The Undue Fear of Missing Peak Foliage

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This past weekend, a cold front came through New England, bringing some much needed rainfall and a wonderful break from the heat. When I awoke early Sunday morning to do some fly fishing in the mountains, temperatures were in the lower forties, and there was a crispness to the air. Heavy mist was coming off of the stream when I made my first cast, which also resulted in my first trout of the day. It was a wild brook trout, already decked out in its spawning colors.

It seems that in New England, everything puts on a show during the fall. The pumpkins turn orange, the grapes purple, the apples red, and the brook trout turn a full kaleidoscope of colors with their bellies ablaze. As the sun got higher, the temperatures warmed, the mist faded and the trout slowed their bite, but the skies remained a deep, clear blue. The haze and humidity, so persistent this summer, were gone; It was the first fall-like day of the season!

Morning Mist

Morning Mist is a Regular Feature of Fall in New England

We’ve been fortunate to be in a streak of similar mornings now, the likes of which we’ve not seen since the very beginning of summer. During these first cool periods after the dog days abate, New Englanders often first notice the changes taking place in the landscape around them. They might see some yellow color in the birch trees, the species perhaps most susceptible to seasonal stress. They might see the swamp maples turning red, or the ferns underneath turning a golden brown. It’s easy to feel like the season is rushing in, that time is tight, and maybe even that things are progressing faster than years past.

In retrospect though, it seems that every year around this time we feel that autumn is coming early. When we look back at the records however, we can be comforted in knowing that we talked about the early birches last autumn, and the autumn before that. Such early signs are reminders, but hardly indicators. While we do expect the season to be a bit early, it’s far from imminent.  We are about a month away from the region’s earliest peak in the far north, and the weather over the next month will also be influential in determining exactly how our autumn will play out.

It is perhaps in our nature though that we nonetheless worry about the lack of time towards the end of summer.  Maybe it’s out of fear of not accomplishing all we set out to do, or worse, the fear of missing out on something. Visitors to our area also seem to feed off our worrisome disposition when planning their trips though, concerned that they will miss our great display of colors. They hear of this elusive, magical ‘PEAK’ and perhaps think that the show is shortlived. They picture new England as a unit, which leads to broad questions like ‘When will New England foliage be peak this year.’ These notions are far from truth.

Autumn is about change, sure, but the change is actually rather slow.  Color doesn’t come on all at once, but instead begins to emerge about two weeks before peak, and lasts for about two weeks after. Before peak, the color is mixed with green, and after, it’s mixed with rust tones as crispy color increases underfoot. Different species turn at different times too. Long after the birches and maples turn, the beeches and oaks and tamaracks hold their colors. Even the notion of peak itself is in the eye of the beholder, and pinpointing a day that peak occurred any given year is a futile exercise.

Furthermore, though New England is relatively small in area, it has an impressive variety of terrain and geographical features. If we return to the wonderful cool weather of recent mornings, and look at the temperature variations across Vermont, we can easily find a twenty degree spread.

Morning Temperature Variations in Vermont

Morning Temperature Variations in Vermont

There were cool temperatures on the mountain tops, cold air in the valleys and warm breezes near the lake. The progression of autumn follows a similar pattern. The Vermont State Foliage Website shows with these detailed maps how the mountains and high valleys in the far turn colors first, as early as mid September.  This is followed by the spine of the state changing with the turn of the calendar, and finally, perhaps a month after the show started in the Northeast Kingdom, the shores of Lake Champlain reach peak. There are similar patterns in every state through the region (see NH, ME, MA, and CT), and it therefore makes missing the actual pinpointed peak both easy to do at any given location, but near impossible to do over the course of a foliage trip!  Our map here at Yankee Foliage should give you the best idea of how color progresses regionwide.

Color is pervasive throughout New England for almost the whole of the autumn season, and lasts for a few weeks when it arrives at a single location.  Therefore when planning a dream foliage vacation, or just a weekend drive, you should find comfort in knowing that there will be foliage for you to find. If you are too late in the north, drive further south.  Better color may not be all that far away.  If you are too early on the coast, travel inland or up in elevation.  You’ll likely find early color and color that is perhaps past on the same day. You may even arrive at exactly what you envisioned peak would be.  But color, you’ll find it, and it will all be beautiful.

We’ll see you soon!


  • My favorite is right after Peak when the colorful leaves are everywhere including the ground! I can’t wait.

  • Heather

    Yes, no fear as all stages of the fall show are wonderful. I personally like the start of colors mixed with greens. It is exciting to walk and discover a colorful tree. It is so wonderful to watch the color change, as once it starts coming on significant changes can be seen weekly.

    The Cozy Moose Lakeside Cabins

  • Great blog, Jim. I have always felt that “peak” color is one of those impossible definitions. Because change is constant, happens at different times and rates in different places, and because my “peak” may not be the same as your “peak,” there really is no such thing.

    Personally, I LOVE the period just before theoretical “peak” where there is a good mix of reds oranges, yellows and still a fair amount of green in the mix.

    Thanks for sharing this information.


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