Finding peak fall foliage in New England

Just the sound of it “Finding Peak fall foliage” rolls off the tongue with images of cool, crisp mornings and red-orange maple trees against a back drop of dark green pine trees. Maybe you arrive at a perfectly still pond with the morning mist rising off the surface. The morning sun is coming over the hills behind you and the far shore is just catching the sun’s first rays. Then a solitary loon calls out in the mist with its soulful sound.

Can you find this scene on your own? Maybe but it takes a good bit of luck and planning and this article will talk about some of the many factors that will help you to make the dream a reality.

First… What is peak fall foliage?

Birch Pond in Saugus MA reflecting peak fall color

Peak autumn color reflecting in pond

 Here is my standard definition of what peak fall foliage is: Within line of sight and 360 degrees around you, every tree that can turn a color other than green, has. Also this means that few if any trees turned early so most of the leaves are on the trees and not under them.

This doesn’t happen very often and the norm is for ¼ of the trees to start turning a few weeks earlier than the rest.Then a majority will start to turn (maybe 50%) Lastly about 1/4 will start to turn. So when you get there, you may have a few trees will be bare and a few will be very late and still green, and hopefully the majority will be full leafed and colorful..

I’ll say it again… In the quest for peak fall foliage, this is the norm. Also you should know that when you get close to 75% or more of the trees turning color then you will be standing there with a big grin on your face… Why? Because Green is a great color and the fall colors of red and orange look great with a few evergreens as a backdrop for the reds, orange and golds.

If you don’t fixate on the term peak fall foliage and worry more about just having fun and exploring then you should have a great vacation. Remember, what is one persons peak color is another person’s not quite there yet color. (to each their own)

There is no objective standard to measure Peak but if you look at the image above and you feel that is a good representation of peak then you agree with me. If not you are on your own.. 🙂  All this article will do is give you the tools to have a good chance to find peak fall foliage.

Tip #1: Please follow my reports on this site or my twitter  page, then you can use the following definitions to gauge color progression. More images of New England fall foliage are on my Fine Art America fall foliage galleries.

The first two are the Green stage since 95% plus of the trees will be green where ever you look except for trees that meet the below criteria..

comparative study of fall foliage in Salem Woods most trees are green

compared to the rest of the trees that are all green except sumac tinging red

Stressed-color. (July to August) Injured trees or those suffering from insect infestation or some other cause. During late July or August will be those trees that give you whiplash as you dive down the road, thinking “it’s too early”.

Pre-color: (early – mid Sept) These are the swamp maples in marshy areas or up at the edge of Alpine zone where the temps are much lower in early Sept. What you might see are ribbons of color as you travel down the highway on the top of mountains or tall hills.

These are not the times I will recommend a leaf peeping drive. If you have a fair to go to (the big E) for instance then by all means hit the road and enjoy the single instances of color.

Next we start to get into real color.

view of nearby hills covered in early fall foliage colors

colors of autumn along Hazens notch in Vermont.

 Turning: this is where “most” of the trees in an area are showing “small” signs of color.  They will be showing between 10-35% of the tree turning.

From this point down is when I recommend you hit the road

Moderate color: This is very pleasing color in most everyone’s definition, where all trees in an area have started turning.  This means that IF a tree is going to turn, (not an evergreen) they have progressed up to 75% of the way towards turning to their fall colors.

Peak fall foliage on back road in Peabody MA

Road through peak fall foliage

Peak fall Foliage: This is what we wait for all year! 75%-100%  As far as the eye can see there is no green except for pine trees or trees that don’t turn color and just drop their leaves.  Please note: if your street is nothing but maples and everything is 100% flame red to orange but all the streets outside your neighborhood are green, you have a fluke and not true peak.

But! please send me an email so I can come photograph it! or post it on my New England fall foliage FaceBook page...


Fading – colorThis post Peak color is still pleasing where the reds and oranges pass to a less vibrant color and the trees in the distance will take on a pinkish or purplish hue. Mostly this is due to loss of leaves and the empty branches diffuse the color that was there only a day or two before.

Color-Gone! This is where I start to cry and relax at the same time. I’m now in my wind down mode. I will now go through a few thousand pictures between now and next summer when the urge to hit the road starts all over again.

road through fading fall foliage in peabody MA

two days later same road

Now the best news!!!
The above seven stages continue to happen all through New England starting in Vermont’s NEK (North East Kingdom)Northern New Hampshire and Northern Maine.

Once it starts in these areas it then starts in another area near by and if your lucky these areas will be next to each other. If not it may move like ripples in a pond after you throw a rock into the water. Now you also have to imagine a pond with lots of rocks and stumps. The ripples flow around the objects in their way leaving some spots untouched (for a while and then they catch up).

This is what happens to the changing colors. The colors ebb and flow around the hills of New England. In general the hills will develop first and at the same time the wetland maples (swamp maples) will turn about the same time. The temps are critical and you may have a soft frost in one valley and a killer frost just a mile away, both events affecting the trees in different ways.  So I want you to imagine throwing two more rocks and as those ripples move out they also send out the waves in all directions.

The Ebb and Flow of fall color development

Now look at a map of New England. The first rock “usually” falls in the North east kingdom and another rock falls a little later in Greenville Maine near Moosehead lake and still a few day later a third strikes near Sugar Hill New Hampshire and as the ripples proceed out the trees start to turn.

As the months of September and October progress, the ripples continue and other rocks start to drop further south and (I hate to say this) THERE IS NO RHYME OR REASON TO THIS! That’s right, maybe an area got cooler/warmer temps and another got more/less rain. All of these things contribute to the guessing game.

But! Every day is different and brings a new area towards peak color in an undulating tapestry of fall colors.

Every year is different!

First you must have a lot of luck, YES, luck, because I may go through an area on Wednesday and declare it at peak color and on Thursday the temps drop into the 20s and when you come through on Saturday all the colors have faded.  Now you’re cursing me and my declaration of peak.

I won’t say this scenario will or won’t happen but Mother Nature is fickle and with every outstanding foliage scene she gives us, she also just as quick to take it away.

Tip #2: Talk to your B&B owner or stop at the gas station and ask where they saw color on their drive into work that morning. I did that once and found out that the main road used to follow the river and it’s lined by trees… Think about the possibilities! Remember they see the color every day in their area so they are the experts to talk to.

Flexibility and zone planning
Tip #3: If possible stay flexible. This maximizes your odds in finding peak fall color. Don’t plan to be in the heart of color. plan to be a bit south of it so if it’s early you might be in the middle of it or maybe only a little north of it…

But Murphy’s law says you only have one weekend to go on vacation in October so you have to choose your location by that date.

I’ve posted some dates and locations for general planning purposes, so you can get an idea to work from. This is a guideline only and finding peak fall foliage based on these dates can be ignored if we have an early season or late, or an October rain/wind storm. (like in 2010, there were three of them I believe?)

24-25 Sept: Head way North for these dates. NEK (North East Kingdom) or Northern Maine near Mount Katahdin. This one is very tough to call and I will make a run to the NEK but seldom find peak color. It’s safer to come a week later.

1-2 Oct: This is usually a solid weekend in the NEK of Vermont, up in Lincoln NH and Greenville Maine and points north. And sometimes, as far south as Barre VT, Sugar hill NH and central ME. (It depends on the season)

8-10 Oct: CDW (Columbus Day Weekend).  There is a reason I call CDW the sweet spot for peak fall foliage viewing. This particular week will usually find the greatest latitude for great color. You should find peak fall foliage from the Green Mountains of VT (Stowe, route 100) South to Manchester VT.  From the White Mountains (route 112 the Kancamagus highway) and if lucky, south to southern New Hampshire’s border. In Maine the color could be north of I-95. Also in western Massachusetts the Berkshire’s and the Mohawk trail at the higher elevations.

15-16 Oct: Mid to southern VT/NH/and ME and now you can add in most of Massachusetts and northern CT and RI

22-23 Oct: The color is southern VT/NH/ME will be still be pleasing but it will be more of a fading nature. The coastal areas of NH and ME should be showing good color. The color in Massachusetts will be peak in certain areas but will be leaning towards trees with most of their leaves on the ground.

All Content was created by Jeff “Foliage” Folger My dates and info here is based on my years of searching for fall color in New England. Every year will be different but I will try to help you come up with a reasonable expectation of finding good if not “Peak fall Foliage Color”.

Jeff "Foliage" Folger  You can purchase images by visiting my Fine Art Gallery websites
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Jeff Foliage

My name is Jeff Folger,
but people call me Jeff Foliage.
I have several pages that I write blogs for such as:
My most popular blog is for Leaf peepers: Jeff
I live in Salem, Massachusetts and work as a blogger and Travel Photographer. I'm also the founder of the New England Photography Guild.
Feel free to visit me on my blogs and see what life in New England is like.

I started with Yankee Magazine as their first blogger on everything fall foliage. Now I blog on my own blog on my favorite subject, telling leaf peepers where the fall foliage is showing up in New England and helping them (to some extent) plan their fall foliage vacations.
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Finding peak fall foliage in New England — 5 Comments

  1. Great Site! Full of info, with the exception of what I’m looking for specifically. Are there places to camp along the way, and if so, do they fill up well in advance? We travel with our dog, who is blind. We have a small camper which allows for the dog to be in a familiar place if we leave during the day. Our plans are to find a “route” that would be great viewing and also to find accommodations along the way. We realize we will be limited but would appreciate your recommendations for a few different routes we might try. Thanks!

    • Great suggestion for an article… but for now it will depend on your dates. Many places close in early to mid Oct. I stayed in a nice place in 1-4 Oct near Conway NH and then in the same trip we went to a place near Woodstock Quechee VT (4-7)… But I will try to find the names this week. Lisa and I were in a 25′ fifth wheel… (I miss that and my truck… but that’s another story)… 🙂

      If you’ve been camping/RVing for a while you know Woodalls which can be a good place to start and of course look at KOA’s From there I would use them to build an itinerary around the camping spots. Maybe in 25-29 Sept in northern VT then 30-3 Oct in the White mountains and then back into VT for 4-7 Oct around Woodstock VT… Something like that and then see what place are open about those times… Your dates may be different…

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