And while New England is the undisputed queen of classic autumn scenery, other regions brag about foliage too, from Yosemite National Park in California to North Carolina's mountains to Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The U.S. Forest Service links to fall color reports in all but a few states.
Verna Pratt, who has coauthored five books about Alaska's native plants, grew up in Massachusetts and admits that "nothing matches the maples" back east in the fall. "But there are things that bring good colors here in Alaska," added Pratt, who lives in Anchorage. "I love going up in the mountains in September here to see the yellows of the willows and the orange of the blueberries and the red of the bearberries and the purpley fireweed."
In most regions, color appears first in northerly areas and higher elevations, then gradually spreads to valleys, coastal areas and southerly regions. But precisely when the leaves turn, and how brilliant the colors will be, can't be predicted too far in advance, because it depends on early fall weather.
"One of the things that is really critical is cool nights," said Howard Neufeld, a professor of plant physiology at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. "Starting in September, if it starts to get cool but not below freezing, if you have clear cool days and cool nights, it stimulates fall color."
Cold and rainy weather, with less sunlight, results in fewer reds. That's because sunlight stimulates red pigment, Neufeld said. And if it's too warm, chlorophyll stays active longer, keeping leaves green. Trees need cool temperatures to degrade chlorophyll and "reveal the red and orange colors," Neufeld said.
Some people like the unpredictability. "It's all a pattern but it's never the same, which is what's really cool about it," said Suzi Brakken, a self-described "fall color nut" and director of California's Plumas County Visitors Bureau. "It's a new show every year."
Here are some details on where and when to see fall foliage in five parts of the country - Alaska, New England, Michigan, North Carolina and California.
In Fairbanks and Denali National Park, "fall will begin mid-August and it will be peaking there the end of August and first week of September," said Kyle Kelley, general manager of Alaska Wildland Adventures, whose late summer tours include fall foliage viewing in Denali and other areas. Fall lasts just a few weeks, "and then all of a sudden those bright colors are gone, and you're into winter pretty quickly," he said.
But on the Kenai Peninsula and in Anchorage, "we have a more temperate climate. The fall colors kick in about the third week of September and into the first week of October," Kelley said.
John Hall Jr. says late summer tours from his company, John Hall's Alaska, "are always the first to sell out. The high demand for the last part of August is because of the fall colors." His itineraries include three national parks where fall color in the tundra at high elevation starts in August: Denali, Wrangell-St. Elias and Gates of the Arctic. He said Aug. 25-Oct. 5 is his "favorite time of year because you're getting those colors."
What To Look For: Cottonwoods, aspens and birch (yellow); bearberries and blueberries (red and orange); and fireweed (purple).
Foliage in New England usually peaks the last week of September through mid-October, according to Jeff Folger, a photographer and blogger who chases fall color and tracks foliage for Yankee magazine.
Folger advises travelers to pick a central location as a base of operations, such as Conway, N.H., Woodstock or Bennington, Vt., the Berkshires in Massachusetts, or Sebago Lake in Maine. Then explore the area rather than trying to cover too much ground in a couple days. If you can only do one trip, Folger says Oct. 4-10 is often a prime color week, with southern New Hampshire a good place to start. Best trees for color include maples, red oaks and birches.
Folger plans to take the ferry from Vermont to New York across Lake Champlain on Columbus Day, its final day of operations for the season. Then he'll spend the last half of October in southern and coastal New England: Cape Cod, Connecticut, Rhode Island.
"Near the coast is the last place you'll find color," he said, "where it's lower and warmer." While he's there, he likes to check out the cranberry harvests or and King Richard's Faire in Carver, Mass., a fall Renaissance festival.
What to Look For: Maples, red oaks and birches.
On the Web: Yankee magazine
Fall color can be found in many parts of the state, such as the Upper Peninsula's hardwood forests and the northwest region including Petoskey, Charlevoix and Traverse City.
"From mid-September to late October, we see a variation of fall color rolling through from the western Upper Peninsula to the southeastern portion of the state," said Kirsten Borgstrom of Travel Michigan. "The lakes tend to pop toward the last moment, mid- to late October."
Recommended destinations include Michigan wineries, parks like Pictured Rock National Park in Munising, and scenic roads like M119, nicknamed the "Tunnel of Trees" for a dense leafy canopy "that makes it look like evening in the middle of the day," Borgstrom said. M119 runs north of Petoskey to Cross Village near the Lake Michigan shore.
On the Web: Travel Michigan
Fall color usually appears in the mountains the second week in October at 3,000-5,000 feet, said Neufeld, the Appalachian State University professor. Good leaf-peeping places include Newfound Gap and Clingmans Dome in the Smokies; Mount Mitchell, which is the highest peak in eastern North America; and the Blue Ridge Parkway, which starts in Virginia but runs through North Carolina and Tennessee, between Asheville and the Smokies, with many scenic overlooks.
What to Look For: Sugar maples (orange and red), tulip poplars (yellow), sassafras black gum (red), sourwood (red), birches (yellow), and oaks (red or brown).
On the Web: Leaf Reports
In Yosemite National Park, as in other places, "fall colors arrive at different times in different areas," said Kenny Karst, spokesman for DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite Inc., the park's concessioner. In Tuolumne Meadows, at 8,500 feet, October is the best time for foliage. But in Yosemite Valley, at 4,000 feet, "it's not uncommon to see trees turning colors sometimes even later than the first week of November," Karst said.
Dogwood trees are among the most spectacular. "In the fall, the leaves of the tree turn beautiful shades of pink and magenta," Karst said. "Coming in and out of Yosemite, either on Highway 41 from the south or Highway 120 from the northwest, there are a lot of dogwood trees right next to the highway."
One pretty fall hike recommended by Karst is from Tuolumne Meadows downstream along the Tuolumne River to the area of Glen Aulin. Camps here close early September, but the hike can be done round-trip in a day. Yosemite also has its own Grand Canyon near Tuolumne Meadows, farther upstream and out of Glen Aulin, accessible only on foot. Aspens also turn the landscape yellow in fall just outside the eastern edge of Yosemite by Tioga Pass, in the area of Virginia Lakes and north of the Inyo National Forest.
Leaf-peepers also find their way to the Plumas National Forest and other places around Plumas County, in the Sierra Nevada range in the eastern part of California. The county seat, Quincy, is about 80 miles from Reno, Nev.
Colors usually peak there the third week of October but can last until early November, said Brakken, the Plumas County Visitors Bureau director. The yellows and reds make a lovely contrast with the local landscape's usual hues of dark green conifers, gray granite mountains and blue skies. "When the fall color comes," Brakken said, "it is just so shockingly popping out at you."
What To Look For: Broadleaf maples (yellow), oaks (yellow and brown), cottonwoods (yellow) and in the high country, aspen (yellow).
By BETH J. HARPAZ