For the Best Fall Foliage, Keep an Eye on the Weather
Anyone who wants to take advantage of peak fall foliage season in Connecticut this year is best advised to keep an eye on the weather, says Connecticut State Forester Christopher Martin. He says, as things stand now, it’s already looking a little bit different than last year.
“Last year, everything lined up beautifully,” he said. “We had rain during the summer, then we got some colder temperatures in September. And then everything popped at once, starting right around Columbus Day and working south. This year, we see that the transition is occurring already. Prior to the rain coming, the trees were already shutting down for the year,” in part due to the drought.
“Especially in the thin-soiled areas by the highways, in the cuts, where the ledges are exposed, but even in the more moist areas we were seeing leaves get dull and not so green,” he said. And then, about three weeks ago, the shoreline and most of the rest of Connecticut experienced a generous rainfall and “everything spun back to life.”
So, now, the timing of the peak season will depend in part when we start to get some cooler nights in the 40s and 30s.
“In some areas, the foliage will kind of peter out early. Because of the drought, the trees already shut down. But in other locations, I think we might be looking at a really great year and something more akin to last year.”
Some Areas May Fall Short
Parts of the state that traditionally experiences a fabulous foliage season, such as some portions of the Northwest Hills of Connecticut, might not because for the second year in a row, the North American gypsy moth, an invasive species also known as the spongy moth has defoliated many of the trees.
“Between that and the summer drought, we have a lot of oaks in trouble,” he said.
If the weather stays on course with periodic rains and cooler nights, by Columbus Day weekend some of the higher elevations in Goshen and Cornwall will start to turn, and then the area around Union, Thompson, and Putnam in the Northeastern corner of the state will start to turn.
“It’ll work its way south from there and wrap up along the shoreline, the first or second week of November.”
Still, because of the drought, he added, some areas that have experienced spectacular colors in past years may not this year.
“It will be sporadic and pocket-y,” he said.
So, for those who want to put aside time for a day hike or a picnic in the midst of peak color, he said, this will be a good year to keep an eye on a weather app.
“You’ll get some upper 30s, and then it’ll be like three or four days later and all of the sudden, people will really start to notice the change.”
The Wild Card
The wild card in this scenario? The always present possibility of some sort of weird extreme weather event, such as a tropical storm, a hurricane, or a Snowtober event like the Nor’easter that hit in 2011. Many trees still had all of their leaves at the end of October, and then the show came and the trees came crashing down.
On a positive note, New England and Connecticut in particular, remain among the best areas in the world to see the spectacular change come fall. And one major reason for that is our diversity.
“We’re kind of uniquely situated where you have the central Appalachian hardwood species mix, which is like your tulip trees, your hickories, your oaks, and some birch, black birch in particular. They’re in Connecticut. And then at the same point in Connecticut, and even in the same acre of land, we have the Northern hards [hardwoods]. So that’s your sugar maples. That’s your other types of white birches. Ash trees to some extent. So I think that’s what makes Connecticut stand out. On any given acre of woodland you can have like 15 different tree species.”
And each tree species, lucky for us, is a different kind of color.
“So the other extreme is like Colorado, where they only hardwood they have are the Aspens, right? So yellow is pretty in and of itself, but it’s just yellow. Right? We even can compete with Vermont and New Hampshire,” he said. “Yeah, they have all the stately mountains and what not. And they have a diverse forest, you know. But they don’t have the amount of tulip, poplar, and the other central Appalachian hardwoods that we have. So they miss out on a lot of the yellows.”
One Of The Best Places
One of the best places to experience and enjoy that diversity is right along the shoreline, particularly near the mouth of the Connecticut River.
“The soils are really very, very rich and very fertile at the mouth of the Connecticut River. And that stretches down through Haddam, near Gillette Castle. Where you have these rich soils, you have the best diversity of trees. And then, because of the hills that go along the Connecticut River, you have this really scenic backdrop with the different colored leaves combined together. That really puts on a spectacular show.”
The Valley Railroad, also known as the Essex Steam Train and Riverboat, likely will be one of the best places to visit during foliage season this year, he says.
“And then you have the [Goodspeed] Opera House and some really cute little places to pull off and enjoy a short hike.”
Another good bet this year is Hurd State Park on Route 151 in East Hampton.
“Hurd State Park comes to mind. That’s a nice location and it’s easy walking. There is a lot of newly paved road there, too,” he said. “Voluntown is also a very pretty location near Mount Misery. But that area was hit a little harder because of the drought. So if you’re going to go to that area you need to go a little earlier. The leaves are starting to do some changing down there already.”
We Can Do More
For all of the breadth, depth, and diversity of Connecticut’s forests, the Connecticut Forest and Park Association is concerned that the state should be doing more. The Connecticut General Assembly in 1997 set this goal, that by 2023, 21 percent of the state’s land should be open space, owned by the state, land trusts, municipalities, and water companies. At the rate land acquisitions are going, the state will fall short by about 165,000 acres.
With some effort and a re-commitment to that goal, Martin said the state still might make it, if not in 2023, then perhaps at some point soon after that.
“The good news is that the woods are still there. And Connecticut’s budget season is far different now than it has been in recent times. It’s better. And the governor has amped up open space bonding. And we have more federal dollars coming into the state between the Inflation Reduction Act and the bipartisan infrastructure law. So there will be an even greater opportunity to save more land. So we might not meet the near term goal. But that goal still can be attained.”
Anyone who wants to nudge that goal forward could talk with their state legislators about making it a priority, along with supporting local land trusts, and supporting any municipal efforts to set aside land.
“The quality of life is very dependent upon its landscape,” said Martin. He added that the more developed a town is, the more it costs to run it. Houses mean more schools, more police and fire services, and more municipal support in other areas.
“And, therefore, property taxes go up. Woodlands require very little in community services. Right? Trees don’t have to go to school. Trees don’t loiter. So open space is actually a money maker for municipalities.”
Martin said he is encouraged by the fact that Connecticut already has some very strong land use conservation policies in place, including favorable property taxation rates for woodland owners of 25 or more acres.
“And the land trust community in Connecticut is one of the strongest in the nation.”
He added that about 70 percent of all woodlands in Connecticut is owned by private individuals. And the average age of the owners is somewhere in the 60s.
“Woodland owners in Connecticut are getting older,” he said. “They are there. They are well educated. Many of them are doing pretty well financially. But some of them are nervous about the best way to preserve this land going forward. We call it the silver tsunami. What is going to happen in the next 20 years or so is that there will be a tremendous amount of land exchanging hands. It might be sold. It might be split up among children.”
And many of these owners, whether parents or children, may well want to keep the woods as woods. “So anything the state or land trusts can do to facilitate that will be good,” he says.
To find out more:
Essex Steam Train: essexsteamtrain.com/
The Goodspeeed Opera House: www.goodspeed.org/
Hurd State Park: portal.ct.gov/DEEP/State-Parks/Parks/Hurd-State-Park/Getting-Here
Mount Misery: www.alltrails.com/trail/us/connecticut/mount-misery
Pachaug State Forest: portal.ct.gov/DEEP/State-Parks/Forests/Pachaug-State-Forest-Chapman-Area