cues from a Bavarian hamlet.
The scenic byway has no official starting point, but you might begin at the Brasstown Bald Visitor Center, at the summit of 4,784-foot Brasstown Bald, where a 360-degree view will reveal a tableau of the Blue Ridge Mountains turned purple, orange and yellow.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
From a vintage rail car on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, the reds and golds of Cuyahoga Valley, Ohio’s only national park, roll by — and if you see a shadow darting among the trees, it could be the Ohio Grassman, also known as the eastern Bigfoot, a creature reputed to reside in the woods there.
The colors, which peak in mid- to late October, “range from brilliant reds of the sugar maples to the deep browns of the white oaks,” said Pamela Barnes, a public information officer at the park, which is just south of Cleveland.
The railroad’s National Park Scenic Excursion (adults from $19, plus fees) follows the Cuyahoga River on a 90-minute journey through dense woods, which pop with color through Halloween.
Elsewhere in the park, the 60-foot, foliage-framed Brandywine Falls is the starting point for the Brandywine Gorge Loop, a 1.5-mile hike that skirts ravines as it follows Brandywine Creek.
As the trail loops around, it crosses a footbridge over the creek. Stand still on the bridge and focus on the gurgling water, the leaves whispering in the wind, and the red, gold and brown trees shining in the sun. Now, take a mental picture you can hold on to when winter comes.
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