Fall Foliage in the Poconos: Science, Art, & Fun!

Fall is migration season. The monarchs are on their way to Mexico, the birds are en route to all points south, and humans head for the hills in search of one of nature’s most remarkable displays – the brilliant colors of fall foliage.

It’s no wonder visitors flock to the Poconos at this time of year.

Fall foliage season is not only one of nature’s most striking phenomena, but a fairly predictable one as well. With peak color arriving in mid to late October each year, visitors can plan

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their trips well in advance, as area parks, businesses and tourism agencies prepare for the annual influx of foliage-seeking “leaf peepers”.

For the trees, autumn colors actually begin shaping up months before the typical fall foliage season. A warm, wet spring is ideal for keeping trees healthy, and allows them to develop an abundance of leaves – green at first, but set to transform into the familiar reds, golds and browns of fall.

Those leaves serve a purpose far more important – and far more miraculous – than the simple change of color. They are the primary site of food production for the tree; think of them as “food factories”. These factories turn two common molecules into sugar in a simple recipe: water and carbon dioxide go in, and in a reaction powered by light from the sun, food comes out. Viola! It’s called photosynthesis, from photo, meaning light, and synthesis, to make.

What’s amazing about photosynthesis is

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that it’s something you and I can never do. No matter how hungry we are, no matter how much water, sunlight and carbon dioxide are at our disposal, we cannot make our own food. We can and do, in fact, take in the energy harnessed by this process. Every time we eat seeds, greens, fruits or other plants, we’re taking advantage of the work those plants have done. Even meat eaters rely entirely on photosynthesis for energy, since they’re consuming the cows, chickens and pigs that in turn were fed by plants and plant parts.

Where sunlight is abundant year-round, as in tropical climates, photosynthesis is carried on throughout the year and plants continue the business of food production without interruption. But here, in more northern latitudes, in the poconos and Jim Thorpe,  our trees must come to terms with the decreasing amount of solar energy available in autumn.

Some species continue to capture what little light they can in winter-proof foliage; evergreen trees and shrubs are equipped with waxy, thick leaves designed to withstand the cold. The familiar pyramid shape of most evergreens helps them to shed ice and snow as they hold on to their little food factories all year long.

Deciduous trees – those that lose their leaves during each fall foliage season –store enough food in their trunks and roots to afford shutting down the factories in their fragile leaves come fall. Faced with the approaching cold and increasing darkness, these trees simply cut their losses by dropping their leaves, then hunkering down and waiting for spring.

The factory shut-down begins as trees cease production and begin a breakdown of chlorophyll, the compound responsible for capturing most of the sunlight used in photosynthesis.

Chlorophyll is also what gives green plants their color. As chlorophyll levels drop and green color fades, other pigments in the leaves become apparent. These pigments include orange carotenoids, also responsible for the color of carrots and pumpkins, and yellow xanthophylls, found too in sunflowers and egg yolks.

The scarlet red of maples and dogwoods is another story. This color is produced by pigments called anthocyanins, and their production is triggered by crisp – though not freezing – autumn nights.

Despite the temperature dependence of most of the reds seen in fall, light levels are more critical than temperature for setting color changes in motion. This is why peak color times are fairly easy to predict.

Dates for Jim Thorpe’s Fall Foliage Festival coincide with peak color, even though they are set far in advance.

Pocono area rafting, biking and hiking trips are scheduled to allow visitors a variety of experiences under a colorful forest canopy.

Unfortunately, predictable color doesn’t always mean spectacular color. Certain factors may contribute to disappointing displays at the time of peak color. The caterpillars of the gypsy moth, for example, can defoliate vast expanses of forest in a single summer. The worst invasion of this alien species occurred in 1981, resulting in damage to nearly 13 million acres of trees.

Drought can trigger the early loss of leaves, reducing the overall brilliance of a fall display. Since otherwise healthy trees manage fairly well during periods of reduced rainfall, only severe or prolonged drought significantly affects foliage.

Luckily, neither insect damage nor drought threatens to affect this season’s color. Leaves are on schedule to reward visitors with a spectacular show – and area businesses and parks are preparing to offer those same visitors a variety of ways to experience it.

Jim Thorpe’s Fall Foliage Festival takes advantage of the full length of the fall foliage season. 

Here, leaf peepers will find food, craft and fine art vendors, plus free music throughout the downtown area during autumn’s peak color. With the entire town surrounded by maples, oaks and birches – just to name a few, the view is unforgettable.

One of the best ways to experience the colors of the fall foliage season is by train. The Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway offers autumn tours in open-windowed, 1920s-era rail cars, and visitors can choose from a variety of routes and departure times. Though train rides are available at other times of the year, fall is the time to see the area by rail.

If train rides aren’t your thing, an equally expansive view can be had from atop Flagstaff Mountain, just outside Jim Thorpe. Here, incredible views, as well as Gallo’s Pub and Restaurant are ready to greet those who make the drive up the mountain, a route accessible from Route 209, roughly midway between Jim Thorpe and Lehighton.

A similar experience can be had at Penn’s Peak, also just outside of town. Though not a mountaintop view, the outdoor wooden viewing decks, indoor stone fireplaces and massive log construction of this restaurant and entertainment venue combine to allow visitors the sense of being fully immersed in a Poconos forest.

And speaking of being immersed, there are plenty of opportunities to view fall foliage from in or near the water. Outfitters such as Jim Thorpe River Adventures lead autumn rafting and kayak trips along the Lehigh. The reflection of leaves in the water virtually doubles the amount of red, yellow, orange and gold in view.

The same effect can be seen on the still waters of Beltzville State Park, and at Mauch Chunk Lake. Boat rentals are available at the latter, and the nearby Carbon County Environmental Education Center offers a mid-October fall foliage hike, led by a knowledgeable forest consultant.

Like any of nature’s more impressive displays, autumn colors don’t last forever. That’s not to say a few individual leaves can’t be collected and preserved with color intact. There are actually several ways to preserve autumn leaves, each of them requiring little equipment or preparation.

Traditionally, leaves are pressed between sheets of newspaper flattened by heavy books, or in the books themselves. This may do little to preserve leaf color, and may leave specimens dry and brittle. Soaking the leaves in a solution of glycerin and water can help to preserve both the leaves and their brilliant colors.

Ironing leaves between sheets of waxed paper, or microwaving them for a few seconds at a time are other methods to try. Microwaved leaves should be dry, not brittle or scorched, and flat rather than curled at the edges. They can then be pressed and preserved as mementos of an autumn trip to the Poconos.

Several field guides are available to help identify leaf souvenirs.

There are also cell phone apps to aid in identification, and even one to help pinpoint peak color places and times; “Leaf Peeper” lets users upload photos and contribute data on leaves in their own areas. The phone app also displays color-coded maps, with every county in the U.S. shown as “green”,“turning”, “moderate”, “peak”, “fading” or “gone”.

“Gone” is a strictly human term, of course. Nature puts those colorless, dried leaves to good use as mulch and as fertilizer for next year’s crop of color. That’s the real magic of the autumn season, after all; for a few weeks each year, one moment in nature’s never-ending cycle of growth and decay, life and death, puts on a show that just happens to be pleasing to the human eye.

It’s explainable, predictable, and most years, it’s the most spectacular thing you’ll see in the Poconos.

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