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Don’t let fear of missing ‘peak foliage’ ruin the glory of New Hampshire autumn, because it doesn’t really exist

  • In this Oct. 28, 2013 photo, a crimson field of blueberry bushes tinged by autumn stretches to the horizon near Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park in Maine. The nearby Jordan Pond Shore Trail offers stunning views and a way to get your steps in while enjoying the foliage. (AP Photo/William J. Kole) William J. Kole

  • FILE - In this Sept. 28, 2014, file photo, fog sits in the valley of the White Mountains as leaves change colors from Milan Hill in Milan, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole, File) Jim Cole

  • When the colors start to change on the trees, New Hampshire will see a lot of visitors making their way north. AP

  • This is a great time to head outdoors and take in the natural beauty of foliage season. AP

  • In this undated photo provided by the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing, people take in the fall foliage from Owls Head Mountain in Groton State Forest in Vermont. Kettle Pond is seen in the distance. (Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing via AP)



Monitor staff
Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Every year as the days shorten and the weather cools in New Hampshire, tens of thousands of people prepare themselves for what has become a traditional autumnal ritual: Not just leaf-peeping, but using online foliage trackers to find the “peak” moment.

First, however, they have to decide on the peak foliage tracker.

The idea of a website providing regularly updated estimates of leaf color to help you could decide whether to travel to the Lakes Region or the Monadnock Region was pretty exciting back in the early days of the World Wide Web (remember that?).

These days, however, online foliage trackers are almost as numerous as online stores.

New Hampshire state government has one, as does every other state in the Northeast. Publications like Yankee Magazine have them. Regions like the White Mountains have them. Several tour guides have them.

The concept is so popular, in fact, that a whole website has been set up for nothing else, called the Foliage Network. Most of the year it’s pretty boring but that is changing: the first reports from the Northeast were slated to arrive on Friday.

(Surprisingly, at least for us in New Hampshire, the Foliage Network also includes leaf-peeping reports for the southern Appalachian Mountains, from West Virginia through Tennessee. They don’t have sugar maples, the key to New England’s world-famous displays, but at higher elevations they do get some yellows and oranges, so we shouldn’t be too snooty.)

How do these trackers work? Originally they were predictive based on history – that is, they showed where and when leaves had changed color in the past, with the idea that it’s pretty similar from year to year.

This is a reasonable idea, since the reduction in daylight hours is the main trigger to foliage changing color, but it’s far from precise because weather during the summer, and day-to-day weather in early fall, can make a difference. Snagging that difference explains why a number of trackers have opened themselves up to crowd-sourced reports, with pictures and descriptions from people in various places telling what they see.

Consider this as a version of online restaurant reviews, done for foliage – and like online restaurant reviews it is open to being gamed and should be taken with a grain of salt. If you own a hotel or restaurant or tourist site, you have a great incentive to make sure these trackers tell people that your location is awesome. So don’t assume that what you read is true and don’t be disappointed if the reality on the ground doesn’t match a web report.

What does all this mean for the indecisive leaf-peeper wrestling with the dreaded FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out? Here’s a suggestion: Don’t worry about finding “peak foliage” because it doesn’t really exist. (Ignore this month’s Yankee Magazine, which shouts “How to find peak color!” on its cover.)

As long as the leaves in an area have begun changing and there hasn’t been a huge rainstorm to knock most of them off the trees, what really matters in leaf-peeping is that day’s weather. A day of brilliant sunshine on a forest that’s only so-so will be more breath-taking that a forest at so-called “peak” on a cloudy day.

So go ahead use any leaf tracker you want to get a rough sense of where leaves are changing, but don’t live by it. Check the day’s forecast to make sure it will be sunny. Then head out, prepare to drive around a bit, and stop wherever you think it’s beautiful. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, not the World Wide Web.

Oh, one more thing: Stay far, far away from the Kancamagus Highway until November. That road really does become a massive parking lot when the tourists head north.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)