New England Fall Foliage » Foliage Articles » Zone planning for fall foliage
Fall foliage forecast for Dixville Notch in late September

How to plan for where the fall colors may show-Zone Planning

Zone Planning is a simple idea and is more reliable when you compare it to timing the peak fall foliage. It doesn’t matter where you or I “THINK” Peak fall foliage may show up as Mother Nature usually has other plans. I choose a “Zone” or area on the map that I think will be near to the middle of the wave of fall color.banner of dixville notch for zone planning

If you look on the map below that came from my friends at Yankee Magazine, you can see this big “wave” of red indicating that inside that area it should be Peak. Well I hate to break it to you, but the way it usually happens is that a bunch of trees in that area are very likely to be at peak but never! will every tree in the red zone, be actually, AT PEAK! Disappointed? read on below

Foliage map

Foliage map courtesy of Yankee’s foliage website

Your SHOULD say to yourself,  “I’m not trying to arrive at peak!” (No, I’m not crazy). But instead by Zone Planning you will say that on 1 October “I’m going to find lodging where I think… Think the leading edge of the fall colors will be”.

How is this different from searching for the elusive peak?

This is a game of hand grenades and not darts where a near miss is as good as a bulls-eye. People often tell me that on 1-2 October, “I want to find Peak”. Instead what I tell them is be in an area that in the past “should” be close.

Stowe church set against fall colors to help with zone planning

Stowe church set against fall colors caught nearly at peak

What if you are like me, a photographer and you have to be in Stowe (or name your place) when it’s at Peak! Well you’re back to timing it, and in over 10 years, I’ve not caught Stowe at what I felt was peak. I’ve caught it good as seen to the right but is it peak? I see green trees so by MY definition, not really. Would you be happy with this? I am and I bet you would too, so set your clock for 2 October and you may get close in 2015!

So, what happens if you “guess” wrong as to where the leading edge is. By aiming to be close, then you should only have a little drive to find great color.

If we have a year like 2011 where the start of the season was delayed until Columbus Day weekend, then nothing I tell you will help.

But in a good year, you should only have to drive 30-40 minutes to find good color.  If I get within a 30 minute drive of finding peak, I consider myself fully successful! Some days I drive for 12+ hours or more and don’t find anything closely resembling peak autumn colors.

But as I hear in the blog comments you’re impressed with my photography, (Thank You, by the way). But some years I only find “Nice” color. So if you think, because I live here, I find peak every year, well you’d be wrong!

I usually find very nice colors or a new scenic location that I haven’t seen before and I’m pretty happy with that. Remember anything over 50% of the trees in an area turning colors are “very nice“. I’m betting “very nice” would make you “very happy” all the same.

So if we use Zone planning and we get within 30 minutes drive time (or an hour) of the leading edge of color OR the trailing edge of fall color, what now?

Refer back to the map above for a second

Exploring is the name of the game. The dates associated with that map are the 7th and 8th of October. As I look at the map I see that the Kancamagus (Kanc) Highway should be in the “peak” zone. But I know from recent years The “Kanc” is looking pretty good on the 1st of Oct! Will it still be looking good a week later? Probably and here’s why.

You see, if you drive the “Kanc” over enough years, you learn a trick. The “Kanc” is mostly an East/West running road and the Western side of the hills turn earlier! So on the 1st/2nd, I travel from Lincoln eastward to view the western side of the hills. The next week I’ll drive it from Tamworth, west, to get views of the Eastern side of the hills. One side turns earlier than the other…

View of Sugar Hill covered in blazing sugar maples all in red as seen from Kinsman Notch

View of Sugar Hill from Kinsman Notch

I hate to say it but It matters that much! Over in New Hampshire’s Sugar Hill area you could be driving Route 116 North toward Sugar Hill road and then get off on Toad Hill rd. There is a 2,000′ hill abutted by Toad Hill, Lafayette and Easton Rd. (it may be called Ore Hill).

But as you drive these three roads you will get three different views of this hill and the sun hits this 2,000′ hill at different angles AND for different lengths of time each day. so the western side from Easton Rd, will receive a certain amount of sun while the Eastern side from Toad Hill a different amount. Add in rain fall variations and soil makeup and you come away with a headache trying to figure out why one side of this hill is blazing red from all the sugar maples and the other side is maybe 35% – 50% towards fully turning…

(look at the image above, under the lifting clouds. That’s a hill ALL in red).

How do we win at this game?

First we talk to local people and get, “on the ground intelligence” from folks who live and work in that area. They will know whether it’s arrived and gone by or if it hasn’t shown up yet.

If I get to my B&B and they say you should have been here 2 days ago!!! (How many times have I heard that) Well this means you start looking south (or SE or SW) for finding your fall colors.

If you get there and they say the color just hasn’t shown up yet, well tomorrow morning, head North by NE or NW.

If you are really lucky the owner/shopkeeper/waitress will tell you, “tomorrow is the day and the colors are the best seen in decades…” (In this case, if you hear that call me ASAP! 🙂

So these are my take a ways from Zone Planning.

Escape today
  • First, you don’t aim for the bulls-eye of peak fall foliage, because we usually miss. Instead, you throw that dart and you do your happy dance with a near-miss.
  • Because a short drive to being in the thick of it is so much better of putting all your hopes on being in the bulls-eye, only to hear, “You should have seen it a week ago!” 🙂

Does this mean Zone Planning is a 100% full proof answer? Unfortunately not, but I think it gives you a higher chance of success, rather than driving for days. Of course if we get weeks of rain before your arrival… Well then, read my posts on what to do if the color doesn’t show up. (besides cry that is).

Jeff "Foliage" Folger  You can purchase images by visiting my Fine Art Gallery websites
Subscribe to my Newsletter - If you would like to sign up for my Fine Art America Newsletter (click this link and a window will open allowing you to sign up). Why sign up for the newsletter? Contests, discount codes on my artwork, maybe an excerpt from my book "Exploring the back roads of New England with Jeff Foliage"... Yes you heard me right... (Damn now I have to start writing it!)
share this

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.
share this

Latest posts by Jeff Foliage (see all)


Zone planning for fall foliage — 6 Comments

  1. We booked our B&B’s in April and in doing so came across your blog. From California- 9/27/15-10/7/15 … flying into Boston then Quechee, VT, Jackson, NH, Orguquist, ME and then a couple days back in Boston! I enjoy reading all you have to say. In fact I open your mail before any other when it appears in my inbox! It is fascinating to me that mother nature is so magical and has such a flip of the coin approach when it comes to fall foliage colors. I am a planner when it comes to travel and will continue to plan fun sights to see over our 10 day trip and hope we are somewhere in New England at the “peak time.” Any color will be magical for us being from Cali. 🙂 Thanks again!

    • Well Robyn, I’m glad you enjoy my site… (share it with all your friends, the more the merrier) 🙂
      Your dates look pretty good. as to the start in Quechee. You will see color in that area but you will want to dive up into the NE corner of VT, also known as the North East Kingdom (NEK). You will want to explore places like lyndon (train museum. Also Danville VT is very scenic and in a few weeks we should have dates for the NEK fall foliage festivals. They usually start around the 27/29th of Sept and then each day it continues in a different town… I have links on my site but the dates aren’t out yet. you can read about them and I’ll update the events soon…

  2. Oh it’s so confusing! Bottom line for me is: I’m flying from Georgia to Portland. I had to decide when my best chances would be and make airline reservations. Also plan a route into New Hampshire and Vermont and make lodging reservations in order to not worry about getting shut out. Leaving Georgia on October 4. I’ll iust be excited to be there no matter what the condition of the trees.

    • I know Cheryl and I hope I didn’t make it tougher. There are no easy answers on finding the fall colors. That is why I say don’t come JUST for the colors. I tell folks to come for the history, the small towns, the mountains, and all the things you can you can discover here. In between all those things you will very likely find incredible fall colors.
      It’s the whole package that people should come for and it sounds like you did all the right things… If you need to ask a question from the road.. you can reach me on my Facebook page… 🙂

%d bloggers like this: