The striking array of brilliant colors that graces temperate areas of the world during autumn is really nothing more than the side effect of deciduous trees preparing for their winter’s sleep. Summer’s green leaves are filled with chlorophyll, a crucial ingredient in photosynthesis (the process plants use to transform sunlight, soil, and water into sugars).
Fall’s lengthening nights signal to trees that winter is on its way and that they should begin to shift from active sugar production to passive protection of their sugar stores. The vibrant oranges, reds and yellows of fall appear as chlorophyll drains from leaves, allowing underlying carotenoids and anthocyanins to show. (Carotenoids are found in yellow, orange and brown plants; they give color to bananas, rutabagas, and butter cups. Anthocyanins are responsible for the color found in concord grapes, blueberries, cherries, plumbs, and strawberries.)
While the rational mind may delight in understanding the science behind fall’s colors, most lovers of fall colors are simply looking for visually induced pleasure. As with any activity, you will enjoy more success if you carefully plan your trip to see the amazing display of autumn leaves. The tips listed below will help you take in the stunning colors of fall.
When to Go
Most people aim to see the fall colors at their peak. A number of variables contribute to the timing of the changing leaves. Different species naturally change color at different times; oaks, for instance, are always some of the last trees to shift.
However, keeping a careful eye on the weather can help you find a spectacular time for viewing the fall colors. Watch for a pattern of warm, sunny days with cool but not freezing nights. Soil and water conditions also impact the brilliance of the autumn display. The ideal year for fall leaves will have a warm, wet spring; typically hot summer weather; and warm, sunny fall days with cool nights.
Finally, keep in mind that geographic location factors into autumnal shift; northern areas and high-altitude zones generally see changing colors earliest, often in September. Trees farther south will change their colors later. For instance, the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee usually enjoy brilliant fall colors in November.
Activities to Enjoy
Consider creating a memento of your autumn adventures. Painting enthusiasts can bring their palette and easel to set up a studio en plein air. Photographers should definitely bring their cameras. An easy fall craft for families is to gather fall leaves, bring them home, and seal them between two layers of wax paper to create placemats. (You can use an iron to melt the top and bottom pieces of wax paper together.)
General Hiking Tips for Fall
If you choose to take in the beauty of fall while hiking in the woods, keep the following tips in mind:
Bring an LED flashlight. Remember, days are getting shorter, so it’s even more important now than in summer to have a source of light available. Always carry a headlamp or LED flashlight when hiking in the woods. Especially in the fall, hikers are inclined to forget that nightfall can arrive sooner than they may anticipate. Carrying an LED flashlight ensures that you will be able to light your way back on the trail should darkness fall unexpectedly. Furthermore, survival experts advise hikers to bring a headlamp or flashlight in case an incident occurs and they are forced to spend a night in the wilderness. A headlamp or LED flashlight will allow you to gather branches for a fire and for shelter; it will also bring you comfort and hope. (The human psyche is attuned to light as a symbol of safety.)
Carry a multi-tool. In addition to carrying an LED headlamp or flashlight, it’s wise to bring a multi-tool when hiking in autumn (or any time of the year, really). If you’ve ever watched wilderness reality shows such as “Man vs. Wild,” you can appreciate just how often a multi-tool can come in handy in a survival situation. From cutting wood for fires to preparing food, a multi-tool is like the MVP of survival – it can accomplish all sorts of tasks quickly and effectively. Without a multi-tool, surviving in the wild is much more challenging.
Carry extra food and water. Stomping through the woods in search of amazing fall colors can certainly stir a person’s appetite. Nothing is more enjoyable than a picnic on the trail – just be sure to bring a little more food than you think you’ll need. You’ll appreciate having the extra stash of trail mix or beef jerky if you’re forced to spend a night outdoors. Also remember to bring extra water for everyone in your party.
Wear layers. Fall’s weather can be deceptive; the heavy jacket you needed in the morning can easily become sweltering by afternoon. Wear several layers of clothing so you can quickly adjust to the ambient temperature.
Finally, remember that conditions can change quickly in the autumn. Especially in the mountains, a light drizzle can become a brutal snowstorm within minutes. Be prepared for anything, and carefully research the trail and weather conditions before leaving home for your autumn hike.
[Photo by: Jason Riedy]