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by Bart Arondson

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I will be traveling to the US during between the last week of September and the last week of October, with landscape/nature photography being the main purpose of the trip.

My tentative plans include Yellowstone and/or the Washington North-Cascades loop — ideally I'd like to catch the early off-season rates while still being able to enjoy the fall scenery and weather — and avoid getting snowed-in. Is this a reasonable expectation or will I be getting there too late?

Recommendations for any other locations on both the East and West Coasts would be appreciated.

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4  
Premptive - For anybody who might want to label this as too localized, realize that this covers thousands of photographers. It's localized, its just not too localized. It may be too subjective or other reasons, but not that. –  rfusca Aug 26 '11 at 17:53
    
Also, welcome to the site @fallphotog! –  rfusca Aug 26 '11 at 17:55
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This is an interesting and highly suggestive question but it seems too localized to me, both in space and time :) @rfusca - Please send those 1000s of photographers to me and I'll organize a fall-foliage tour if 1% can make it ;) –  Itai Aug 26 '11 at 18:04
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This question if anything may be too broad. It covers a large part (if not all depending on intent) of the US during the season most popular for landscape photographers. Its hardly dealing with 'green Honda Civic parked out in front of my house'. meta.stackexchange.com/questions/4818/… –  rfusca Aug 26 '11 at 18:20
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Well apparently, anybody interested in a fall foilage photo tour, head over to neovoyage.com and @Itai can hook you up ;) (Truth be told, that'd be awesome to do. Get a tour bus with a bunch of photogs and drive down a coast in the fall. It'd be much more affordable for somebody like me.) –  rfusca Aug 26 '11 at 21:29

6 Answers 6

I think your best bet would be to analyze a peak fall foliage map and use that as a guide to what destinations you want to attempt to shoot. The maps typically use past data to give you a guide to the general time frame that colors are at the peak. They are not going to be solid dates every year, and weather plays a large part in the process.

You have to consider things like rain-fall as well as the low temperature to gauge if the peak is moving forward or backwards. Each states local weather authority likely keeps a foliage map online that allows you to view what percentage the current leaves are towards peak - but if you are planning a trip a few months out this will probably not help much.

I would first look at a historical map such as the one found on Storm Fax here. Once you have a general idea of the typical peak times, you can use a current foliage map such as the one that weather.com has here

As a general rule, locations with colder average lows and or higher elevations will be turning first - or in the first part of your trip. As you move to more temperate climates such as the west coast of Washington, you will find the peak is moved back towards the end of October.

If you are interested in specific parks or destinations, I would look at Flickr and find shots that took place in years past with great examples of foliage. Just make sure you consider more then one set/year because every year it changes.

Overall - any location throughout the northern US provides ample fall foliage opportunities throughout October. The key to getting the absolute peak will either require you to stay in a limited geographic area or be able to quickly move as the colors change while watching local maps. I think your trip has the potential to capture a great deal of the change in the seasons if you are prepared for one of the previous two options.

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I will say that this year may not be the best year to base on historical numbers. The area I'm in (Arkansas) typically has beautiful fall colors, but given this summer's EXTREME dry season, they're expected to be much, much less. –  rfusca Aug 26 '11 at 18:32
    
@rfusca - I agree, when looking at any historical data, you will want to take into account this years weather in particular to get a more accurate picture. But at least this gives you a baseline to start with. –  dpollitt Aug 26 '11 at 19:19
    
Indeed it does give a baseline. –  rfusca Aug 26 '11 at 19:20

I would say a great, beautiful fall location for landscape photography would be Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. This park contains a spectacular view of a beautiful stretch of the continental divide, and during fall, the landscape is painted with a fiery vista of yellows, oranges, and reds as the aspens change color. Here is a shot of the RMNP divide I took during late spring/early summer a couple years ago:

enter image description here (NOTE: Right-click image and say open/view to see full size with peaks labels.)

In addition to RMNP, there are dozens of other state and national parks in Colorado along the divide that present countless other photography options. There are a couple other spots along the divide, such as Mount Elbert, that also offer spectacular vistas. Mount Evans Wilderness is another great area for fall photography, and one can drive up to the top during summer, and to Summit Lake before Labor Day. A short hike gives you a 14,000 foot vista of a very large expanse of the Colorado Rockies that is simply breathtaking in fall...millions of acres of forested mountains covered in fall-colored aspens.

Colorado is a convenient 10 hours (approx) drive from Yellowstone as well, so if you do visit America's most spectacular park, Colorado's beauty is not all that far.

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On the east coast, the peak foliage changes on a less-than-a-week basis, and goes from north to south (obviously). There are online sites that give you a forecast for the peak locations. Basically, all New-England is a great place for such photography. One very nice location is the White-Mountains area in New-Hampshire. During the fall of 2009, we managed to have a few days there at the exact peak-foliage time. This was at Oct. 8th. A few days later, is was in Massachusetts. However, as mentioned in the other answers, this just gives an idea of the time frame and real time tracking is the best practice.

enter image description here

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Great Falls Park just outside of Washington D.C. is one of my favorite Fall places, although you might be leaving before it reaches its peak color time. enter image description here

enter image description here

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These look past peak. –  dpollitt Aug 30 '11 at 17:34
    
Yes, these were taken at least a couple of weeks past peak. These happened to be a couple samples that I had handy. It is typically very colorful out there during the peak period. –  AndrewStevens Aug 30 '11 at 19:30

I do know that Yellowstone and Grand Teton usually close shortly after the Labour Day weekend (so sometime in September). The NPS website should have information as to the exact dates. Expect facilities to start closing down over a period of several weeks before that (lodges, restaurants, shops) as traffic winds down. Grand Teton is a magnificent place for shooting, was there around late august 2004 myself and brought home several thousand frames :)
Also consider the Mount Rainier area, which can be accessed easily from the town of Packwood, Wa (2 inns/hotels there, don't expect anything fancy) which will be cheaper, better located (IMO) and less busy than the more touristy places (it's mostly a logging town). Very nice fall foliage there, and the waterfalls and valleys make for a nice backdrop as you explore the Mount Rainier area.
http://www.usefilm.com/image/581086.html
http://www.usefilm.com/image/567509.html
http://www.usefilm.com/image/565579.html
http://www.usefilm.com/image/566672.html

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Check out my blog post http://www.thecreativescorner.com/2010/10/08/photographing-fall-colors/ for links to site about shooting locals and websites that track when the leaves change color.

Have Fun, Jeff

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