Ingredients are there for an incredible display of fall foliage in Alabama

Leaves will begin changing color in North Alabama as early as October 3rd or so!

Fall foliage 2020 preview

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - Now that fall is officially underway, we can look ahead to the changing of the leaves without feeling guilty, right? I know I am certainly looking forward to the beautiful array of fall colors on the way!

I mean, how can you not be excited to see a bright sea of yellows, golds, oranges, reds, and even purples that the poplars, dogwoods, maples, and hickories display?!

Fall color in DeKalb County at Little River Canyon, Alabama.
Fall color in DeKalb County at Little River Canyon, Alabama. (Source: Dan Brothers)

Alabama -- especially the northern half of the state -- puts on quite the fall foliage show most years. While it may not be at the top of everyone’s list, Alabama’s foliage is some of the best in all of the Southeast.

It even measures up to the best fall color found across the country!

TripSavvy lists North Alabama as having the best foliage in all of the Southeast behind only the Great Smoky Mountains and Blue Ridge Mountains in Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia.

Fall color at Cheaha State Park.
Fall color at Cheaha State Park. (Source: Charlie Seifried)

Rick Harmon with the Alabama Tourism Department says the northern half of the state is just magical this time of year. “You’ll have purples and it just looks like a kaleidoscope gone mad."

While it’s not as amazing, he says that, “Here [in Montgomery area] you’ve got kind of your primary changing colors, but it’s gorgeous.”

With all of the state parks, local parks, heavily wooded areas, mix of elevation, and great mixture of tree types, we truly are fortunate when October and November roll around.

When to look for fall color...

As we’re aware, no two years are exactly the same. That may be frustrating to an extent, but it’s also what makes foliage hunting fun and exciting! You never know exactly what you’re going to see or get.

Fall foliage forecast for October 12th.
Fall foliage forecast for October 12th. (Source: WSFA 12 News/SmokyMountains.com)

What we can tell you is that this year has the makings of a phenomenal year for color in Alabama and adjacent parts of Mississippi, Tennessee and Georgia.

It’s a very realistic possibility that some trees in North Alabama start to exhibit some color as early as next weekend, October 3rd and 4th! That is not necessarily unheard of, but it is rather unusual.

By roughly October 12th, forecasts are calling for “patchy” color across the northern half of the state, with “minimal” color elsewhere. Patchy is the 2nd of 5 levels used to measure the extent of fall foliage.

  • 1. Minimal
  • 2. Patchy
  • 3. Partial
  • 4. Near peak
  • 5. Peak
Fall foliage forecast for November 2nd. Peak color takes hold across the northern half of Alabama.
Fall foliage forecast for November 2nd. Peak color takes hold across the northern half of Alabama. (Source: WSFA 12 News/SmokyMountains.com)

By the following -- October 19th or so -- the color will start to pop a bit more across the state, especially the northern two-thirds. That’s where the color level will reach “partial.” For those roughly along and south of U.S. 80, things will still be patchy.

The stretch you really want (need) to circle on your calendar is October 26th thru approximately November 9th.

That is when the fall color will likely be most widespread and most incredible. Even for areas from Demopolis to Montgomery to Phenix City and points south the color will be well worth your while -- though it may be the early November days for that part of the state.

Of course it’s important to remember these dates are fluid as the exact peak of foliage in any given location is difficult to predict with 100% accuracy. Great color may linger a bit past November 9th in spots.

What to expect if you venture out...

While most years wind up producing a very nice showing of color across the state, 2020 is shaping up to be one of the best we’ve seen.

Virtually everything is supportive of a great fall foliage season in Alabama.
Virtually everything is supportive of a great fall foliage season in Alabama. (Source: WSFA 12 News)

The reasoning behind that is simple: Mother Nature is cooperating pretty much to a tee.

The state as a whole pretty much checks every box there is when looking at the meteorological ingredients necessary for a truly dazzling display of fall color. Obviously we get fall color every year, but it can take off when the weather cooperates.

That’s what is expected to happen this year because we haven’t had any lengthy periods of extreme heat (95-98°+), there haven’t been any problematic drought developments, most of the state is at or well above normal in terms of rain, and we have seen some unusually cool weather already.

Fall in Gadsden, Alabama, at Noccalula Falls.
Fall in Gadsden, Alabama, at Noccalula Falls. (Source: Ken Gables)

Not only that, but we are looking at another 4-7 day period of cool, dry and mostly sunny days in the 70s, chilly (but frostless) nights in the 40s and 50s and very low humidity.

That will occur as we end September and bring in October. Each of those is very supportive of great fall color.

As long as we can keep frost, strong winds and severe thunderstorms away through the end of October and early November, we are set!

This will probably yield a very high amount of people venturing out this fall. Harmon and the Alabama Tourism Department agree strongly with that...

“I think there will be much more of an uptick than there has been [in previous falls], where people just looking to get out and go some place. And this is the perfect excuse where -- with the pandemic -- you can get outdoors, you can be safe, you can take a trip like this, and you can see just gorgeous colors.”

The leaves change because...

They don’t actually change strictly due to the weather.

It all boils down to four pigments within the leaves: chlorophyll (green), xanthophylls (yellow), carotenoids (orange), and anthocyanins (reds and purples). Those are the pigments and the colors they are responsible for displaying in leaves.

When it’s warm and days are long, the leaves produce chlorophyll to allow trees to make energy. This results in the green pigment becoming far and away the dominant pigment within the leaf.

Fall color in DeKalb County at Little River Canyon, Alabama.
Fall color in DeKalb County at Little River Canyon, Alabama. (Source: Dan Brothers)

But when the days start to get shorter in September, October and early November, the trees prepare for winter and following growing season by blocking off the flow of that green chlorophyll from their leaves.

The result is a fading of the green pigment, and a quick uptick in the yellow, orange, red, and purple pigments within the leaf.

What folks often conclude is that the colder weather is the sole reason behind this process. While colder weather is associated with this time of year without question, it’s the shortening of the days that produce the amazing array of fall colors each year!

Where to go to look for the best color...

This is very much a subjective topic as many people probably have their own opinions on where in Alabama to go searching for foliage. The northern half of the state is arguably the up and away victor when it comes to a general geographic location to plan a day or weekend trip.

However, there are places all across the state that will show off this fall. A simple Google search will pull up numerous options and suggestions for you. The Alabama Tourism Department does suggest their “Fall Color Trail." The details on that trip -- which is highly recommended -- can be found here.

Harmon says the state parks and many highways across Alabama provide the absolute best bang for your buck. Some of the absolute best areas to check out, include:

  • Cheaha State Park
  • Palisades Park in Oneonta
  • Guntersville State Park
  • Chewacla State Park
  • Springville-Ashville-Gadsden
  • Jasper-Winfield-Hamilton-Florence
  • Little River Canyon
  • Noccalula Falls
  • Oak Mountain State Park
  • Monte Sano State Park
  • Interstate 59 north of Gadsden
  • Natchez Trace Parkway in Northwest Alabama
  • U.S. 72 near Muscle Shoals

If you want to track the fall foliage forecast whenever you want, you can do so with this very helpful tool.

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