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Fall Foliage: The “Best” Time?

Red Jack Lake; Hiawatha NF; Michigan U.P.
Copyright 2012 Andy Richards

This time of year, some of us get “antsy” about the progress and success of leaf turning, weather, and in general, the logistics of getting on to great fall imagery.  A number of basically dormant internet sites during the remainder of the year suddenly heat up.  Some “old friends” show up.

Every year, there are a number of new joiners to some of the sites.  Some are looking just for “leaf peeping” and travel advice.  Others are seeking information about photography.  Where to goWhen to go. What to expectLodging. TrafficWeather.  There are so many questions.  And predictably, they are generally the same questions from year to year.

Whitefish FallsMichigan U.P.
Copyright Andy Richards 2007

I often jump in and answer the questions.   But I am “that guy.”  No short, definitive answers here. 🙂 A question on a Facebook page earlier this week prompted me to think about this blog.  So I thought I would do some “Q&A.”

Predictably, they are generally the same questions from year to year.

The question I see most often asked is:  When is the best time to go to a destination for “peak” foliage?  The short answer is:  when the foliage is at its peak 🙂 .  Right.  Thanks for the help. 🙂

The thing is, there is no really good, concise answer to this question.  There are many variables. Perhaps the first is: what do you mean by “peak”?  There are different views about that.  One of my favorite (and best-selling images) was made in the Michigan Upper Peninsula years back on a pretty disappointing trip in terms of the “wash” of color we expect to see this time of year.  While the image below, of the Presque Isle River, as it leaves the iconic “Lake of the Clouds,” is arguably not even close to “peak” fall color, the contrast the early color present is pretty dramatic and pleasing.  Likewise, the Whitefish Falls image was shot during a period well past peak.  I excluded foliage that showed evidence of significant leaf drop.  But the colored leaves in the water made for pleasing color, and suggested “fall.”

Presque Isle River, Porcupine Mountain State Park; Michigan U.P.
Copyright 1997 Andy Richards

Perhaps the real point is that you can find some pretty nice opportunities and views without being on destination at exactly the “right” time.  I spent a number of years of my youth in Vermont, working and later attending college.  I remember some pretty spectacular color shows.  Yet when I travel back there, it seems like hard work to find some of those scenes.  When I lived there, I was (obviously) there every day and could see things develop and take advantage of the “peak” times – when they occurred.  In 2012, I guided a photo-workshop in the Michigan U.P., for a pro that I got to know from Pennsylvania, and for perhaps the first time in many years, arrived when the “show” was pretty well under way and watched it develop to peak and then a bit past peak.  The opening image of Red Jack Lake is – arguably – at “peak.”  But again, “peak” will be different things to different observers.


The question I see most often asked is:  When is the best time to go to a destination for “peak” foliage?  The short answer is:  when the foliage is at its peak 🙂 .  Right.  Thanks for the help. 🙂

The best time for fall foliage is very much environmentally driven.  Weather is the biggest factor.  And weather – despite the irony that there are people who make their living “predicting” it – is nothing if not unpredictable.  There needs to be enough moisture through the late months of summer and early autumn to keep the leaves green and healthy.  A very dry “runup” period is a recipe for dull color and early leaf drop.  Then, the conditions during the generally brief window of time when they begin to change to the point where they drop is equally critical.  Cooler temperatures, particularly at night (think frost), is what will kickstart the color change.  Wind and heavy rain can also be the death knell for fall foliage viewing and photography.  Obviously, the timing of this can be only very generally predicted.

Transient Light Photography Workshop; October, 2012
Copyright 2012 Andy Richards

There are numerous other factors to consider.  Disease and predators can create negative conditions.  Over the years, I have noted a shift from the very bright reds produced predominately by Maple trees in Vermont, to more of an orange, yellow and brown mix.  Part of this is because of some blight and leaf cutters that have attacked mainly Maple trees, and caused damage and early drop of those species.

Geography and topography can also make their mark.  Generally, higher elevations experience “turn” sooner than lower elevations.  Areas that are in the lee of significant bodies of water will generally experience later color change than areas more inland.  This is almost always evident in the area of Vermont on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain, and on the west coast of Michigan, and on the peninsulas that cover the Great Lakes.  Some of the northernmost parts of the U.P. often turn weeks later than other areas further south and inland.

So, while we can try to plan for the “best” time for our visit, there is going to be a significant element of chance.

Photographing Vermont’s Fall Foliage; 2nd Ed.
Copyright 2017; Andy Richards and Carol Smith

Planning is still important and getting as much useful information about a planned destination as possible will help manage expectations.  There are a number of resources, mostly on-line, that are useful, including local weather pages, and foliage progression charts.

While I am admittedly biased 🙂 , I think that perhaps the single best resources for fall photography are my own eBooks. Photographing Vermont’s Fall Foliage; now in its second edition, and co-written by my good friend and talented photographer, Carol Smith.  We have illustrative photographs and detailed directions and relevant information about many great foliage-viewing and photographic spots throughout the state of Vermont.

Photographing Michigan’s U.P., co-written by another friend and talented photographer and writer, Kerry Leibowitz, does pretty much the same thing for Michigan’s vaunted “Upper Peninsula” (which I will argue, rivals New England for fall foliage viewing and photography).

Photographing the U.P. eBook
Copyright 2016 Andy Richards and Kerry Leibowitz

THE Photographer’s Guide To Minnesota’s North Shore, written by another very good friend, Al Utzig, another talented photographer, writer and teacher (who I also met on the SOV forum originally), gives a pretty thorough account of photographic opportunities on Minnesota’s North Shore, along the Lake Superior shoreline.  This area is also not lacking in great fall foliage opportunities.

Some years back, while researching a fall trip to Vermont, I stumbled on the Scenes of Vermont Forums.  This site is a wonderful resource for visitors to Vermont, and to some extent, all of New England; particularly in the fall.  I soon became friends with the proprietor of the site, became a moderator, and even talked him into adding a photo forum.  Unfortunately, these stand-along forums have become less popular due to the dominance of social media sites like Facebook.  But one of the things it does better than any other is to provide “boots-on-the-ground” information during the short and unpredictable foliage season.  I highly recommend a trip there.

A good friend (we met on the Scenes of Vermont forums), Margy Meath, yet another talented photographer, also has a very good Facebook Page; Vermont Foliage Fanatics, which has a number of “cross-over” members from SOV.  If you are a Facebooker, I recommend checking that out.

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