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Every fall, tourists flock to New England to watch the forests light up in shades of yellow, orange and red. While the peak time to observe foliage in northern New England is almost past, experts say southeastern Connecticut's best color is just around the corner.
Although some people may have heard talk of an early fall this year, that's not accurate, according to the University of Connecticut's Cooperative Extension Forestry Program's Senior Educator Robert Ricard. The chemical changes that cause leaves to change color are triggered primarily by decreasing daylight hours, so the foliage tends to appear at roughly the same time each year.
The decreasing light signals an end to the growing season, said Ricard, which causes plants to produce less chlorophyll, a chemical that helps the plant harvest energy from light. The green chlorophyll masks other pigments that are present in the leaves, so as the chlorophyll decreases the yellows, oranges, reds, purples and browns produced by the other pigments start to show.
While fall as a season may not be coming early, Department of Energy and Environmental Protection State Forester Christopher Martin said a few branches here and there are showing color early.
That phenomenon was most likely caused by storms seen in recent years, which could have damaged branches without breaking them fully, said Martin. The leaves begin to change color earlier under stress.
The best time to view foliage in Connecticut varies by species and geography, explained Ricard, but he expects the color to peak in southeastern Connecticut around the third or fourth week of October.
"I consider (the red maple) the prettiest," said Ricard, adding that tree starts to turn earlier than many other species. Other particularly colorful species are sugar maples and sumac, a bush often found along roadsides that turns a bright red, said Ricard. Oak trees, which often produce reddish-brown foliage, are some of the last trees to turn.
The most intense color will usually be around water sources, such as swamps and bogs, said Ricard, and hillsides can also be good places to look.
Ricard recommended that southeastern Connecticut residents looking for a good viewing spot may also want to pay a visit to Pachaug State Forest in Voluntown. The 24,000-acre state forest is the largest in Connecticut and includes the Pachaug River, which runs through the center of the forest.
Ricard said this fall should produce a decent display of color because the plants saw a good growing season in the spring and summer, with minimal interference from large storms or droughts. Strong growing seasons lead to bigger and more abundant leaves, he explained, making the color more dramatic.
While Ricard says the best foliage may still be a few weeks away, Martin believes the best time to view autumn color in Connecticut may be this coming weekend.
This weekend is "probably going to be the best in a few years," said Martin, who added that the forecast includes a little rain but no wind.
He recommended several state parks that, while they might be a bit of a drive for New London-area residents, offer spectacular views of the state's autumn foliage.
Soapstone Mountain at Shenipsit State Forest, which is in Stafford, Somers and Ellington, offers great viewing, said Martin. The mountain has an observation tower where, according to the DEEP's website, visitors can take in the park's 7,078 acres and see as far as the Connecticut River Valley in the south and the Springfield skyline in the north.
Shenipsit State Forest also allows visitors to participate in activities such as fishing, hiking, mountain biking, picnicking, hunting and horseback riding. The park also includes a Civilian Conservation Corps museum.
Martin also suggests the Heublein tower at Talcott Mountain State Park in Simsbury and Dennis Hill State Park in Norfolk.