Each year, “leaf peepers” flock to various parts of the country to catch a glimpse of the spectacular colors produced by fall foliage. The average peak for changing leaves in some of the country’s best fall foliage-viewing locales is the third week of September and into October. But in many regions this year, there were early signs of autumn. After the third hottest summer on record and below average rainfall for many states, some have wondered about the effects of summer dryness on fall colors.

Fall foliage

Credit: Peter Miller (PMillera4)/Flickr

After a dry August, many experts like Donald Leopold, a tree researcher at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Syracuse, expect more vivid colors from northeastern trees. He tells the Albany Times Union that in order to retain moisture and survive the winter, trees stop producing chlorophyll. This is what causes leaves to lose their green color and turn red or orange. With lower levels of rainfall, the lack of water may cause trees to stop producing the pigment earlier. But Leopold also points out that a more severe drought, such as a complete lack of rain, would cause many trees leaves to shrivel and drop without displaying a riot of fall colors.

And in areas like Salt Lake City, where leaves were changing before Labor Day, some residents are concerned. Dick Buehler, director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources points out to ABC 4 News in Salt Lake City that this early change is abnormal and could indicate stressed trees. But even in concerned communities there is optimism for the fall. Buehler mentions that the early loss of leaves means there may be less fuel for wildfires and better visibility for hunters.

No matter how the weather affects trees in the upcoming weeks, millions will be seeking stunning foliage across the country. Leaf peeping strategies, such as driving in order to take in the most scenery, are varied, but there is a unique way to experience fall colors in every region.

Swift River in White Mountain National Forest

Swift River in White Mountain National Forest. Credit: Roger H. Goun (sskennel)/Flickr

New England

Lake Champlain (between Vermont and New York) and Maine’s Acadia National Park are some of the most popular New England destinations, but people also flood to the Connecticut Wine Trail, the Mohawk Trail of Massachusetts and the farms of Rhode Island.

However, with an estimated average of $1 billion from fall tourism every year, New Hampshire stands out to foliage enthusiasts. And one of the state’s trademark destinations is the 34-mile Kancamangus Highway, cutting through White Mountain National Forest. “The Kanc” connects the towns of Conway and Lincoln and follows the path of the Swift River. Along the road is a mix of deciduous colors alongside lush evergreens. The drive is highlighted by many popular stops, including campgrounds, waterfalls and scenic overlooks. One of these landmarks is the Covered Bridge Campground. Here, you can trek across one of New Hampshire’s iconic landmarks: the Albany Covered Bridge. The state is known for these structures, and this bridge has been connecting the banks of the Swift River since 1858. Popular stops also include roadside overlooks along the ascent of Mount Kancamangus, such as Pemigewasset and Sugar Hill.

Aspen in Colorado

Aspen in Colorado. Credit: James Bo Insogna (Striking Photography by Bo Insogna)/Flickr

The West

For those too far from the well-known trees of the coast, Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Forest is a perfect alternative. Visitors might be surprised to see less red and orange and more yellow. Populus tremuloides, or quaking aspen trees, are a trademark of the area. Their golden leaves and white trunks are easily viewed along the steep slopes of the park. While driving through the forest is the most popular viewing method, the park offers hiking trails and shuttles. For those who do decide to drive, Trail Ridge Road is a well-travelled leaf peeping route. Although many of the aspens are located between 6,000 and 10,000 feet, this option is the best way to observe trees from a lower elevation.

But yellow aspens are not the only reason people flock to the area around this time. Fall is also mating season for the brown elk. Guided shuttles and individual exploring are both excellent ways to catch a glimpse of the animal or hear the male’s famous “bugling” mating call.

Otter Lake in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Otter Lake in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Credit: Jim Sorbie (jsorbieus)/Flickr

The Midwest

Northern Michigan provides a different kind of viewing experience. The area surrounding Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore gives visitors the chance to appreciate some of the most impressive colors the Midwest has to offer from a car, the dunes or even from the water. The lakeshore covers a 35-mile stretch along the bottom of Leelanau Peninsula. In the national lakeshore, you can take a guided “Autumn Dunes Eco-Photo Tour” and create memories of the scenic forest overlooks along miles of dunes.

Northern Michigan is also home to more than 50 wineries along M-22. This scenic highway is known as the gateway to the national lakeshore, but is a fall treasure in itself, giving passengers endless opportunities to look out over the vibrant forests while leading them into Leelanau County’s award-winning wine country.

Blue Ridge Parkway

Blue Ridge Parkway. Credit: Hugh Morton/Wikimedia Commons

The South

Peepers in the South will want to visit the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. Much longer than the Kanc in New Hampshire, the parkway stretches 469 miles and connects Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks. Around this southern destination, leaves will be at their “peak” during mid to late October.

Unlike the Rocky Mountains, the colors of the Blue Ridge Mountains are diverse, with species such as red maples, spruce and dogwoods making up vibrant reds, oranges and yellows. Speed limits posted at 45 mph give visitors time to take in the colors while experiencing constantly changing scenery across North Carolina. For those who want to slow down, visitors can stop at the Parkway Visitor Center and plan out their journey. A suggested stop is Mount Mitchell, the highest point between Asheville and Burnsville. A little ways off the highway, the view from the highest peak in eastern North America is worth the detour.

Chlorophyll may be gone, but the autumn experience is in full bloom. Whether you consider yourself a peeping expert or have not had the opportunity to visit one of these areas, the diverse colors and adventures in each of these regions provide for a perfect fall getaway.