There’s no better tool for fall leaf peepers than a good autumn leaf colors map.
These resources help take some of the guesswork out of the equation and let you know the best possible time to get out and enjoy the colors of fall.
We’ll share one of the best autumn leaf colors maps below, explain how they work and point out a few of the caveats you need to keep in mind when making plans. We’ll also answer some of the most common questions nature lovers have about fall foliage color maps and leaf-color change in general.
Autumn Leaf Colors Map: When and Where to See Peak Fall Color
The timing of the leaf color change can differ a bit every year.
One year you may start seeing fall color develop in early September; the next year you may have to wait until October to start enjoying the red, yellow, and purple foliage fireworks.
That’s why it’s important to always check an autumn leaf colors map for the current year when planning your leaf-peeping adventures.
Just remember that there are no guarantees when it comes to fall color. Even predictions developed by the best and brightest are just that – predictions. That said, the best autumn leaf color maps are generally pretty close to spot-on, and they are invaluable tools for nature lovers.
SmokyMountains.com produces the very best autumn leaf colors map each year. As an interactive map, it allows you to see the predicted progression of fall color, as it moves throughout the season. We’ve shared a single frame of the map above but check out their site to play with the tool.
Peak Color Prediction for US States
We’ve taken the info from SmokyMountains.com and tried to distill it in a reader-friendly form. In a nutshell, we tried to identify the best one- to three-week period for leaf color in each state.
Now, there are several caveats to the following list you must keep in mind.
- For starters, it is subjective – we’ve had to use our own judgement to encapsulate the incredible amount of data their tool provides in a few words.
- Secondly, their predictions may change over the course of the season.
- Finally, many states are large, meaning that the trees in the northern portion of the state may experience peak leaf color before the southern portions of the state do. For that matter, elevation changes can have a similar effect.
So, we encourage readers to use the following list as a starting point, but be sure to check out the full tool when making leaf-peeping plans.
- Alabama: November 13th – November 26th
- Alaska: NA
- Arizona: October 16th – October 30th
- Arkansas: November 6th – November 20th
- California: October 23rd – November 5th
- Colorado: October 16th – October 29th
- Connecticut: October 2nd – October 9th
- Delaware: October 16th – October 23rd
- Florida: November 13th – November 26th
- Georgia: October 30th – November 12th
- Hawaii: NA
- Idaho: October 2nd – October 15th
- Illinois: October 23rd – November 5th
- Indiana: October 23rd – October 29th
- Iowa: October 23rd – October 29th
- Kansas: November 6th – November 12th
- Kentucky: October 23rd – November 5th
- Louisiana: November 13th – November 26th
- Maine: September 25th – October 8th
- Maryland: October 16th – October 23rd
- Massachusetts: October 2nd – October 9th
- Michigan: October 2nd – October 15th
- Minnesota: October 2nd – October 15th
- Mississippi: November 13th – November 26th
- Missouri: October 23rd – November 5th
- Montana: October 2nd – October 15th
- Nebraska: October 23rd – November 5th
- Nevada: October 16th – November 5th
- New Hampshire: October 2nd – October 9th
- New Jersey: October 16th – October 23rd
- New Mexico: October 30th – November 5th
- New York: October 2nd – October 15th
- North Carolina: October 23rd – October 30th
- North Dakota: October 2nd – October 15th
- Ohio: October 16th – October 29th
- Oklahoma: November 6th – November 19th
- Oregon: October 23rd – October 29th
- Pennsylvania: October 9th – October 15th
- Rhode Island: October 2nd – October 9th
- South Carolina: October 3rd – November 12th
- South Dakota: October 23rd – October 29th
- Tennessee: October 23rd – November 5th
- Texas: November 13th – November 26th
- Utah: October 30th – November 5th
- Vermont: October 2nd – October 9th
- Virginia: October 16th – October 29th
- Washington: October 2nd – October 15th
- West Virginia: October 16th – October 29th
- Wisconsin: October 2nd – October 15th
- Wyoming: October 16th – October 29th
Why Do Leaves Change Colors?
The color-changing process leaves undergo in the fall is incredible to behold, but many people go their entire lives without understanding how it works. As it turns out, the processes that trigger color change are actually pretty simple.
- Leaves in the spring and summer produce a chemical called chlorophyll – a green pigment that absorbs energy from sunlight.
- Plants use this energy to help rip apart carbon dioxide and water molecules before rearranging them into sugars and oxygen. This process is called photosynthesis, and it is essentially the way plants “feed” themselves.
- Leaves continually produce new chlorophyll molecules throughout the spring and summer, to replace the ones that break down.
- As fall approaches, cool temperatures and diminishing sunlight prevent trees from producing more chlorophyll.
- Eventually, all of the chlorophyll has broken down in the leaves. This allows other pigments that have been present in the leaves all along – primarily carotene and anthocyanins – to become visible.
- Carotene is responsible for the yellow color of some leaves; anthocyanins produce red leaves in acidic environments and purple leaves in less acidic locations.
During or shortly after this time, the leaves form something known as an abscission layer. This is basically a boundary between the leaf’s stem and the tree, which prevents the flow of resources between the two. Soon after, the leaves will fall off the tree, which prepares it for the winter.
Why Do Trees Shed Their Leaves at All?
It’s natural to wonder why trees drop their leaves at all.
Aren’t leaves important resources that allow trees to survive and produce chlorophyll? Isn’t it “expensive” for the trees to produce leaves in the first place?
The answer to both questions is “yes.” Leaves are crucial to the survival of trees, and trees do have to allocate resources to produce them.
However, leaf drop is still a net positive for most broadleaf trees. There are two primary reasons for this seeming contradiction:
- Trees can’t produce chlorophyll as well when temperatures are low and sunlight scarce (such as occurs in the winter). So, most broadleaf trees can’t produce enough chlorophyll in the winter anyway.
- The freezing temperatures of winter will damage the leaves of most broadleaf trees. This renders them useless for energy production.
Ultimately, evolutionary algebra makes a deciduous lifestyle more efficient for most broadleaved trees. They simply cut their losses, drop their leaves, and make new ones the following spring.
Evergreen species, by contrast, thrive better when they hold onto their leaves throughout the year.
The majority of evergreen species in the U.S. are conifers, who often thrive in areas with poorer mineral content than deciduous trees do.
Accordingly, it makes more sense for them to hang on to the minerals they need in their leaves.
To compensate for this, conifer leaves (which we typically call needles) are covered in a wax-like substance called cutin. This helps to prevent the leaves from drying out in the winter.
Additionally, conifers tend to allocate additional energy reserves for chlorophyll production in the winter. They also produce antifreeze-like compounds, which help protect the leaves from freezing temperatures.
The very shape of needles also helps them survive the winter better than broad leaves.
Flat, thin leaves expose a lot of their surface area to the cold winter air, while relatively little leaf mass is protected from the bitter cold air. By contrast, the round cross section of needles means that a relatively small percentage of the leaf is actually exposed to the air, and more of the leaf is protected from the leaf surface.
Broadleaved evergreen trees, such as hollies, bear glossy leaves. The wax-like substance that covers these leaves helps to protect them from the cold and reduce the rate at which water evaporates from them.
Note that we’re largely speaking in generalities above. Like most other aspects of the natural world, there are countless variations on themes, and exceptions abound. For example, bald cypress trees are conifers who’s needles turn rust-brown or reddish in the fall and drop in the winter.
What Factors Influence the Timing of Fall Color?
You may have noticed that fall leaf color varies from year to year.
Gold and yellow colors are generally pretty consistent from one year to the next, but the degree of red, orange and purple you’ll see fluctuates. Some years are spectacular; other years are relatively muted and drab.
This year-to-year variability occurs for a few different reasons, but weather is the most important factor to consider.
- Warm, sunny days and cool, dry nights usually trigger the leaves of some tree species to produce and store lots of anthocyanins, resulting in spectacular fall color. To refresh your memory, these are the pigments that make some autumn leaves red, orange or purple.
- Yellow leaf colors are produced by carotenoids, which are present all year long; they become visible once chlorophyll production stops. This is why yellow and gold leaves typically look the same from one year to the next.
- Summer droughts can stress trees, thereby resulting in poorer fall color. On the other hand, excessively wet summers or falls can cause leaves to break down more quickly. This doesn’t directly affect the color vibrance, but it does mean that fewer leaves will remain on the trees long enough to change color.
- Warm snaps during the fall can disrupt the timing of the tree’s biology, thereby preventing the most eye-popping color from developing.
Now that you have a pretty good idea of when the leaves will start changing in your neck of the woods, we encourage you to get out there and enjoy them! But first, share your thoughts about and experiences with fall foliage color maps. Have you ever consulted one before? Did it prove accurate?
Let us know in the comments below!