So... When Will Those Fall Colors Peak?

Oct 21, 2019

Early in October, a maple leaf shows fall color, on a tree that has already changed for the season.
Credit Mike Tripp

You may have noticed that autumn leaf colors seem a bit late this year.  WMRA’s Mike Tripp paid a visit to Shenandoah National Park to explore the reasons why.

[Sounds of walking]

O’BRIEN: My trail name is ‘Best Hiker on the Appalachian Trail.’  No… kidding. My trail name is ‘Short Cut.’

His name is Brian O’Brien from Columbus Ohio. Met up with him and some of his friends along the Appalachian Trail near Luray and the Thornton Gap entrance to Skyline Drive. 

O’BRIEN: It’s beautiful. We’re doing a section hike from Bird’s Nest 3, just south of the Pinnacles, into Front Royal.

They expect to be on the trail three to four days. And if anyone has seen autumn colors, surely, it’s them.

Brian O'Brien and Jerry Fultz of Ohio were in the middle of a three to four day hike on the Appalachian Trail with friends. They stopped for a short break at a panorama comfort station located on Skyline Drive at Thornton Gap.
Credit Mike Tripp

O’BRIEN: Very little. The leaves are changing and just the tips of them. But it’s beautiful.

The hiker points to one of his friends.

O’BRIEN: He’s the tree guy.

FULTZ: I grow trees for a living.

Meet Jerry Fultz of Westerville, Ohio. Jerry has yet to earn his trail name, but he does know his trees.  He's an operations manager for Acorn Farms Inc -- a large grower and distributor of trees, shrubs and perennials.

FULTZ: I’ve seen some tinges of red and things as sugar maples are starting to turn. From Ohio so we have a little different biology going on here.

So, what’s his guess on when might be the peak of color?

FULTZ: About another week and a half I think around here, another week … Pretty heavy full color.

There’s another expert listening in to our conversation --  Forest Service Ranger Sally Hurlbert.

U.S. Forest Ranger Sally Hurlbert serves as management specialist for Shenandoah National Park. She spoke with WMRA's Mike Tripp along the Appalachian Trail near Skyline Drive at Thornton Gap.
Credit Mike Tripp

HURLBERT:  Well, we’re standing under a maple right here, and it’s just green. But if you get out here in the parking lot, there’s one that’s brilliant reds.

She serves as management specialist for Shenandoah National Park, so she’s well-versed in when the fall colors appear every year, and why this year the colors are a little later.

HURLBERT:  Well, right now it’s October. The leaves are beginning to change. It’s variable throughout Shenandoah National Park. Usually our colors change at the higher elevations first and then work their way down the mountain. We normally say that our peak season is second to the third week of October.

She says that this year, the peak will be later this month, or even into November.

HURLBERT: We had a wet summer up into about the end of August, and then the taps turned off and it was dry. And for most of September, we didn’t get any rain.

And because we’ve had a drought situation, it’s delayed things. But not to worry, the colors are coming.

HURLBERT: They have begun to shut down their chlorophyll, and they are beginning to change. We’ve seen a few trees that have changed but we haven’t seen the entire forest changing yet. We’re not going to see full-on color for another week or two.

She says the colors were also late last year, but for slightly different reasons.

HURLBERT:  What happened last year was October was a really rainy month. For the middle of October, it was very wet. And then when it finally stopped raining, then the colors really began to change towards the end of October, early November.

She notes there’s one thing that doesn’t change year to year, and that’s the amount of daylight.

HURLBERT:  What starts to change them is the shorter days, which won’t change over the years. That just happens because we are getting into the fall. What we haven’t had is the cooler nights. I do know that it’s starting to get cold. I was driving down and saw frost on the ground yesterday. Not up here on the mountain but down low.

Some of the trees in this view from Skyline Drive have begun to show hints of fall hues of red, burnt orange and yellow. But Ranger Sally Hurlbert says the peak in Shenandoah National Forest will likely be late October or early November.
Credit Mike Tripp

[Sound of a leaf being crumbled.]

HURLBERT: I use to think that the first frost would get everything to change, but if you have too cold of weather and too much frost then that just makes the leaves shut down and then they just end up falling off. But if you have cooler nights, that allows the sugars to build up in the leaves and the pigment to change. And you’ll get more reds and purples and colors like that.

Could climate change be the culprit? … The reason the colors are showing later these last two years?

HURLBERT:   You can’t attribute it to climate change unless you see something changing over a long period of time. And usually 30 years is the standard when attributing something to climate change. It is interesting that last year that we broke a record for rain, but then this year it’s a little but under average. So, it’s just hard to say. You have to look at the long term to be able to say one thing or another, whether it’s climate change or not.

[Sound of wind blowing, rustling trees.]

HURLBERT:  You never know what to expect from year to year. All of a sudden you could have a big wind storm come through and all the leaves will be gone in one night. We also sometimes get snow storms in October.  I’ve worked here 23 years, and I will say that I’ve never been disappointed in a fall. Some years are really brilliant. Some years are less brilliant. But there’s always a day when you drive down Skyline Drive and go, 'Oh man! It’s gorgeous today!'

Hurlbert says the park service is tracking the colors to help visitors plan their visits, and some of that information comes from crowd-sourcing.

HURLBERT:  We are keeping track of the fall colors on our social media sites and our website. We’re taking pictures every Thursday in the same locations so you can see how it’s changing. We’re also asking visitors to send us photos with the time and the date they took the picture and where they took it. And I think the visual images will help people decide when they think it’s the right time for them to come to the park.

Shenandoah National Park Twitter page

Shenandoah National Park Instagram page

Shenandoah National Park Flickr page

Shenandoah National Park on YouTube