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Alabama’s 2021 fall foliage outlook

Ingredients look supportive of great color this fall
Published: Sep. 28, 2021 at 11:36 AM CDT
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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?!

Average time of year for peak fall foliage.
Average time of year for peak fall foliage.(WSFA 12 News)

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.

After seeing it for myself last year, I can say that it 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.

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.

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.

We have just about every ingredient checked off the list for good foliage.
We have just about every ingredient checked off the list for good foliage.(WSFA 12 News)

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 the highest elevations of North Alabama start to exhibit some color as early as next weekend, October 2nd and 3rd! That is not necessarily unheard of, but it is rather unusual.

By roughly October 11th, forecasts are calling for “patchy” to “partial” color across the northern third of the state, with “minimal” color elsewhere. Patchy is the 2nd of 5 levels used to measure the extent of fall foliage; partial is 3rd.

  • 1. Minimal
  • 2. Patchy
  • 3. Partial
  • 4. Near peak
  • 5. Peak
Fall foliage expected by the middle of October.
Fall foliage expected by the middle of October.(Smokymountains.com)

By the following -- October 18th or so -- the color will start to pop a bit more across the state, especially the northern half. That’s where the color level will reach “partial” to even “near peak.” For those roughly south of a Marion to Clanton to La Fayette line, things will still be patchy.

The stretch you really want to circle on your calendar is October 25th thru approximately November 15th.

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 to and middle 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 not even show itself until the second week of November in the southern half of Alabama.

Fall foliage expected by early November.
Fall foliage expected by early November.(Smokymountains.com)

While most years wind up producing a very nice showing of color across the state, 2021 is shaping up to be great. The reasoning behind that is simple: Mother Nature is cooperating. 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 much in the way of long stretches 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 cooler days despite us still being in September.

The only negative -- and it isn’t huge -- is we are currently in the midst of a stretch of above average temperatures. That isn’t killer in terms of seeing phenomenal foliage, but we need to see some more days in the 70s and nights in the 50s.

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

Did you know the leaf colors you see during the fall are actually a direct result of 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.

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.

Chemicals other than chlorophyll take over with cooler weather, leading to the change of color.
Chemicals other than chlorophyll take over with cooler weather, leading to the change of color.(WSFA 12 News)

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!

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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