Leaf-peeping in 2020 to offer epic fall colors, experts say

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IRON RIVER — In early August, months before peak color season showcases U.P. autumn in its full splendor, evening temperatures begin to dip -- triggering foliage into its behind-the-scenes preparation for the upcoming costume change.
And this year in particular is slated to be a banner year, according to tour guide, travel-blogger and leaf-peeping expert Steve Jurmu.
“I think it will be one of our best seasons in quite a while,” he said in early September of the upcoming fall color change.
Jurmu has been tracking leaf change in the Upper Peninsula since 2014, via his website Fun in the U.P. (funintheup.com). He said that the ample amount of rain combined with the cooling temperatures in August have set area forests up to have a particularly stunning year.
While still early in the season, Jurmu said the extra water in the soil should ultimately protect foliage from color killers like stretches of dry, 80-degree days or premature freezing temperatures.
The pace and vibrancy of leaf change depends on a few factors: temperature, the amount of sunlight, and moisture levels.
“Those factors can change how fast the colors change and how good the colors are,” Jurmu said. “The past few years, we haven’t had weather like this, so now we’re seeing colors starting to progress pretty quickly. If we continue to get this low-50s and 40s, color season will come along pretty good.”
The start of color change is triggered by shorter days and dipping temperatures as summer passes its halfway point. Photosynthesis slows. Trees stop producing chlorophyll, the substance that gives leaves their green color.
Cheryl Nelson, a forester with the Michigan DNR’s Forest Health Response Team, echoed Jurmu’s predictions for a banner color year.
“A more vibrant color show occurs after a growing season with good moisture levels and an autumn with sunny, warm days and cool night temperatures.
According to Nelson, as the season progresses, pigments called carotenoids turn leaves yellow and orange; anthocyanins are responsible for red, pink or purple colors.
“As the leaf receives less sunlight, the chlorophyll breaks down and we are able to see the other pigments in the leaves,” Nelson said. “Temperature changes help determine the vibrancy of the fall colors, as well as other factors like moisture.”
Jurmu starts tracking leaf change in late July. When he’s out scouting, he tries to focus less on the overall color pattern and instead, with the help of a drone, pays close attention to individual trees and even individual leaves.
“I’m not looking at the whole tree as having to have changed to call a percentage,” he said. “I’m looking at the yellow hues and the orangeish hues with greens. I’m looking at the whole process of color change from beginning to end when I do a report.”
Jurmu started seeing change in Iron County in mid-August, his third week monitoring. As of the Sept. 6, he estimated that foliage in the county had progressed between 5-15 percent. He estimates peak season will occur sometime between Sept. 25 and Oct. 5. -- though the Western U.P. hits peak before the Eastern U.P.
According to Jurmu, birch trees are usually at the vanguard of color change, followed by maples and populars and then aspen. Tamaracks, a deciduous conifer that is one of few to shed its needles, close out the color season in a vibrant golden splendor.
So where to leaf-peep?
The Michigan DNR recommends heading to the Porcupine Mountains of Ontonagon and Gogebic counties for a chairlift ride up the ski hill to view fall colors. It also points to Bond and Agate falls off of M28 in Ontonagon County.
Starting from Iron County, Jurmu recommended taking U.S. 2 up to Marenisco Township near Lake Gogebic and viewing fall colors from the Wolf Mountain vantage point. He also noted Black River Road in Ironwood as a good viewing spot, as well as a tour around Chicaugon Lake or a drive down M28 through Bruce Crossing.
Jurmu also recommends getting off the beaten path.
“Take some forest service roads and just drive,” he said. “Get off the main road, go slow and just enjoy the woods and all the leaves falling off the trees and the color. You never know what you’ll see out there.”
You can follow Steve Jurmu’s fall color reports via his website, www.funintheup.com, and his Facebook pages: Fun in the U.P. and Yooper Steve. More ideas for autumn activities can also be found at www.michigan.com/fall.