Look Out, Leaf Peepers Are Coming!
Leaves provide the earthy scents, rustling sounds, and brilliant colors that define the fall season, and nobody appreciates this marked change of seasons as much as leaf peepers. Every autumn, rural towns across the country are visited by thousands of travelers, anxious to experience and photograph the majestic transformation of foliage from green to bright yellow, orange, red, and all colors in between. These (often city-dwelling) tourists are known as leaf peepers.
One of the best things about leaf peeping is that one doesn’t necessarily need to travel far to witness the spectacle. A walk through a local park or even just around the neighborhood promises colorful sights, as long as the timing is right. Peak viewing times vary by location and are affected by daylight hours, elevation, rainfall, temperature, and a variety of other factors.
Let’s take a step back for a minute and examine why leaves change color each fall. Anyone that’s gone through primary school or paid attention in high school science classes may be familiar with photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process by which plants convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into oxygen and energy. Another word you may remember from your science classes is chlorophyll, which is a vital molecule in photosynthesis. Chlorophyll is important for helping plants absorb nutrients and create oxygen. As the days become shorter, trees prepare to go into dormancy for the winter and the chlorophyll, which gives leaves their green color, begins to break down. When this happens, the other colors in the leaves, which are always there but not visible, begin to appear.
Now, when and where to observe the emergence of these new colors are questions leaf peepers begin exploring months in advance. As fall approaches each year, natural resource agencies and various news sources begin sharing reports of peak fall foliage times for different regions across the country. Take a look at this map of the US, which was created for the 2014 leaf peeping season
Shortened daylight hours are not the only determining factor of when leaves will change color. In 2017, unseasonably warm temperatures have delayed color change. This was apparent in my recent visit to Cooper’s Rock State Forest in West Virginia, an area which in 2014 would have been flooded with bright autumn colors by late September. This year, however, the forest is still green in mid-October. Ideal conditions for bright leaf colors are clear, sunny days and chilly (but not freezing) nights.
There’s still time to take in spectacular views no matter where you are in the country. Just don’t wait too long. Once they arrive, the fall colors are only here for a short time. Happy leaf peeping!