Autumn… the Year’s Last, Loveliest Smile

Photo provided by DCNR, Caledonia Pike
Story By Christina Heintzelman –

William Cullen Bryant must have been thinking of Pennsylvania when he penned the statement used as the title for this story, as Pennsylvania has a longer and more varied fall foliage season than any other state.

Ryan Reed, the Natural Resource Program Specialist for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), Bureau of Forestry, of Pennsylvania has this to say, “We are blessed with a wonderfully long and varied fall foliage season in Pennsylvania. This is primarily due to our state’s high forest diversity and forest coverage. PA is the ‘meeting ground’ of both northern and southern forests – northern hardwoods and oak-hickory, respectively.”

He further explained that northern hardwoods – maples, cherries, and birches – typically give fall color first, followed by hickories and oaks. And occasionally, when the weather is right, both forest types will overlap in their peak times producing a particularly vibrant year.

Reed then went on to say, “We are blessed with an abundance of places to enjoy fall color, with roughly five million acres of publicly accessible forest lands, 2.5 million of which are managed by DCNR, Bureau of Forestry and Bureau of State Parks. There is a state park or state forest within half an hour drive of every Pennsylvanian. The key is timing, which can be learned by viewing our annual fall foliage reports.” See the website listed at the end of this article.

There are three factors that influence autumn color: leaf pigment, length of night, and weather.

The most abundant pigment in trees is chlorophyll, which gives trees their green color. Carotenoids reflect orange, yellow, and brown colors and produce the yellow of a tulip tree and the russet colors of oaks. These two pigments are present in leaf cells during most of the growing season but as nights grow cooler and longer chlorophyll production slows and eventually stops. Anthocyanins are usually produced in autumn and are responsible for the brilliant shades of red that we see in foliage. But only certain tree species produce anthocyanins such as red oak, dogwood, red maple, black gum, and sumac, all of which are abundant in PA.

Weather has the largest effect on the production of fall foliage. Warm, sunny fall days with cool and crisp nights seem to bring out the best of the colors. The sun during the days helps to produce the sugar for pigmentation and the cool evenings assist in the gradual closing of the leaf veins which prevent the sugars from moving out. But, in addition to sunny days and crisp evenings, the amount of rainfall also affects the coloration of the leaves as a severe summer drought will most often produce a low intensity of fall colors. So, in order to have an autumn of brilliant fall foliage we need to have a warm wet spring, favorable summer weather with sufficient rain, and warm sunny fall days with cool nights.

But enough of the science! Let’s talk about all the places in Pennsylvania we can travel to in order to have our fill of leaf peeping throughout the state.

Since every fall foliage season is different due to the variations in rainfall and temperatures, your best bet for this season is to use the PA Foliage Tracking Map on the DCNR website.

PA fall foliage season is usually seven to eight weeks long and, as expected, begins with our northern most counties. While the scenic byways are available to you all during the fall foliage season, PA is also home to many fall festivals where you can enjoy the colorful foliage and share in arts, crafts, fantastic food, and loads of fun.

It is necessary to check with websites to find the exact dates for various fall festivals such as Bedford Fall Foliage Festival – Bedford, PA (approximately 100 miles west of Harrisburg); Autumn Leaf Festival –  Clarion, PA (approximately 5 hours west of Harrisburg); Bethlehem Harvest Festival – Bethlehem, PA (approximately 1.5 hours north of Harrisburg); Pennsylvania State Flaming Foliage Festival – Renovo, PA (approximately 4 hours north of Harrisburg); Laurel Highlands Fall Craft Days – at least eight various festivals located along the 50 mile Laurel Highlands Scenic Byway (approximately 4 hours west of Harrisburg); Jim Thorpe Fall Foliage Weekends – Jim Thorpe, PA (approximately 2 hours north of Harrisburg); Fields of Adventure in Adams County – near Gettysburg, PA (approximately 1.5 hours south of Harrisburg); Franklin Apple Fest – Franklin, PA (approximately 3.5 hours west of Harrisburg);  Pennsboro Pumpkin Fest – Adams-Ricci Park in Enola, PA; Conneaut Lake Fall Pumpkin Festival – Conneaut Lake, PA (approximately 4 hours west of Harrisburg); Country Fall Festival – Zelienople, PA (approximately 3.5 hours west of Harrisburg); Oil Creek and Titusville Railroad Fall Foliage Tours – Meadville, PA (approximately 4 hours NW of Harrisburg); and Great Pocono Pumpkin Festival – Lehighton, PA (approximately 1.5 hours NE of Harrisburg).

For those who want to enjoy leisurely drives, either on a day trip or a weekend getaway, Pennsylvania has you covered. With one national forest (Allegheny), 20 state forests, 121 state parks, and 6,000 local parks, most Pennsylvanians are only half an hour or less from colorful fall vistas.

Many Harrisburg residents have spent leisurely hours along Harrisburg Riverfront Park, which is beautiful any time of year, walking, bike riding, or just contemplating life along the upper riverwalk or the lower esplanade. And a quick trip to City Island offers even more with the Pennsylvania Senators ballfield; Pride of the Susquehanna Riverboat, which does fall foliage cruises; miniature golf; and the newly opened Harrisburg Beach Club located at the 101-year-old restored bathhouse. Any time of year is a delight on City Island, but the fall offers an even more vibrant back drop for a relaxing stroll.

Negley Park, located in Lemoyne, has a picturesque view of the Harrisburg skyline and the Susquehanna River. It also offers two miles of walking trail for those who want to explore the scenic beauty in any season.

Gifford Pinchot State Park is another close by resource located about an hour away in Lewisberry, York County. It is a 2,338-acre full-service park with 340-acre Pinchot Lake as its prime attraction. It has one of the largest state park campgrounds in Pennsylvania with 339 campsites available. There are also cottage houses available and yurts for those who want to have a new camping experience.

As we move further afield from the Harrisburg area and our local parks, the Bald Eagle State Forest, named for the Native American Chief Bald Eagle, who was a member of the Lenape (Delaware) tribe in the mid-18th century, has 194,602 acres to explore through miles of trails and drivable roads. The forest spreads through Snyder, Union, Centre, Mifflin, and Clinton counties and is only an hour-long drive to the area passing through Union County.

While touring this area, take a break at Raymond B. Winter State Park located within the boundaries of the forest near Mifflinburg, PA. The focal point of the park is Halfway Lake, which is filled by spring-fed mountain streams and provides a chilly dip any time of the year. The park also contains miles of well-marked hiking trails.

Located near the town of Troxelville, PA, are the Tall Timbers and Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Areas, home to some of the tallest trees in the state, the eastern hemlock. There is a 3.4-mile hiking loop complete with picnic areas. This area has lost its state park status but is still maintained by Snyder County and considered one of the county’s best kept secrets.

Within an easy day trip is the town of Gettysburg and the Gettysburg National Military Park. The park can be a walking or driving trip of approximately 6,000 acres which has been separated into various monument tracts to commemorate the various Civil War battles fought there. Some of the most beautiful foliage can be seen at Seminary Ridge, Confederate Avenue, and Little Round Top.

When you leave the park, continue onto Buchanan Valley and the Sachs Bridge area for additional leaf peeping, ghost tours, and apple picking throughout Adams County.

Pennsylvania’s Route 6 has been hailed as Pennsylvania’s Best Touring Route by Harley Davidson, and the title is well deserved. This northeast to northwest route is a mostly two-lane rural road running from the Delaware River near Port Jervis, NY, to the Ohio state line at Pymatuning Reservoir. The journey along this beautiful stretch is interspersed with lovely small towns and year-round festivals. Pine Creek Gorge, known as The Pennsylvania Grand Canyon, is in this area slightly off Route 6 in Tioga County.

The Poconos form a 2,400 square foot escarpment overlooking the Delaware River and the Delaware Water Gap to the east, Lake Wallenpaupack to the north, Wyoming Valley to the West, and Lehigh Valley to the south. Its name is derived from the Munsee Tribe word meaning ‘creek between two hills’.

Big Pocono State Park lies in Monroe County in the northeastern portion and consists of 1,306 acres of rugged terrain, which includes Camelback Mountain and, at the summit, a view of three states, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York.

If you’d like to go south towards Bucks County, stop and visit Washington Crossing Historic Park located on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River, commemorating Washington’s Delaware crossing. It is a 500-acre park and contains the 125-foot-tall Bowman’s Hill Tower offering a 14-mile view on a clear day. Although this tower did not exist in George Washington’s day, it was built in 1929-31 to commemorate what was thought to be a lookout point for Washington’s troops.

For those of you who like a little shoreline with their foliage, consider taking a trip to Presque Isle State Park located in Erie County. Presque Isle State Park is a 3,200-acre sandy peninsula that arches into Lake Erie. As Pennsylvania’s only “seashore,” Presque Isle offers its visitors a beautiful coastline but also a beautiful area of colorful fall foliage. The driving length, one way, is approximately seven hours so plan on making this an overnight or weekend adventure.

In the western part of the state is the only national forest in Pennsylvania, Allegheny Forest. The forest covers over 513,000 acres with 200 miles of hiking trails and 50 miles of ski trails. The Allegheny Forest is home to the Kinzua Sky Walk, listed as one of the world’s most beautiful skywalks and viewpoints in the world. The sky walk extends out 624 feet into the Kinzua Gorge. It features a walkway with a set of railroad tracks leading to the end of the overlook which has a partial glass floor. At a height of 225 feet above the valley floor, this is not a sightseeing trip for the faint of heart!

In the southwestern county of Fayette, approximately 3 hours from Harrisburg, Ohiopyle State Park encompasses about 20,500 acres of rugged natural beauty and is the gateway to the Laurel Highlands. The area is known for some of the best whitewater rafting in the eastern United States. A not to be missed hike is the Baughman Rock Vista Overlook perched along the Laurel Ridge and approximately 1,700 feet from the river bottom to the top, making it an exquisite view featuring the Youghiogheny River Gorge.

So, from Riverfront Park in Harrisburg all the way west across the state and to our north and south, Pennsylvania is filled with an abundance of short walks, daytrips, and weekend meanderings for the leaf lovers amongst us.  Happy Autumn Viewing!

More information on Pennsylvania’s fall festivals and fall foliage viewing can be found on the DCNR website

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