Thursday, September 11, 2014

How to select the best trails for seeing autumn colors

Tree leaves along bodies of water change color earliest in the season.
Knowing a little about how tree leaves change color in fall can ensure you won’t be disappointed on an autumn hike. It’ll also mean you can avoid crowds by taking trails that others haven’t thought of, as they stick to the tried-and-true routes listed in travel articles.

When selecting a good day hike to enjoy fall foliage, consider four factors.

Streams/river valleys
Early in the season, trees along streams and river valleys will change color first. That’s because the area near waterways is cooler in temperature than land at the same altitude that is away from water. Railroad beds converted into trails make for great early autumn hikes as rail lines tended to run along river shores and through wetlands, which in the past were deemed land of little value.

Apple orchards
Apples trees usually only grow on soils that drain well and can take deep roots, so there likely are a greater variety of trees nearby than there would be in low-lying wet areas. Trails passing orchards mean a greater palette of color, and apples hanging from the branches only add more hues.

Lots of vertical gain
Hike from the bottom of a mountain or a hill to its summit, and you’ll pass through a variety of ecosystems, each with its own set of trees that prefer the temperature, soils and amount of sunlight available at specific altitudes. Trails leading to observation or fire towers are perfect for gaining altitude, especially at midseason.

North sides
Sometimes trees on the side of a hill facing away from the sun will produce more brilliant colors than those with a southern face. That’s because daytime temperatures that are too warm for an extended period tend to result in a flatter coloration. Trails that head around the northern base of a hill or bluff before nighttime freezes begin usually offer better autumn colors.

A final note: If spring was wet and the summer temperate, expect good autumn colors.

Learn about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.