As any self-respecting leaf peeper can tell you, timing is of the essence when planning a fall foliage getaway. Go too early or too late and you’ll miss the season’s most dazzling colors.
For a display of truly blockbuster color, the year has to unfold in a particular way. 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 needs to deliver sunny days and cold, crisp nights. Unfortunately, that’s not how 2022 has played out in many parts of the country, says Jim Salge, foliage expert at Yankee magazine.
In a number of regions, including much of southern New England, drought conditions will be the biggest factor in this year’s foliage display. “The wave of peak color will start in northern New England in late September as usual. After that, its southerly progression may slow or stall, leading to foliage color lingering into November in southern New England,” says Salge.
On a macro level, climate change is making weather patterns more anomalous, says Salge. The wet seasons are wetter, the dry seasons dryer, the hot seasons hotter and so on. And quietly, in the background, “our fall temperatures are on a long steady increase, especially in overnight lows. In September and October, overnight lows in New England have been warming steadily over the past decades, It’s rather significant, more than a degree or two,” he says.
The result is a slow change in when fall’s colors begin to show. “Our foliage accelerates quickly after the first couple of cool nights. And if those don’t occur until later, the foliage starts turning later. And we’ve seen that consistently over the 12 years that I’ve been doing this now. Until you get that shot of cold air, the colors don’t really kickstart.”
Here are Salge’s recommendations for U.S. destinations that will deliver the most sensational displays of color this year.
Showstoppers: Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, Northern New Hampshire, Maine’s Bigelow Range
When: late September to early October
“In northern New England, where the drought has had less impact — especially in the White Mountains, the Green Mountains, and the mountains of western Maine — we should see typical foliage conditions, which is to say the colors should be spectacular,” says Salge.
If he had to pick a favorite destination, Salge says you can’t go wrong with Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. “It’s just dotted with adorable, quintessential New England towns,” he says. “You get all of the nice foliage as well as people who sell baked goods on the side of the road and all that other great stuff.”
On the other hand, if you’re considering heading to Boston or Newport or coastal Connecticut, it’s going to be a lot harder to find those bright Kodachrome colors. In general, southern New England is harder to forecast this year “and the color will likely push late and or risk browning,” says Salge, a phenomenon that occurs in places that are abnormally dry. “In years like this, where the drought is reaching extreme and severe levels, the trees just start to shut down, especially in more urban areas, areas with thin soils, rock cliffs, forest edges, even the edges of golf courses. Instead of turning nice, bright foliage colors, the leaves just kind of crinkle up, turn brown and fall early.”
Salge says this is already happening in parts of southern New England. “As you get closer to the coast, and especially south toward the Boston-Providence area, it gets drier and drier. So even without that cold snap, the trees are showing signs of stress.”
Showstopper: Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
When: early October
Overall the region has seen little drought, and the spring and summer setup has been good for forest health. “We expect foliage will be bright and on time this season, if not a little early,” says Salge.
“This is a third year in a row that we’re in a La Nina pattern,” notes Salge.”The cooling of the waters off the Pacific can lead to a fairly active northern jetstream.” That can affect timing. Colors could also show a little early this year, Salge says, if cold fronts drop out of Canada a little earlier than normal.
When: mid September
In most of the Mountain West region, hot and dry summer conditions should push the show early and brief, predicts Salge.
The outlier is Colorado, which has had a wetter year. “Colorado has had some good rain and some good snowpack this year. We think the trees there are going to be the showstoppers of the Mountain West. The aspens are going to be good and they turn early, mid September up in the mountains of Colorado.”
Showstopper: Cascade Mountains
When: early October
After last year’s “horrendously anomalous” conditions in the Pacific Northwest — 100-degree days in Seattle, huge die-offs in trees and marine life — Salge says this year is downright normal.
“We expect that the forests are going to be healthy, resilient, and do the things they normally do,” says Salge, predicting that tamaracks — known as American larches — will be especially bright this year in the Enchantments, an area within the Alpine Lakes Wilderness area of Washington state’s Cascade Mountain Range.
Unlike most conifers, the American larch does not keep its needles year round. Each October, when fall comes to the high country, the needles change from green to glowing gold, creating a dazzling display before they drop from the tree.
Showstoppers: Adirondack Mountains, Catskill Mountains
When: early October
Salge anticipates a strong foliage season, especially in the Adirondacks and Catskills of New York, the highlands of Pennsylvania and in New Jersey. “It’s been relatively dry, but I think overall things are pretty healthy.”
Showstoppers: Blue Ridge Mountains, Great Smoky Mountains
When: mid to late October
“Expect a bright show, with peak colors perhaps happening a bit later than historical average time due to hot summer temperatures,” says Salge.