Fantastic fall foliage

… and where to find it

This is starting out as a complicated season for leaf peepers.

As the East Coast sweated through record October heat, parts of the Rockies were buried under wildly early snow. Late heat and early cold can stifle some of the most photo-worthy foliage, but soon enough, large swaths of the country will be engulfed in the brilliant yellows, oranges and reds that herald an approaching winter. “Leaf peepers” and “color spotters” will swarm, cameras in hand, in search of peak fall glory.

Forested areas in the United States host a variety of tree species. The evergreens shed leaves gradually, as promised in their name. The leaves of deciduous varieties change from green to yellow, orange or red before letting go entirely. Using USDA forest species data, we mapped the thickets of fall colors you may encounter in the densely wooded parts of the country.

Forest type and fall foliage colors

Mostly evergreen

Mostly yellow

Mostly red

Likely not colorful

New England’s famous red foliage

is thanks to its maple forests.

The Smoky Mountains have

a colorful mix of maple,

beech, birch and oak.

Bangor

Burlington

Miami

Erie

Atlanta

Asheville

200 MILES

Duluth

Tulsa

San Antonio

Denver

South Texas

has oak

and pockets

of maple.

Seattle

Bakersfield

Rocky Mountain aspen is known

for its bright yellow coloration.

In some places, it can also turn

red or orange.

Fairbanks

Anchorage

200 MILES

Alaska’s forests are mostly evergreen

and yellow, with birch and aspen

changing in the fall.

Forest type and fall foliage colors

Mostly evergreen

Mostly yellow

Mostly red

Likely not colorful

New England’s famous

red foliage is thanks to

its maple forests.

The Smoky Mountains

have a colorful mix of

maple, beech,

birch and oak.

Bangor

New Haven

Burlington

Miami

The upper Midwest

features yellow

from beech, birch

and aspen but

also has maple

mixed in.

Erie

Asheville

Charleston

Atlanta

200 MILES

Duluth

Tulsa

San Antonio

Most Northwest

forests are

evergreen, but

small pockets

of color

will occur.

Denver

South Texas

has oak

and pockets

of maple.

Bakersfield

Seattle

Rocky Mountain

aspen is known

for its bright yellow

coloration. In some places,

it can also turn red or orange.

Alaska’s forests are mostly

evergreen and yellow,

with birch and aspen

changing in the fall.

Fairbanks

Anchorage

200 MILES

Forest type and fall foliage colors

Mostly evergreen

Mostly yellow

Mostly red

Likely not colorful

New England’s famous

red foliage is thanks to

its maple forests.

Most Northwest forests are

evergreen, but small pockets

of color will occur.

The upper Midwest

features yellow from

beech, birch and aspen

but also has maple mixed in.

Seattle

Missoula

Bangor

Duluth

Burlington

Erie

New Haven

Salt Lake City

Denver

Charlottesville

Charleston

Bakersfield

Tulsa

Asheville

Atlanta

The Smoky Mountains

have a colorful mix of

maple, beech,

birch and oak.

Rocky Mountain

aspen is known

for its bright yellow

coloration. In some places,

it can also turn red or orange.

Baton Rouge

San Antonio

200 MILES

Miami

Some deciduous

trees will lose their

leaves but are unlikely to

show bright colors.

South Texas has oak

and pockets of maple.

Alaska’s forests are mostly

evergreen and yellow,

with birch and aspen

changing in the fall.

Fairbanks

Anchorage

200 MILES

Forest type and fall foliage colors

Mostly evergreen

Mostly yellow

Mostly red

Likely not colorful

New England’s famous

red foliage is thanks to

its maple forests.

Most Northwest forests are

evergreen, but small pockets

of color will occur.

The upper Midwest

features yellow from

beech, birch and aspen

but also has maple mixed in.

Seattle

Missoula

Bangor

Duluth

Burlington

Erie

New Haven

Salt Lake City

Denver

Bloomington

Charlottesville

Bakersfield

Tulsa

Asheville

Atlanta

The Smoky Mountains

have a colorful mix of

maple, beech,

birch and oak.

Rocky Mountain

aspen is known

for its bright yellow

coloration. In some places,

it can also turn red or orange.

Baton Rouge

San Antonio

200 MILES

Miami

Some deciduous

trees will lose their

leaves but are unlikely to

show bright colors.

South Texas has oak

and pockets of maple.

Alaska’s forests are mostly

evergreen and yellow,

with birch and aspen

changing in the fall.

Fairbanks

Anchorage

200 MILES

Forest type and fall foliage colors

Mostly evergreen

Mostly yellow

Mostly red

Likely not colorful

Most Northwest forests are

evergreen, but small pockets

of color will occur.

New England’s famous

red foliage is thanks to

its maple forests.

Seattle

The upper Midwest

features yellow from

beech, birch and aspen

but also has maple mixed in.

Portland

Missoula

Bangor

Burlington

Duluth

Traverse City

Utica

Erie

New Haven

Salt Lake City

Denver

Bloomington

Charlottesville

Charleston

Bakersfield

Tulsa

Nashville

Asheville

Atlanta

The Smoky Mountains

have a colorful mix of

maple, beech,

birch and oak.

Rocky Mountain

aspen is known

for its bright yellow

coloration. In some places,

it can also turn red or orange.

Baton Rouge

San Antonio

200 MILES

Some deciduous trees

will lose their leaves

but are unlikely to

show bright colors.

Miami

South Texas has oak

and pockets of maple.

Alaska’s forests are mostly

evergreen and yellow,

with birch and aspen

changing in the fall.

Fairbanks

Anchorage

200 MILES

Forest type and fall foliage colors

Mostly evergreen

Mostly yellow

Mostly red

Likely not colorful

Most Northwest forests are

evergreen, but small pockets

of color will occur.

New England’s famous

red foliage is thanks to

its maple forests.

Seattle

The upper Midwest

features yellow from

beech, birch and aspen

but also has maple mixed in.

Portland

Missoula

Bangor

Burlington

Duluth

Traverse City

Utica

Erie

New Haven

Salt Lake City

Denver

Bloomington

Charlottesville

Charleston

St. Louis

Bakersfield

Tulsa

Nashville

Asheville

Atlanta

The Smoky Mountains

have a colorful mix of

maple, beech,

birch and oak.

Rocky Mountain

aspen is known

for its bright yellow

coloration. In some places,

it can also turn red or orange.

Baton Rouge

San Antonio

200 MILES

Some deciduous trees

will lose their leaves

but are unlikely to

show bright colors.

South Texas has oak

and pockets of maple.

Miami

Alaska’s forests are mostly

evergreen and yellow,

with birch and aspen

changing in the fall.

Fairbanks

Anchorage

200 MILES

During the summer, trees produce chlorophyll, the pigment that turns leaves green and allows trees to harvest light to make food sugars. At the same time, trees manufacture carotenoid, a yellow to orange pigment that is masked by the green chlorophyll during the summer months. When the production of chlorophyll slows with the onset of fall, the carotenoid’s bright color can emerge. This yellow pigment also helps the leaf absorb different wavelengths of light that the green chlorophyll cannot.

Certain species begin to produce another pigment, anthocyanin, when the seasons begin to change. That is what turns forests red and orange. Anthocyanin is also responsible for the red, purple, black and blue colors in certain foods high in antioxidants, — think raspberries, purple cauliflower and black rice. This crimson pigment allows trees to continue storing just a little more sugar and nitrogen to have on hand for the next year, according to Paul Schaberg, a research plant physiologist with the U.S. Forest Service.

Know your fall leaves

Red Maple

Acer rubrum

red-maple-01

Quaking Aspen

Populus tremuloides

aspen

Paper Birch

Betula papyrifera

birch

White Oak

Quercus alba

oak

Yellow Poplar

Liriodendron tulipifera

poplar

Sweetgum

Liquidambar styraciflua

sweetgum

Some areas of the country are more likely to experience those bright red and orange leaves than others. New England is a perennial fall destination because of its abundance of tree species contributing bright colors.

Schaberg points out that the best color displays occur in forests that have a diversity of species -- and trees that have the tendency to turn red.

The progression of fall creates a wave of color across the country, with grassy plains and farmlands in the Midwest drying up, and the trees of the East Coast rolling from green to yellow/orange/red to brown. Descartes Labs collected and analyzed 10 years of satellite imagery to develop this cloud-free animation of fall in the eastern United States.

How fall color spreads across the Eastern U.S.
Satellite composite image showing fall colors the week of 9-1 in the eastern United States
Satellite composite image showing fall colors the week of 9-8 in the eastern United States
Satellite composite image showing fall colors the week of 9-15 in the eastern United States
Satellite composite image showing fall colors the week of 9-22 in the eastern United States
Satellite composite image showing fall colors the week of 9-29 in the eastern United States
Satellite composite image showing fall colors the week of 10-6 in the eastern United States
Satellite composite image showing fall colors the week of 10-13 in the eastern United States
Satellite composite image showing fall colors the week of 10-20 in the eastern United States
Satellite composite image showing fall colors the week of 10-27 in the eastern United States
Satellite composite image showing fall colors the week of 11-3 in the eastern United States
Satellite composite image showing fall colors the week of 11-10 in the eastern United States
Satellite composite image showing fall colors the week of 11-17 in the eastern United States
Satellite composite image showing fall colors the week of 11-24 in the eastern United States

Sept. 1 – 7

NASA's two MODIS satellite instruments collected all of the imagery that made the map you see, taking a picture of every part of the Lower 48 states twice a day. This is the equivalent of 500 iPhone snapshots, or 2.2 gigabytes of imagery, per day. Descartes Labs experts brought together all images from 2009 to 2018 to create this composite of the magic of fall, visible from space.

Back on Earth, the leaf peepers prowl different parts of the country to find their own special spots for the best fall colors. For Massachusetts resident Jeff “Foliage” Folger, who runs a New England fall foliage blog, his annual photo-foraging is “like a Christmas present. I run around New England, unwrapping all these presents,” he said.

In an exploration of fall from space, Descartes Labs curated satellite imagery of locations from Alaska to the southern United States that highlight spectacular fall colors — both common and uncommon.

Stannard

VERMONT

Maple, beech and birch trees glow red, orange and yellow.

Stannard

Hardwick

2 MILES

Maple, beech and birch trees glow red, orange and yellow.

Stannard

Hardwick

2 MILES

Maple, beech and birch trees glow red, orange and yellow.

Stannard

Hardwick

2 MILES

Maple, beech and birch trees glow red, orange and yellow.

Stannard

Hardwick

2 MILES

Maple, beech and birch trees glow red, orange and yellow.

Lyndon

Stannard

Hardwick

St. Johnsbury

2 MILES

Maple, beech and birch trees glow red, orange and yellow.

Lyndon

Stannard

Hardwick

St. Johnsbury

2 MILES

Dazzling colors can be seen in plenty of regions outside New England. Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota are great places to go, with forests that blend bright yellow birch, beech and aspen with red maple. Farther south, a mix of oak and hickory forests in Arkansas provides stunning views, especially at higher elevations where there is less development.

Washington

Island

WISCONSIN

Washington Island

Aspen and birch dot the shorelines of northern Wisconsin

5 MILES

Magazine

Mtn.

ARKANSAS

White oak, red oak, and hickory light up the mountainsides

Magazine

Mountain

Waveland

5 MILES

Washington

Island

WISCONSIN

Washington

Island

Aspen and birch dot the shorelines of northern Wisconsin

5 MILES

Magazine

Mtn.

ARKANSAS

Magazine

Mountain

White oak, red oak, and hickory light up the mountainsides

Waveland

5 MILES

Washington

Island

WISCONSIN

Washington

Island

Aspen and birch dot the shorelines of northern Wisconsin

5 MILES

Magazine

Mtn.

ARKANSAS

Magazine

Mountain

White oak, red oak, and hickory light up the mountainsides

Havana

Waveland

5 MILES

Washington

Island

WISCONSIN

Washington

Island

Aspen and birch dot the shorelines of northern Wisconsin

5 MILES

Magazine

Mtn.

ARKANSAS

Magazine

Mountain

White oak, red oak, and hickory light up the mountainsides

Havana

Waveland

5 MILES

Magazine

Mtn.

Washington

Island

ARKANSAS

WISCONSIN

Washington

Island

Magazine

Mountain

Aspen and birch dot the shorelines of northern Wisconsin

White oak, red oak, and hickory light up the mountainsides

Havana

Waveland

5 MILES

5 MILES

Albuquerque

NEW

MEXICO

Even as far south as New Mexico, yellow oaks can be seen on mountainsides, along with sporadic flashes of red maples. Near Bosque Peak, in the Manzano Mountains just south of Albuquerque, N.M., bright red foliage can be seen in the foothills amongst dense green forest and brush.

Mosca Peak

Bosque Peak

Scattered stands of maple turn red south of Albuquerque

Capilla Peak

1 MILE

Mosca Peak

Bosque Peak

Scattered stands of maple turn red south of Albuquerque

Capilla Peak

1 MILE

Mosca Peak

Bosque Peak

Scattered stands of maple turn red south of Albuquerque

Capilla Peak

1 MILE

Mosca Peak

Scattered stands of maple turn red south of Albuquerque

Bosque Peak

Capilla Peak

1 MILE

Mosca Peak

Scattered stands of maple turn red south of Albuquerque

Scattered stands of maple turn red south of Albuquerque

Bosque Peak

Capilla Peak

1 MILE

Mosca Peak

Scattered stands of maple turn red south of Albuquerque

Scattered stands of maple turn red south of Albuquerque

Bosque Peak

Capilla Peak

1 MILE

Provo

UTAH

Moving west, yellow dominates. Western U.S. forests are predominantly evergreen, where species of juniper, spruce and fir are better adapted to the more extreme temperature and moisture shifts. The deciduous trees in the West, including aspens, tend to display strong yellows. But in some places, such as near Provo, Utah, the aspens are known to show red and orange leaves as well. This could be because of a few different factors. Sometimes, carotenoid pigments can at times appear orange (think carrots). But all deciduous trees have the ability to produce anthocyanins that create a red color, and trees that are typically known to have yellow leaves in the fall can begin producing anthocyanin if the trees are experiencing more stress and find it physiologically beneficial to produce the pigment.

Provo Peak

Aspens fire up the mountains with red and orange in Utah

Springville

Spanish Fork Peak

2 MILES

Provo Peak

Provo

Aspens fire up the mountains with red and orange in Utah

Springville

Spanish

Fork

Spanish Fork Peak

2 MILES

Provo Peak

Provo

Aspens fire up the mountains with red and orange in Utah

Springville

Spanish

Fork

Spanish Fork Peak

2 MILES

Aspens fire up the mountains with red and orange in Utah

Provo Peak

Provo

Springville

Spanish

Fork

Spanish Fork Peak

2 MILES

Provo Peak

Provo

Utah

Lake

Aspens fire up the mountains with red and orange in Utah

Springville

Spanish

Fork

Spanish Fork Peak

2 MILES

Provo Peak

Provo

Aspens fire up the mountains with red and orange in Utah

Utah

Lake

Springville

Spanish

Fork

Spanish Fork Peak

2 MILES

Mount Shasta

CALIFORNIA

“There are pockets of beautiful color all over the West,” says John Poimiroo, who runs a fall color blog focused primarily on spotting colors in California, “but there aren’t a lot of people there.” So the majesty can go unseen in some places.

To find vivid color shows, Poimiroo recommends looking in high-elevation areas in the Sierra Nevada and near Mount Shasta in Northern California, where pockets of deciduous trees thrive. Along Interstate 5 between the towns of Black Butte and Mount Shasta, oak trees with orange leaves and yellow aspen dot the outskirts of the two towns.

Mount

Shasta

Oaks and aspens turn orange and yellow in the Shasta foothills

Mount Shasta

Interstate 5

1 MILE

Mount

Shasta

Black

Butte

Interstate 5

Oaks and aspens turn orange and yellow in the Shasta foothills

Mount Shasta

1 MILE

Mount

Shasta

Black

Butte

Interstate 5

Oaks and aspens turn orange and yellow in the Shasta foothills

Mount Shasta

Lake

Siskiyou

1 MILE

Mount

Shasta

Black

Butte

Interstate 5

Oaks and aspens turn orange and yellow in the Shasta foothills

Mount Shasta

Lake

Siskiyou

1 MILE

Black

Butte

Mount

Shasta

Black

Butte

Interstate 5

Oaks and aspens turn orange and yellow in the Shasta foothills

Mount Shasta

Lake

Siskiyou

1 MILE

Black

Butte

Mount

Shasta

Black

Butte

Interstate 5

Oaks and aspens turn orange and yellow in the Shasta foothills

Mount Shasta

Lake

Siskiyou

1 MILE

ALASKA

Anchorage

Across Alaska, yellows and some reds begin to appear as summer comes to an end, lighting up mountain sides with bright colors. In the Chugach Mountains just east of Anchorage, Alaska, birch and cottonwood trees, along with low-lying vegetation, electrify the slopes. Yellows and oranges also color the forested spaces throughout the city, from Far North Bicentennial Park all the way to Elmendorf Air Force Base.

Birch and cottonwood trees shine in the autumn sun

Anchorage

2 MILES

Birch and cottonwood trees shine in the autumn sun

Anchorage

2 MILES

Birch and cottonwood trees shine in the autumn sun

Anchorage

2 MILES

Birch and cottonwood trees shine in the autumn sun

Anchorage

Far North

Bicentennial Park

2 MILES

Birch and cottonwood trees shine in the autumn sun

Elmendorf

Air Force Base

Anchorage

Far North

Bicentennial Park

2 MILES

Birch and cottonwood trees shine in the autumn sun

Elmendorf

Air Force Base

Anchorage

2 MILES

When it comes to tracking down those optimal fall colors, some years can be good, and some years can be bad. The stochastic, which is scientist-speak for random, nature of when fall colors occur “makes it a more interesting challenge if you’re trying to do leaf-peeping,” according to Schaberg.

Moderate stress, such as changing seasonal temperatures and the amount of daylight, helps induce the onset of leaf-color change, but more severe stress can mute the vibrancy of autumn’s palette. Drought causes tree leaves to close up their pores to retain water, limiting their ability to produce sugars and leading the tree to jettison the leaves. Too much water can promote fungal pathogens that can infect leaves, which can also lead to early leaf drop.

Folger can tick off a few years that were very disappointing for fall colors in New England in particular.

“2005. 2011. 2017,” Folger recalls without pause. “It’s almost cyclic.”

The first two years he cites were ruined by Hurricanes Katrina and Irene and the excessive moisture they brought to New England.

But this season is going to be lit, both Poimiroo and Folger predict, on both coasts. This week the Eastern Sierras will continue to turn, followed by color shows in Northern California, Southern California and the urban forests, Poimiroo says. In New England, low evening temperatures have helped jump-start the fall colors, according to Folger. This will eventually wave down the eastern United States, down through Appalachia and beyond.

We wish you luck in your leaf-peeping endeavors.

Joe Fox

Joe Fox joined The Washington Post as a graphics reporter in 2018. He previously worked at the Los Angeles Times as a graphics and data journalist.

Lauren Tierney

Lauren Tierney is a Graphics Reporter and cartographer at The Washington Post. Before joining the Post in 2017, she was a Graphics Editor at National Geographic Magazine.

Brittany Renee Mayes contributed to this report.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly displayed Missoula’s location.

About this story

Forest type data from National Forest Type Dataset. Tree color information from USDA Fact Sheets, Fire Effects Information System, University of Florida Southern Trees Fact Sheets, University of Connecticut Plant Database, Forest Service Climate Change Atlas and California Native Plant Society. Tree color map hillshade by Richard Edes Harrison via shadedreliefarchive.com.

MODIS composite imagery animation of eastern United States fall by Tim Wallace and Krishna Karra of Descartes Labs.

Descartes Labs curated and provided imagery for local sites from ESA Sentinel and Landsat satellites. 2018 Sentinel 2 imagery of Anchorage, Alaska, Bosque Peak, New Mexico, Mt. Shasta, California, St. Johnsbury, Vermont and Door County, Wisconsin. 2017 Sentinel 2 imagery of Provo, Utah. 2001 Landsat 7 imagery of Magazine Mountain, Arkansas.

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