Pennsylvania is among the best states to view the vibrant colors of fall. Here’s a look at when and how the leaves change, the best viewing locations and the effects that climate and environment have on fall foliage.
By Betul Tuncer
Editor’s note: This article was written by Betul Tuncer, an intern with the Pittsburgh Media Partnership (PMP), of which Gazette 2.0 is a founding member.
The state of Pennsylvania is dominated by about 60% forest, which makes for a vibrant display of fall foliage. According to Ryan Reed, natural resource program specialist in the Bureau of Forestry’s communications section, the state starts to see a change in the leaves as early as the last week of September, with most of the leaves changing by early October.
“We have abundant opportunity across the state to view beautiful fall colors without having to drive very far or even walk,” Reed said. “If you get the weather conditions just right, sometimes you can get an overlapping peak, where everywhere you look in the forest, it's just beautiful and vibrant.”
As the weather cools down and nature's growing season comes to an end, the trees stop their production of chlorophyll — the compound that makes the leaves green. The leaves then break down the remaining chlorophyll to reveal the colorful hues of yellow, red and orange.
Around this time each year the PA Bureau of Forestry releases a weekly fall foliage report noting the progress of the foliage and when and where people can view the best colors. Prepared by Reed, the most recent report was published on the Bureau’s website last November and the next one is scheduled for release by Sept. 28.
Reed said he tries to time the first fall foliage report around some signs of change, adding that he’s already heard from foresters in the northeastern portion of the state that they’re “already starting to see a little bit of color across the landscape.”
Many people assume that the leaves change colors because they are dying, according to Kevin Smith, a supervisory plant physiologist at the U.S. Department of Forestry’s Northern Research Station. While the leaves do end up falling by the end of autumn, Smith said in order for a tree to produce the colors everyone loves it must be healthy.
“If you cut a branch off with green leaves and put it in a closet or let it dry out, you're not going to get any of those color changes that we're interested in and the reason for that is that the color change process is a physiological process based on the genetic program of the tree,” Smith said. “That's [also] why different tree species have different colors.”
Depending on the weather conditions throughout the fall season, it takes about four to six weeks for all the trees to reach their peak colors. However, October is typically the main month for fall foliage, according to Reed.
While throughout the last decade climate change has had some effects on the health of forests, Reed said this year’s foliage is expected to peak as usual with little effects from changing climates -- which is a long-term problem that is less observable from year to year.
Smith said that Pennsylvania is among the best places in the U.S. to view the vibrant fall foliage. With its many forests, residents and tourists alike don’t have to look too far to find the spectacular red and vibrant yellow leaves.
Keystone State Park, which is off Route 22 in Westmoreland County and less than an hour’s drive from Downtown Pittsburgh, is a great place to view the foliage, according to Smith. Earlier this month, USA Today voted the state park as the No.1 destination for fall foliage.
Though it's farther from Pittsburgh, Mount Davis – the highest point in the state at 3,213 feet and located in Forbes State Forest near Markleton -- also is a nice location to admire the colorful scene. It has an observation tower that lets visitors view the trees from a higher vantage point, according to Eric Knopsnyder, director of public relations and community outreach for Go Laurel Highlands.
“The other thing that makes [the foliage] especially beautiful in the Laurel Highlands are the changes in elevation,” Knopsnyder said. “As beautiful as the trees may be, if you don’t have different elevations in order to see them, you’re only going to see a few.
“When you can get up on an overlook and look down into a valley and see for miles, that’s when you really get to take in the full scope of the fall foliage.”
The Laurel Highlands has a variety of elevations for people to view the range of fall colors, Knopsnyder said. He added that one of his favorite viewing locations is Beam Rocks, which is a cliff located in Forbes State Forest, roughly 70 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.
For those looking to venture farther away from the city, Packsaddle Covered Bridge, which is about 90 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, offers a picturesque sight this time of year with its historic covered bridge, waterfall and many different trees.
There also are many viewing locations in the Pittsburgh area for those looking to view the foliage without traveling too far. Alex Solar, communications and public relations manager at VisitPittsburgh, noted that the two historic inclines are great places to visit as they have panoramic views of the city that look especially beautiful when the leaves change color.
Pittsburghers can also admire the fall colors by walking or biking along the various trails and parks that line the city’s three rivers.
Come October, Pennsylvanians and tourists alike will have plenty of places to visit and trees to admire with the autumn season in full swing.