This Year's Fall Colors Will Be Stunning. Here's When & Where They'll Peak Near You
This map will help you plan a road trip to see the most beautiful fall colors anywhere in the country.
The first day of fall is Wednesday, September 22, and fall foliage probably makes you think of, well, fall. However, the leaves aren't going to wait for the official changing of seasons before swapping bright greens for the beautiful ruddy hues of autumn.
Peak leaf season isn't far off. If you're going to take a trip to see the leaves change colors, it's time to put together a plan. Every year, SmokyMountains.com puts together an interactive fall foliage forecast map, projecting when and where the leaves will change as summer slides into fall—and when and where they'll disappear as fall fades to winter. It's an essential guide to planning that fall road trip.
This year, the site says that some small parts of the country are already going to see leaves changing colors by Labor Day. It's not the majority of the US by any stretch, but it's not too far off for the rest of the country. That's just changes, though. It'll be mid-to-late-September before peak leaf season is truly arriving in parts of the contiguous US.
Of course, a forecast for the changing colors of leaves can't be 100% accurate. There are a lot of factors that come together in the SmokyMountains.com project. A heatwave or storm that strips trees of their leaves can cause a significant shift in the timing of when peak leaf season arrives. Still, the company has refined its process with a whole lot of data and experience.
"Similar to any meteorological forecast, leaf predictions will never be 100% accurate," says company founder and statistical expert David Angotti. "However, after publishing our predictive fall foliage map for nearly a decade, we are quite confident in our data sources, process, and algorithm. Our experience combined with a scheduled mid-season update has us especially confident about this year’s predictions. Our goal is that this data-based, interactive tool will increase the number of people that are able to enjoy peak fall in 2021."
The fall foliage forecast & prediction map for 2021
The 2021 map shows leaves changing in areas such as northern Minnesota, parts of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado, as early as Labor Day. But that's not going to be the peak viewing time. The first big swaths of peak leaf viewing don't arrive until around September 20 in many regions (see below).
By September 27, that has extended to a longer range around the Rockies, the Upper Midwest, and even into a little bit of the Northeast. You can see even more about your region by using the slider on the map above to change dates.
When & where peak foliage will arrive this fall
The fall colors aren't at their peak quite yet, but northern Minnesota, northern Colorado, and a chunk of southern Montana into northern Wyoming are all at "near peak," per the SmokyMountains.com map.
The "near peak" regions last week are all at "peak" by September 20. Lots of space around those areas is now "near peak," as are small areas in New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, and West Virginia.
Here's where things really get moving. Leaves are changing color all across the northern half of the contiguous US. Peak leaf season has come for parts of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, West Virginia, Vermont, and New Hampshire.
The peak region in the western part of the country continues to expand outward from the Rockies, hitting northern Arizona and bigger swaths of Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and even a little of South Dakota. You'll also see a ribbon of peak leaves running through the Upper Midwest, as well as more areas in the Northeast, where there had only been tiny spots of the peak color changes previously.
In the West and Midwest, we see the same trend from previous weeks. The "peak" region is expanding outward from the Rockies and hitting a little of Oregon and Washington and a small patch of California. In the Midwest, the peak region continues to move southward. Where things are really picking up is in the east. A strip through Virginia and North Carolina is expected to reach its peak colors this week. In the upper Northeast, there are patches of "peak" from Maine down into northern Pennsylvania.
Why do leaves turn red, orange, and yellow in the fall?
You probably don't remember this lesson from grade school science class. Before we get into why leaves turn red, yellow, orange, and brown, we have to start with why leaves are green. It all boils down to photosynthesis and chlorophyll.
In spring and summer, leaves appear green because of the millions of chlorophyll cells that are created during photosynthesis in the tree's chloroplasts, the organelles that carry out the process. Without all of that green chlorophyll, leaves would always look like they do in autumn.
The constant creation of chlorophyll throughout spring and summer gives trees and other plants their vivid green hues because it masks other compounds in the leaves that would otherwise make them appear yellow and orange. In other words, those are the leaves’ true colors. Photosynthesis slows down in the fall due to the significant decrease in sunlight trees receive, grinding the creation of chlorophyll to a halt. When the green recedes, it exposes the colorful compounds inside.
As the University of Vermont explains, each of the fall leaf colors comes from specific pigments: carotenoids and anthocyanins.
"'Carotenoids' are leaf pigments responsible for yellow and orange colors in leaves, particularly in fall. Think of orange, as in carrots. They are present during the season but masked by the green chlorophyll, except in plants that may be stressed or with yellow leaves normally," per the university. "… 'Anthocyanins' are the pigments responsible for red and purple fall leaf colors. These are only produced in the fall when sugars are trapped in the leaves. They function similar to the carotenoids, and help the leaf use up any remaining energy as chlorophyll disappears. Abundant dry weather and sunlight lead to more sugars in leaves, which in turn leads to brighter fall reds. More red in leaves, and earlier reds, can come about too from plant stresses, low nutrition, and near but not freezing temperatures."
Interestingly, the colors you see throughout fall also depend on the type of tree. Trees like beeches, hickories, tulip poplars, and birches have mainly yellow and orange fall leaves, while you’ll find red leaves on trees like sumacs, sweet gums, sourwoods, mountain ashes, scarlet oaks, red maples, and some sugar maples, according to UV.
OK, enough with the science lesson. Time to pack up your favorite flannels and venture into the woods to take in the crisp, natural beauty.