Top 18 spots for fall color
Go on a foliage tour of the West at our favorite places to soak up the season's golds, crimsons, and more
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IDAHO: The 69-mile Teton Scenic Byway is a drive of subtle yellows--here cottonwoods and there aspens. What's not subtle: the view of the Tetons. From Swan Valley to Ashton; 208/354-2312.
MONTANA: On the Seeley-Swan Scenic Drive, you'll spy the bright yellow fall needles of the larch, a deciduous conifer. Start 1 hour northesast of Missoula on State 83; Lolo National Forest; bit.ly/SdfmNA
NEVADA: On the 5-mile (one way) Marlette Lake Trail, you'll emerge from the aspens to see them reflected on the lake. East of Lake Tahoe; access at Spooner Lake, 1 hour south of Reno; bit.ly/RbQhTA
OREGON: You want bold russets and reds? Try a hike in William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge's Upland Forest for oaks and maples. Near Corvallis, off Finley Refuge Rd.; fwd.gov/willamettevalley/finley
UTAH: In Fishlake National Forest, Pando, the largest aspen clone in the world, creates a gigantic blanket of shimmering color. 3 1/2 hours south of Salt Lake City; 435/896-1070.
WASHINGTON: On Skyline Trail, in Mount Rainier National Park, don't just look up--focus downward to see the deep reds of vine maples and huckleberry bushes. About 2 1/2 hours south of Seattle; nps.gov/mora
WYOMING: You'll pass logging, but don't fear: Aspen Alley leads through a stand so dense, it's like swimming in a sea of gold. 2 hours west of Laramie; Medicine Bow National Forest; 307/326-5258.
Q: How is fall color different in the West?
A: In the East, fall is like a really long parade from north to south. In the West, it’s like fireworks: a spectacular burst of beautiful colors over a short time. Here, the distribution of trees is based on altitude—different types of trees grow at different altitudes, with those at higher elevations developing color first.
Q: Why does altitude matter?
A: The timing of fall color is mostly controlled by the length of night—when that magical duration of darkness is reached, leaves begin to turn. How long the night must be depends on the tree species; trees that grow at high elevations must prepare for cold weather earlier, so they are programmed to develop fall color long before species that grow at lower elevations.
Q: How will this year’s drought affect the fall show?
A: The quality of the seasonal color is more complicated than people think—it depends on weather, and the plant’s health going into fall. With heat and drought, trees are often forced to give up some of their leaves to survive. So by the time autumn comes, there are simply fewer leaves to look at. Leaves of drought-stressed trees may turn brown instead of yellow or red, and drop off early to reduce water loss in the branches. You’re still going to see fall color, but it might not be as brilliant, or it may be more fleeting. Interior areas of the West that had decent monsoon rains may have better fall color than drier areas.