Let’s get something straight right off the bat: While I enjoy it, fall is not my favorite time to be on the trail. Late spring earns that distinction, but that’s primarily because of my obsession with scaly critters.
But most people aren’t so weird.
Most tend to enjoy more sensible things the natural world has to offer.
And that’s why the overwhelming majority of people will have the most fun in the forest during the fall.
So glad you asked.
Defining “Fall” for Our Purposes
Per the astronomical definition, fall lasts from September 22nd to December 21st (meanwhile, meteorologists define the season as the days between September 1st and November 30th).
But forget these definitions – neither takes your specific location into account.
Here in Atlanta, we’re still wearing shorts and using the AC well into October; “fall” doesn’t start until November or December at best. As a matter of fact, I’m writing this in mid-November, and I was just on a trail, sweating pretty heavily in short sleeves.
But up north, it may actually feel like fall by September. Snow may already be falling by late November in some places.
So, for our purposes here, we’re talking about the time of year in which the temperature has dropped and stabilized, the leaves are changing color, and the animals are starting to act differently – regardless of the date. Temps may be dropping below freezing at night or not, but it’s still getting warm enough for turtles to bask and wasps to fly.
Five Reasons Fall Is the Best Time to Go Hiking
There are undoubtedly many more reasons that fall is the best time for most people to lace ‘em up and hit the trail. But the following five are among the most appealing reasons many nature lovers will enjoy this season most.
1. Fair Weather
Fall temperatures and weather are essentially as good as they get all year. Some days you may get by with a T-shirt, but you won’t start sweating buckets like you would in the sweltering days of summer’s end. Other days, you’ll want a light jacket and maybe a hat, but you’ll be perfectly comfortable once you do.
You still need to be smart if you’re in an area that experiences truly cold nights in the fall. But if you’re already embracing a layered approach to clothing, it becomes trivially easy to remain comfortable on the trail.
2. Fall Foliage
Obviously, good fall color is one of the most amazing gifts Mother Nature provides. There’s just nothing like enjoying the golden leaves of hickories or the fire-engine red leaves of maples that look milliseconds away from combusting.
But there’s a whole other thing about fall foliage nature lovers should take advantage of: The fall color change can help you learn to identify trees from their leaves.
Fall color is obviously temporary, so it won’t directly help you learn to identify trees in other portions of the year. But it will help you make connections you haven’t in previous months when everything was green.
Say, for example, you spot a tree with pretty, elliptical red leaves. You look it up and decide that it’s a sourwood tree and continue on up the trail.
As you continue, you start to notice other trees with leaves of the same color. It becomes easier and easier to spot them as you walk.
In fact, you become more and more familiar with the shape and arrangement of the leaves in the process.
You also start to notice the dried fruit capsules that sometimes accompany the red leaves. And then you start to notice many of these trees are growing at an angle. And for that matter, they all have really distinctive, furrowed bark.
Before you know it, you’ve got sourwood ID down to a science. You’re picking them out from a distance with ease — even while driving around town.
This won’t help you with all trees; plenty have leaves that just turn nondescript brown or remain green all year anyway. But this underscores one of the most important things about learning to identify trees (or teaching youngsters to do so): Don’t get overwhelmed by the forest – just pick out a few trees and work your way up slowly.
The fall color change gives you the perfect chance to do so.
3. Furry Four-Footers
You can certainly see deer, raccoons, squirrels and other common mammals during the summer; but they’re much easier to spot during the fall (also, for the myriad other reasons discussed here, fall is a good time to do outdoor anything).
There are two primary reasons for this.
- Most mammals alter their behavioral patterns (to some degree) as summer surrenders to fall. Nut-eating little critters begin collecting and hoarding acorns and hickory nuts; male deer begin jockeying for territory and mating privileges (though actual mating may not take place until later in the season).
- Most mammals become easier to spot during fall, as it’s simply easier to see farther into the forest. A lot of the leaves just drop to the forest floor, while the others adopt colors that often make wildlife stand out.
Mammals aren’t one of my big outdoor interests, but I realize I’m in the minority here. And those who are fond of furry forest critters should definitely take advantage of the advantages fall provides.
4. Fewer Flying Insects
Bees, wasps, dragonflies, and other beautiful flying bugs tend to become less and less apparent as the sun stops climbing so high into the sky each day. You’ll still see them (particularly when it’s warmish and sunny), but they won’t represent as much of a threat as freezing nights begin to thin their numbers.
But honestly, most nature-lovers appreciate all of these types of critters – even the stingy ones. So, I wouldn’t even necessarily characterize their dwindling populations as one of the most important reasons to enjoy the outdoors in the fall.
Instead, the true gift of fall involves the demise of other flying insects — ones that are hated by even the most dedicated nature lovers.
Of course, I’m talking about mosquitos. They start to disappear as the mercury drops too.
You may not be able to completely put away the bug spray once fall rolls around, but you certainly don’t need to reapply it 50 times a day as you may need to do in the summer to keep skeeters at bay. For that matter, you’ll often have several hours near sunrise and sunset in which it is simply too cold for these bugs to fly. Generally speaking, mosquitos have trouble moving around much once the temperatures drop below 60 degrees.
So, enjoy one of the few times of year you get to experience the great outdoors without being assaulted by mosquitos.
5. Fruit of the Fall
Fall may not be the season that immediately springs to mind when thinking of fruit but many appear or ripen once the weather cools.
One pretty obvious example is the persimmon, which first begins appearing during the summer. However, were one to consume one of these early season persimmons, it’s entirely likely that his or her mouth would turn completely inside-out – they’re simply too astringent to eat before the first frost when a process called bletting occurs.
But there are also attractive, if inedible, fruits that appear during the autumn too. Crimson-colored flowering dogwood berries become even more eye-catching once the trees’ leaves change color. The same can be said for serviceberries too.
Blue cat vine berries, which cling to thorny vines in forest gaps, are also attractive and offer a unique visual treat during this time of year.
What’d I forget? Why else is fall the best time to go hiking? Or, for the fall-haters among you, why am I off-base? Let me have it.
Just understand that — whether you enjoy it or simply endure it – you need to get out there and experience it.