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The weather is getting cooler, the days shorter, and the leaves have started changing. Briana Heaney sat down with Park Ranger Dave Bieri at the Canyon Rim Visitor Center in the New River Gorge Park and Preserve recently to talk about why the leaves change and where to go to see some of those warm fall colors.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Heaney: Why do the colors change in the fall?
Bieri: So most of the year, deciduous trees look green. And that’s because of the production of chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is the pigment in the leaves that gives it that green color. And that’s used for photosynthesis which is basically the way that trees produce food. Throughout the year, the chlorophyll is giving the leaves their green color, and we don’t see some of the other pigments. So the fall comes along, and these trees stop their food production for the season. It is really related to the temperatures, but also the lack of sunlight in the fall. So when that chlorophyll shuts down, some of those other pigments start to show up. The yellows are pigments that are already in the leaves that start to show themselves, the reds have to do more with the sugars that are stored in the leaves. The trees that turn more of a red color have more sugar present in the leaves.
So different species of trees do turn different colors. When it gets cold the veins and those leaves seal off and the sugars are trapped in the leaves. And that’s what you’re seeing with the bright red and orange colors.
Heaney: What are the different elements that go into determining the fall foliage forecast?
Bieri: So there’s a lot of different variables, and I don’t think we totally understand all the variables that make for good fall colors. But the best thing in the fall is going to be some nice warm sunny days. And then cooler nights. It’s also good for having some precipitation in the springtime before the growing season earlier in the spring season. If we get a good wet spring, and then the fall comes along, you get some sunny days and cool nights. That’s what really will give you the best colors.
Heaney: What chemicals or elements make the warm, bright colors that we associate with autumn?
Bieri: So the carotenoids are the yellow pigments in the leaves, and those are pigments that are there year-round. Chlorophyll is what makes the green pigment and the chlorophyll, or lack of chlorophyll in the fall is what lends these other pigments to come out. The sugars in the leaves are really what gives it the red colors.
Heaney: How does precipitation affect the colors?
Bieri: So for precipitation, they say good precipitation in the springtime actually helps with fall foliage. It’s better during this time of year to get sunny weather as opposed to more rain.
Heaney: How about rain during the fall?
Bieri: I don’t know that it’s as important for rain during the fall. Obviously, if you get some periods of drought, that may affect how soon leaves turn, but it really varies a whole lot depending on different species.
Heaney: Why do the trees change colors and fall in the autumn? And what role does this play in the lifecycle of a tree?
Bieri: So in the lifecycle of a tree, trees are plants that produce their own food. And they do that through a process called photosynthesis, where they’re taking sunlight and producing food. And a big part of that is the chlorophyll. That is the green pigments in the leaves. They use that to produce food. So when the leaves stop producing food, basically the tree stopped producing food in the fall. As the days start to get shorter, nights are getting longer, the temperatures are getting cooler, the trees stop producing food. So at that point, they’re not producing those green pigments anymore.
Heaney: What are some colors that we can expect from certain trees?
Bieri: So different trees produce different colors. I think some of the most brilliant colors here come from the maples. That’s where you get the really orange and red colors from the sugar maples and different kinds of maples here. Oak is usually more yellowish brownish, but the maples are probably the most vibrant of all the leaves here.
Heaney: Would you give me some more trees?
Bieri: The beech trees. I think they’re more the yellow pigments. And then you know what’s really neat here, too, is we have a mix. You also have some coniferous trees that are evergreens, you got rhododendrons all around here, which are all also evergreens. So you still have some of the green which really gives it a diversity of different color palettes here.
Heaney: How does the height of a tree or even the height of a branch of a tree affect how quickly the colors change?
Bieri: I don’t think the height of the tree would really affect how fast the colors change. What will affect color change is the elevation you know. The higher elevations in the park are where leaves are going to start to turn. They turn quicker in higher elevations in the park or places where it’s going to be a little bit cooler. Now the leaves are just starting to turn here at the Canyon Rim Visitor Center. But if you went up to Grandview, which is one of the higher elevations in the park, you’ll probably see a little bit more fall colors. Even just where I live in Beckley. I’m seeing more fall colors than here at Canyon Rim just because it’s a little bit higher in elevation.
Heaney: Yeah, that takes me to my next question. What is the timeline for some of the colors here in southern West Virginia? You mentioned a couple of those places, but what’s the timeline for the park?
Bieri: So it’s hard to predict exactly when leaves turn colors and is different every year depending on conditions. We usually say the middle of October is when we really start seeing the peak of fall colors in this part of West Virginia. But it varies and it starts at the higher elevations first. So right now, we’re seeing just a little bit of fall colors here at the Canyon Rim, where we’re sitting today, but if you go out to the higher elevations in the park — probably up at Grandview, you’re going to see a little bit more fall colors.
I think in another week or two we should really be getting into the peak. It’s already starting on the higher elevations further north in the state. The leaves are already getting close to peak in some places. So we’re probably another couple of weeks out if people want to see what the leaves are doing here. Before you plan to drive out here, we actually do have a webcam on our website. And the webcam is stationed right here at canyon rim visitor center focused into the gorge so you can kind of get a visual of what it looks like before you drive out here if you want.
Heaney: How will this year’s colors compare to last year’s colors, or years past?
Bieri: I think so far it’s looking like it’s going to be a good year. Just by the colors I’ve seen in other places where they’re starting to turn already.
Heaney: Tell me what are some trails here that visitors can hike on, or walk along that is going to give them spectacular views of the fall foliage.
Bieri: Really, you can see fall colors anywhere in the park, but some of the trails that take you out to the viewpoints are especially scenic this time of year. If you head out to Long Point or the Grandview rim trail up at Grandview those trails are going to give you those really beautiful panoramic views. And a lot of it depends on where the colors are when you visit. Again the higher elevations are where they’re going to be starting now. So right now I’d look for some of those trails like the Grandview rim trail up at Grandview, where it’s a little higher elevation, you’re gonna see more colors. But later on in the season, if you get here, it may be better, you know, at some of the trails that are down in the lower gorge. Like you know, Stone Cliff Trail running along the river might be a fun one for later in the season.
Heaney: What are some of those trails like?
Bieri: The other is the Stone Cliff trails, one that just runs right alongside of the river so you get some beautiful river views and with the fall colors, it’s even more beautiful at later points. One of the great trails right here by Canyon Visitor Center today, not to overlook, is the trail right across the street from us, is the Burnwood Loop Trail. Which is a small little trail that doesn’t get a lot of attention usually, but we’ve recently identified some old growth trees on there. So it’s a beautiful place to see some really big trees and a variety of different trees.