A Complete Fall Color and Autumn Leaf Viewing Guide

Enhancing Your Autumn Leaf and Fall Tree Viewing

Beartown Entrance
Beartown Entrance. Photo by Steve Nix, Licensed to About.com

One of nature's grandest color displays -- the autumn tree leaf color change -- will develop as early as mid-September in the northern latitudes of North America. This annual autumn tree leaf change will manifest itself in living fall color through most of October, then wane toward the end of November in the southern part of the United States. You will have at least two months of quality autumn leaf viewing somewhere in North America.

The best part about viewing the fall color is, it won't cost one red cent to enjoy!

Let me qualify that. Fall color viewing will not cost anything if you are lucky enough to live in or near a deciduous forest or have trees in your yard that express fall color. All others better get ready to pay for the experience. City escapees spend over one billion dollars each season looking at what many consider the splashiest show in nature. Autumn leaf viewing is a major vacation attraction - especially throughout New England, the central Northwoods and the Appalachian Mountains of the Eastern United States.

Here are ten of the best fall leaf viewing trips you can make: 10 Best Places to See Fall Color in North American Forests

No forestry site would be complete without some mention of the October tree viewing pilgrimage - and how people can better enjoy viewing the autumn foliage. I've developed this quick leaf-viewing reference that includes some basic tree leaf science and leaf viewing tips.

You will find enough information here to enhance your next autumn leaf viewing trip. Use this guide as a starting point for your next leaf-viewing vacation.

Starting Tips for Viewing Leaves

(1) Review the most beautiful trees naturally on display during fall leaf viewing season - Photos of the Most Colorful Tree Species and A Gallery of Common Trees in Autumn

(2) Review these leaf silhouettes of common tree species - Identify a Tree by Leaf Silhouette

(3) Get a recommended field guide to enhance the trip - Top Fall Color Tree Resources and Field Guides and Top North American Tree Identification Field Guides

(4) Learn how to organize, build and display an autumn leaf collection - Making a Tree Leaf Collection and Building a Leaf Press

(5) Use this field guide and key to identify an autumn leaf by tree species - A Field Guide for Identifying Hardwood Trees and Tree Leaf Finder

Read More >>>The Science of Leaf Change

Fall Leaf Color Change - The Fall Color Wave Process

Fall leaf color change starts very subtly late in September and early October in temperate North America. Trees respond to such factors as autumn drying conditions, temperature change, altered sun position, and light. It takes approximately two weeks to begin and complete the fall color change so timing and a little luck are essential for the "perfect" view.

Fall color change and flow takes place as three primary waves in mixed hardwood forests. A simple flow and wave model was designed at the University of Georgia to illustrate what leaf experts call the fall color wave. This Leaf Wave Model is used to explain the movement of autumn leaf color change.


Autumn Leaf Color Change, The Anatomy of a Fall Leaf

The major factor influencing autumn leaf color change is the lack of water. Not a lack of water to the entire tree, but a purposeful weaning of water from each leaf. Every leaf is affected by colder, drier, and breezy conditions and begins a process which results in its own demise and removal from the tree. The ultimate sacrifice of a leaf-bearing tree is the ultimate in visual pleasure for us.

The broadleaf tree goes through a process of sealing off the leaves from the stem (called abscission). This halts the flow of all internal water to the leaf and causes a color change.

It also seals the spot of leaf attachment and prevents precious moisture from escaping during winter dormancy. You just might want to view An Autumn Leaf Cross Section for more graphic details.


Fall Leaf Color Change Follows a Predictable Process of Chemical Leaf Change

This lack of water to each leaf causes a very important chemical reaction to stop.

Photosynthesis, or the food-producing combination of sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide, is eliminated. Chlorophyll must be renewed (by photosynthesis) or be taken in by the tree along with photosynthetic sugar. Thus chlorophyll disappears from the leaves. Chlorophyll is the green you see in the leaf.

Once the overwhelming chlorophyll color is removed, true leaf colors will dominate over the receding green pigment. True leaf pigments vary with the species of tree and thus the different characteristic leaf colors. And because true leaf colors are water soluble, that makes the color disappear very quickly after drying out.

Carotene (the pigment found in carrots and corn) causes maples, birches, and poplars to turn yellow. The brilliant reds and oranges in this fall landscape are due to anthocyanins. Tannins give the oak a distinctively brown color and is the final persistent color most leaves turn before becoming part of the forest floor. Review Leaf Color by Tree Species.


View a Time-lapse Video of the Fall Leaf Color Change

The Virginia Tech Dendrology department has two fascinating time-lapse films, one on a leaf turning color and one on a forest turning into autumn gold. Watch these two films to see what my words soinadequately describe.


  • Time-lapse movie of a leaf changing color
  • Time-lapse movie of a forest changing color

OK, with science out of the way, on to "where can I find out about this years leaf season".

Read More>>>Viewing the Autumn Leaves

Fall Leaf Color Change - Leaf Change Predictors

University of Georgia silvics professor, Dr. Kim Coder, suggests there are ways to you can predict how beautiful a fall leaf color display will be. These simple predictors use known information and applies some common sense to forecast a season with surprising accuracy. By reviewing Dr. Coder's key predictors, you will increase your chances of seeing the best leaves at just the right time. Review Predicting Fall Color Displays .


The Fall Color Hotline

Probably one of the best resource available online for leaf viewing information is the National Forest Fall Foliage Hotline. I try to maintain an annual update on the site with available phone numbers. Don't expect to find up to date information until late September of the current leaf season.

This federal phone hotline offers you information on viewing leaves in and around the U.S. National Forests and Parks. It is brought to you by the USDA Forest Service and is updated every year to reflect changing conditions and new sites. For more information and a link to the USFS Hotline review USFS National Forest Fall Foliage Hotline.


The Fall Color Webcams

View The Changing Leaves on Web Cams
The view of changing leaves is well documented by a collection of web cams I have found that cover all of North America. This site is designed to help you see foliage coloration directly from "live" cameras in strategic scenic locations. Work your way south from Banff, Alberta through Glacier National Park over to Acadia National Park, Maine and down to The Great Smoky Mountain National Park. To see in "real time" the turning of the leaves, visit my Best Fall Forest Web Cams .

Again, don't forget the best places for viewing leaves in North America: 10 Best Places to See Fall Color in North American Forests

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Your Citation
Nix, Steve. "A Complete Fall Color and Autumn Leaf Viewing Guide." ThoughtCo, Apr. 11, 2016, thoughtco.com/complete-fall-color-leaf-viewing-guide-1341607. Nix, Steve. (2016, April 11). A Complete Fall Color and Autumn Leaf Viewing Guide. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/complete-fall-color-leaf-viewing-guide-1341607 Nix, Steve. "A Complete Fall Color and Autumn Leaf Viewing Guide." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/complete-fall-color-leaf-viewing-guide-1341607 (accessed January 17, 2018).