August 15, 2012
If we can talk about back-to-school sales and preseason football in August, then we can discuss one more of autumn's rites: the fall color vacation.
The escape into colorful leaves is like few other vacations: Our standard method of planning six or eight weeks ahead, if not longer, can easily come back to mock us. There's simply no way to know in mid-August what conditions will be like in early October.
But we can try to read the tea leaves (pun intended), particularly the overwhelming clue that July was the hottest month ever recorded in the contiguous United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Let me repeat: ever. And August, similarly, may well be warmer than usual.
Shaun Tanner, Weather Underground meteorologist, said prolonged heat, paired with this summer's widespread drought conditions, could affect this year's colors in two ways: delaying the season, possibly all the way into November for places usually finished in October, and creating a more intense color show, presuming temperatures and precipitation return to normal by September.
A bigger problem would be too much rain, Tanner said, as evidenced by October's deluge that pummeled the Northeast and muted colors compared with previous years.
"Really wet conditions for a sustained period of time can bring up mold that can attack trees," he said. "If we have a continued dry summer into fall, maybe fall colors will turn out a little better."
But, of course, the fall color season will remain in flux until it actually begins in late September. That's why it's like so few other types of vacations and needs to be treated accordingly.
Lesley Carlin, a TripAdvisor spokeswoman who writes that company's "Dear TripAdvisor" column, said few other trips require that same kind of care and attention.
"Fall color trips work best when they're flexible or spontaneous, because the weather is such a variable," Carlin said. "It would be a shame to fly somewhere and have it be unexpectedly cold or have the color be disappointing."
It makes a car essential, providing the flexibility to follow the color.
In New England, she said, "you can go to Maine if the colors are peaking there or west to the Berkshires if that's where it's best. If you have a car, you can adapt according to the weather."
Other tips for mastering a fall colors trip include combing (and participating in) online forums and message boards to ask how things are looking this year in particular spots and to think local, because all the color isn't just in the Northeast. Most major cities have some version of fall color accessible within a four- or five-hour drive (except, perhaps, for Floridians).
She also suggests erring on the side of early rather than late when planning a fall colors trip.
"Maybe the colors won't have peaked, but the weather might be better," she said. "You can still go hiking, and it will still be beautiful even if the trees are still green."
The Travel Mechanic is dedicated to better, smarter, more fulfilling travel. Thoughts, comments and suggestions can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Include "Travel Mechanic" in the subject line. Follow him on Twitter at @traveljosh.
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