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Leafing through a Web of fall color

August 17, 2003|James Gilden | Special to The Times

For travelers planning a fall foliage pilgrimage, the abundance of resources on the Web can be both a blessing and a curse. States from Maine to California trumpet their fall colors on their official Web sites. Regional sites for New England and the Midwest have sophisticated tools for predicting fall colors; the federal government site provides information about fall colors in national forests.

After extensive looking, I came up with some sites that were helpful in planning for the optimal fall color vacation.

The leaves begin to turn in some popular destinations in mid-September, and by the time October rolls around, fall foliage season is in full bloom. Finding last-minute lodging on busy weekends can be difficult.

"Towns like Kennebunkport [Maine] have as many as 30 buses a day going through town in early October," said Steve Lyons, spokesman for the Maine office of tourism.

Many of the better sites provide information about lodging, driving routes and activities other than fall color. But the primary focus of these sites is determining the best dates and places for maximum color.

There are seemingly as many theories about the best dates for fall color as there are leaves on trees. Leaves change color based on a variety of factors, including light, temperature and soil conditions, according to Vermont, the official Web site for Vermont tourism. Color starts in northern regions and at higher elevations, progressing south and downward, but the exact timing varies year to year.

Many of the sites I checked were still preparing for the season at the Travel section's deadline Tuesday. Still, on many of the sites you can find information from previous years that is still useful. is one of the best-developed sites I found. It is sponsored by Yankee Magazine, a lifestyle publication for New England founded in 1935. It is owned by Yankee Publishing, of Dublin, N.H., also the publisher of the Old Farmer's Almanac, which has been making predictions about the weather and such since 1792. If anyone can predict when the leaves will turn, it should be these folks.

The site even has a foliage forum, where visitors can ask questions of locals.

"It is impossible to pick a prettiest day or prettiest route," writes Donna in response to a question posted in the forum. She recommends Columbus Day weekend (Oct. 13 this year) in Concord, N.H.

Other forum writers have other ideas.

"In my opinion (and trust me, everyone has their own opinion on this subject), the best time to head to New England is ... October 4th to the 16th," writes Chris from New York.

"People on the forum sort of act as de facto foliage experts and take a lot of pride in answering questions," says Ian Aldrich, the Internet editor for Yankee Magazine. has a color-coded map of New England showing approximate dates of peak color by region, from mid-September in northern Vermont to late October in coastal Maine and Massachusetts. As the season gets underway, you can access updates on foliage on the site's interactive foliage map, where detailed reports are provided by local foliage ambassadors. There are also links to more than 30 Web cams scattered throughout the region, which provide an up-to-the-hour live view of fall color progression.

Another good site, Foliage, was started in 1999 by Marek Rzonca after he visited a nearly empty New Hampshire B&B during a time of peak color. When he asked the proprietor why there were so few visitors, he was told that several major East Coast newspapers were reporting that color was already past peak.

Rzonca, a meteorologist by training and an avid leaf-peeper who lives in upstate New York, decided to create a Web site to provide more accurate and timely foliage information.

Every year starting in September, he collects data twice weekly from more than 500 "foliage spotters," mostly innkeepers throughout New England, the Southeast and the Midwest. The data are then plotted, analyzed and posted to his site and published in several newspapers. Last year the site had about 180,000 visitors.

"I found that I tend to have some of the most accurate information, even more so than the state sites," Rzonca says. For example, the state of New Hampshire has eight spotters for its Web site; has 39 for New Hampshire, he said. Spotters get a free listing for their inn on the site. He has found the innkeepers to be truthful and, by virtue of their numbers, more accurate.

If your plans include a specific state, visit that state's Web site. (You can find all 50 at by clicking on "Sourcebook" under "Trip Planning" and then "State and U.S. Territories Tourist Offices.") Many of the sites listed in the accompanying chart also provide links to state sites.

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