Finding Fall Foliage

Fall foliage at Glade Creek Grist Mill, Babcock State Park, WV.
Glade Creek Grist Mill, Babcock State Park, WV.

Story & photo by Frank Gallagher

Welcome to October and to (we hope) the brilliant colors of fall foliage. If you’re like many photographers, this is a favorite time of year. The vibrant hues of the leaves make for beautiful landscapes, intimate scenes, still lives and macros. If you live in Vermont or Jackson Hole, maybe you can just look out the window to predict color but, for the rest of us who have to travel to find it, how can we plan our photo outings to capture peak color?

There are hundreds of ways of finding good photo locations that photographers use all the time. However, timing your trip for peak color is always a bit of a guessing game. Traditionally, the mid-Atlantic area where I live peaks in mid to late October, but the peak can come weeks earlier or later. Now, just as we have tools to follow bird or monarch butterfly migrations, we have a lot of digital tools that can help us plan for peak color, whether that’s a trip across town or across the country.

The Great Smokey Mountains Fall Foliage Prediction Map is a boon to leaf peepers.
The Great Smokey Mountains Fall Foliage Prediction Map is a boon to leaf peepers.

Great Smokey Mountains National Park maintains a fall foliage map that gives week-by-week predictions of fall color across the US. The map is refreshed each year and updated regularly throughout Autumn as conditions change. Some friends and I used it extensively in planning a trip to West Virginia last year. It helped us narrow down which weeks might give us the best chance of seeing great color.

I keep up with conditions closer to home through Maryland's Department of Natural Resources.
I keep up with conditions closer to home through Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources.

I live in Maryland and my state’s Department of Natural Resources tracks fall foliage. I signed up for a weekly email newsletter with current conditions, as well as a list of fall festivals and other activities that might provide some interesting and unusual photo opportunities. The DNR also posts the foliage report on its website. A number of other states share similar information.  New Jersey State Parks, Forests & Historic Sites Facebook page tracks fall foliage, as does the state’s Department of Parks and Forests. Vermont, where fall foliage is very big business for the tourist trade, collects reports from around the state, as well as posting foliage maps on a tourism website. Whether staying home or traveling, check the appropriate state’s tourist boards, parks or natural resources agencies for fall foliage information.

You can get even more granular by looking for Twitter hashtags and social media groups dedicated watching fall foliage in a specific area or for specific parks. For example, Shenandoah National Park posts weekly photos from several points in the park to each of its social media accounts, has a “fall color webcam,” and does a weekly live stream on their Facebook page with updates and tips. Search Twitter or Instagram for #fallfoliage and any location and you’ll get an up-to-the minute feed. You can even look for photography Meetup groups near your chosen location and see when they’re planning fall foliage outings.

New Jersey State Parks, Forests & Historic Sites Facebook page tracks fall foliage.
New Jersey State Parks, Forests & Historic Sites Facebook page tracks fall foliage.

Even with all the panning tools, nothing is foolproof. It’s helpful to know what conditions generally precipitate the leaves changing color. Sometimes local temperatures, seasonal moisture or even day length can influence the timing of peak color. The US Forest Service has a webpage dedicated to all things fall foliage that includes a description of the science of autumn colors. Last year, because of unusual weather and soil moisture conditions, the mid-Atlantic peak kept getting pushed back and wasn’t as colorful as most years. Checking these situations for the location you want to photograph can give you a sense of whether the peak is likely to be delayed or advanced, vibrant or dull.

There are no guarantees but, if you have a little flexibility, the planning tools we have available today can really help you zero in on the best chances for great fall color.