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Late season hot spots for leaf peepers

By Thom Patterson, CNN
  • 2009 fall foliage season peaking later than usual, say experts
  • November peaks expected in North Carolina, Georgia mountains, Arkansas
  • Arkansas uses Web technology to offer updated leaf peeping info
  • Sudden aspen decline affects Western states; New Mexico mountains may peak soon

(CNN) -- U.S. trees are exploding in brilliantly colorful fall foliage this year in many regions, thanks to stellar growing conditions and excellent temperatures, say experts.

In fact, it's still not too late to enjoy the peak of the season in parts of the Southwest and South, according to plant physiologists.

"We have a good mixture of colors this year," said Howard Neufeld, who keeps close tabs on North Carolina's Appalachian Mountains region. Barring any storms that might shake leaves off the trees, Neufeld said, "I think you can get another two weeks for fall color from 2,000 feet down to 1,000 feet."

Among the top leaf peeping sites for early and mid-November are Linville Falls and Grandfather Mountain. Grandfather has passed its peak, said Neufeld, a professor of plant physiology at Appalachian State University. "But there is some color from oaks, which hang on almost all winter to their leaves," he said.

Recent cool weather is going to stimulate development of the color, and Neufeld believes it helped not to have a severe drought this year.

Map: Finding the Southern fall colors

Neufeld also suggested Wayah Bald, near Franklin, North Carolina, where a forest observation tower allows spectacular views of the area's yellow, red, green and brown canopy of foliage.

Also, across the border in Georgia, "Brasstown Bald is always a great place to go," said Neufeld. Brasstown Bald, near Blairsville, Georgia, is the highest point in the state.

To the east of the Appalachians, in North Carolina's Piedmont region, leaf expert Dick Thomas reports leaves are peaking a bit later this year.

Despite the fact that poplar trees have lost a lot of leaves so far, the remaining leaves are "providing a very nice blast of yellow, mixing with orange and pink maples."

Thomas, executive director of Piedmont Environmental Center, recommends a scenic drive from Greensboro south on Route 220 to Asheboro, where the North Carolina Zoo offers unique leaf peeping among the Uwharrie Mountains. The zoo bills itself as one of the largest natural habitat zoos in the nation.

The Appalachians boast some of the best color in the entire Southeast region during this late part of the season , said Marc Abrams, who's been studying leaf coloration for the past 23 years at Penn State University. "The farther south you go, the later coloration period is."

The Northeast, which has long been the nation's traditional leaf peeping capital, has already peaked this year, albeit later in the season than normal, according to Abrams. "Our peak came seven to 10 days late this year," said Abrams. "It was probably due to cloudiness, frequent rain and warm weather. We normally peak in mid-October."

Arkansas is using Web technology and smartphones to create a nimble communications network for leaf peepers looking for the best spots.

Smartphone users can download special applications that will allow them to scan online Arkansas tourism advertisements. The ads have special embedded "quick response codes" that link smartphone users to handy maps and other useful information.

Arkansas leaves are expected to peak in the first two weeks of November in the Ozark Mountain region at Lake Fort Smith and the Ouachita Mountains, said Dena Woerner of the state parks and tourism department.

Pay special attention to spectacular leaf peeping along Crowley's Ridge and the Delta region, she said.

Also, Hot Springs National Park will be good during the first half of November, according to Woerner. "The hickories are turning yellow and they're very pretty, along with the cypress, maples, oaks, dogwoods and goldenrod in the underbrush," she said. "From the ground up you've got a real tapestry of color this year."

For additional activities, visit Hot Springs' traditional bathhouses. The town, a gambling mecca for gangsters during the 1930s, boasts two historic hotels and the Gangster Museum of America.

Not far from Hot Springs is Lake Catherine State Park, where Woerner said autumn colors will be outstanding. "There are waterfalls there that are gorgeous," she said.

From the ground up you've got a real tapestry of color this year.
--Dena Woerner, Arkansas Dept. of Parks and Tourism

In Colorado, where the yellow aspen is king, leaf touring for 2009 was less than stellar, according to local reports. Parker-based nature photographer Morris McClung said Kebler Pass, where foliage is usually a "sensory overload," has disappointed his colleagues.

Aspens, said McClung, are "Colorado gold," but a natural phenomenon blamed on drought called sudden aspen decline has damaged many of the trees. "There are still pockets of color if you know where to look."

Another photographer, Adam Schallau, raved about the aspens. "Their leaves take on translucence to them. They almost glow during certain times of day," he said. But this year, Schallau said he was really disappointed.

The Taos, New Mexico-based photographer said he expects good leaf peeping in early November at his home state's Bandelier National Monument, where cottonwoods and box elders will catch the eye.

The state's Jemez Mountains, near Santa Fe, will also be a ripe place to see brilliant leaves, said Schallau.

"We're also getting a lot of color along the Rio Grande river -- not necessarily in trees although they are there -- but we also get a lot of brush and scrub," said Schallau. "There's a lot of really nice color right now."