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The Virginias

Pond, Blue Ridge Mountains (10/11/20) Alena Nicholas

Last year, Southern California color spotter Alena Nicholas relocated to the Carolinas, but she didn’t leave CaliforniaFallColor.com and has become an eastern correspondent.

A autumn excursion through Virginia and West Virginia was her first photo safari through “The Virginias.”

Alena focused on the elements of autumn in the Blue Ridge and Appalachian mountains uncommon to California: vibrant red leaves, grist mills, a moonshine still, iridescent white tail deer and rain.

She noticed “quite a variety of colors in the area. Also, more rolling hills and ponds,” instead of the alpine mountains and lakes she photographed in the Sierra Nevada, and noted that it rained quite often, creating a natural gray card in the sky.

Alena promises photographs from the “low country” of the Carolinas, which is reputed to have remarkable color in late October to early November.

  • Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia (6,683′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
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Almost Heaven

Glade Creek Grist Mill, Babcock State Park, West Virginia (10/12/20) Alena Nicholas

When John Denver first sang the words to Take Me Home, Country Roads, many of us thought, “Yeah, sure … West Virginia.”

The Mountain State has long been synonymous with the backwoods … coal mines … country folk … seclusion. It has always been remote, and that remoteness led to its being discovered as a place of retreat and restoration.

West Virginia’s first tourists were the carriage trade who could afford to travel for relief from the “heat, humidity and disease of the ‘sickly season,'” Wikipedia recounts.

As early as the late 1700s, wealthy people traveled to White Sulfur Springs for their health and by the beginning of the 19th century, it was considered to be the “Queen of the Watering Places” in the South and one of the country’s first summer destinations.

There, the Greenbriar, the nation’s first golf resort, continues that tradition as one of the country’s largest and most exclusive resorts, one of several elite retreats.

Though more often today, West Virginia’s mountains, hills and forests attract down-to-earth rock climbers, skiers, hikers, backpackers, hunters, anglers and nature lovers in search of the state tree, the sugar maple.

So, when Alena Nicholas’ photograph of a West Virginia mill stream arrived, it relit images of John Denver’s words …

Almost heaven, West Virginia
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River.

Life is old there, older than the trees
Younger than the mountains, growin’ like a breeze.

Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong
West Virginia, mountain mama
Take me home, country roads.

All my memories gather ’round her
Miner’s lady, stranger to blue water.

Dark and dusty, painted on the sky
Misty taste of moonshine, teardrop in my eye.

(refrain)

I hear her voice in the mornin’ hour, she calls me
The radio reminds me of my home far away.

Drivin’ down the road, I get a feelin’
That I should’ve been home yesterday, yesterday.

(refrain)

John Denver
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East + Drought = Early

Mt. Talcott, CT (10/11/20) Eugene Obermuller

East coast color spotter Eugene Obermuller reports from Avon, Connecticut that drought adds up to early fall color in the northeast.

A resident of Yonkers, NY, Gene headed north for a fall color visit to northern Connecticut and southern Massachusetts, visiting Simsbury, CT, home of the Pinchot sycamore (Plantanus Occidentalis), the state’s largest tree with a trunk measured at 28 feet in circumference (America’s second-largest sycamore).

During Obermuller’s visit, fly fishermen were busy whipping the Housatonic and pumpkins were lined for the picking at a church in Simsbury. All part of autumn in New England.

Simsbury, CT (10/11/20) Eugene Obermuller
  • Avon, Connecticut (276′) – Near Peak (50-75%) Go Now!
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Ruby Mountains

Lamoille Canyon, Ruby Mountains (9/30/20) Clayton Peoples

With peaking areas of Inyo National Forest closed to fall color viewing and smoke returning to many areas, Reno color spotter Clayton Peoples traveled east to Lamoille Canyon in Nevada’s Ruby Mountains.

CaliforniaFallColor.com focuses on – of course – California, though we do occasionally post reports from other states and countries.

Nevada is one location we’ve only lightly addressed, though this location has, as Clayton wrote, “some relevance to our current situation in California: Lamoille Canyon experienced a devastating fire in 2018. Many worried – understandably – that it would be irreparably damaged. But, the back third of the canyon was spared and is now thriving. There are also signs of new growth in areas that burned in 2018.”

Indeed, the bleached skeletons of incinerated aspen are seen in the above photograph, near young trees.

The Ruby Mountains are within the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest which includes a small portion of Eastern California (northern Mono County). This national forest remains open. Ruby Dome, the range’s highest peak, is 11,387′. The mountains were named for the garnets found by prospectors.

Lamoille Canyon is the largest of the range’s valleys. Aspen are the principal deciduous tree growing within the range.

  • Lamoille Canyon, Ruby Mountains, Elko County, Nevada (9,747′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
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Inyo NF to Remain Closed

Inyo National Forest along with six other national forests, will remain closed through Oct. 8, the USDA Forest Service announced today.

The decision was “based on the continued hot and dry conditions that remain in the forecast for the upcoming week, continued active fires throughout the state and continued firefighting resource limitations.”

This means that fall color viewing is not permitted on federal lands and roads within the Inyo National Forest, from Conway Summit south to Kennedy Meadows. All Inyo NF lands, trails and roads are closed to the public.

The only locations that one can legally photograph or view fall color are: on private property, inside a vehicle on a state highway or county road or standing within the right of way of a state highway or county road within the national forest. However, that is not advised as wandering onto NF land could put you in jeopardy.

This means that until further notice, the following prime, Eastern Sierra, fall color viewing areas may not be visited, except when on private property, a state highway or county road or their right of way:

Mono County

  • Lundy Canyon
  • Lee Vining Canyon
  • June Lake Loop
  • Sagehen Summit
  • Mammoth Lakes Basin
  • Reds Meadow/Devil’s Postpile NM
  • Laurel Canyon
  • Convict Lake
  • McGee Creek
  • Rock Creek Canyon
  • All backcountry trails and lakes

Inyo County

  • Lower Rock Creek Rd.
  • Pine Creek Canyon
  • Bishop Creek Canyon
  • Onion Valley
  • Whitney Portal
  • All backcountry trails and lakes

The USDA Forest Service may cite anyone photographing or viewing fall color in one of these closed areas. Fines of up to $5,000 may apply.

Closed National Forests are in Southern California and the southern Sierra Nevada. They include:

  • Angeles NF
  • Cleveland NF
  • Los Padres NF
  • San Bernardino NF
  • Inyo NF
  • Sequoia NF
  • Sierra NF

Until this status changes, the California Fall Color Map will show only dark green “CLOSED” leaves for areas inside all closed national forests and parks.

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Mountain Manners

Manner #2 – Why was this left behind? (© A O | Dreamstime)

“Like all parents,” Mono County Tourism tells us, “Mother Nature Loves good manners!  Everyone knows the Golden Rule “Take only photos; leave only footprints” but here are a few other Mountain Manners etiquette tips to help protect the Eastern Sierra (and for that matter, all wild places):

MANNER #1: Follow the Beaten Path
Straying from designated paths can cause harmful erosion, and damage fragile plants, so we ask you to take the road most traveled. (with apologies to Robert Frost).

MANNER #2: Scoop the Poop
Your #2 is becoming our #1 issue. If it’s your pet’s, please bag it and take it out to a trash can! If it’s your own, bury it in a cat-hole at least 6-8 inches deep or better yet, pack it out.

MANNER #3: Gather up Garbage
Even if it’s not yours, please pack out litter! Nothing makes Mother Nature happier. Remember, food scraps are litter, too. Even if food is considered “biodegradable,” no one wants to see your orange peels lying around – and human food is unhealthy for wildlife. 

MANNER #4: Don’t Feed The Bears
Or deer, birds, chipmunks, etc. Please keep yourself – and your food – out of the reach of wildlife. Store all food in bear boxes or bear-proof containers, NOT in your vehicle. 

MANNER #5: Remove Fishing Line and Hooks
Fishing hooks and tangled line are dangerous to wild animals, birds, fish, pets and kids. Please remove this litter from water and shoreline and pack it out.

MANNER #6: Keep Invasive Species Out
Take all steps to keep invasive species from spreading and destroying out lakes, streams, rivers and meadows. 

MANNER #7: Don’t Pick The Flowers!
It’s no easy task to blossom and survive in challenging alpine conditions – wildflowers work hard to grow! Please don’t disturb or remove plants, rocks or artifacts. Their home is right where you found them. Always stay on trail and never destroy or walk on vegetation.

MANNER #8: Social Media Do’s and Don’ts
Keep wild places wild and don’t geo-tag your Instagram Photo! Special places can be destroyed by Insta-fame. Remember that people may want to get the same photo as you – be sure your pics are taken from a safe place and do not show a dangerous activity or one that could disturb wildlife or fragile landscapes. Selfie accidents are a thing – watch your footing! 

Mountain Manners was provided to us by Mono County Tourism. We would add:

  • To Manner #2, TP should always be carried out, never buried.
  • To Manner #3, taking garbage with you is important not just in the backcountry, but the front country, as well. Never leave bagged trash beside a trash can, as wild animals will soon spread it throughout the neighborhood, creating an unsightly mess and resentment among locals toward visitors to their area.
  • To Manner #4, feeding wild animals, on purpose or inadvertently, teaches them to see people as food sources, which can lead to the animals being euthanized.
  • To Manner #6: Clean the soles of footwear before heading back to the wild. This lessens the transfer of invasive seeds or diseases. Clean, drain and dry boats fully before launching elsewhere.
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Why Don’t Evergreens Lose Their Leaves?

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Coastal Redwood, El Dorado Hills (9/7/17) John Poimiroo

Actually, they do.  It just doesn’t happen all at once, with few exceptions.

Evergreen trees have both broad leafs and needles. Madrone, magnolia and photinia are examples of broadleaved evergreens, while pine, fir, cedar, spruce, and redwood have needled leaves.

Evergreen needles can last anywhere from a year to 20 years, but eventually they are replaced by new leaves. When that happens, the old needles turn color and drop, but not all together and not as dramatically as deciduous trees (e.g., maple, oak, dogwood, alder, birch).

The reason needles are green is that they are full of chlorophyll which photosynthesizes sunlight into food for the tree. It also reflects green light waves, making the needles look green.

Needles, just like deciduous leaves, contain carotenoid and anthocyanin pigments. You just don’t see them until the green chlorophyll stops being produced. Once that happens, hidden carotenoids (yellow, orange and brown) emerge, as is seen in the above photograph.

Additionally, red, blue and purple Anthocyanins – produced in autumn from the combination of bright light and and excess sugars in the leaf cells – also emerge once the chlorophyll subsides.

Yes, even evergreen leaves change color… eventually.

Fremont cottonwood and coastal redwood, Davis (9/16/20) Phillip Reedy

Evergreens that drop leaves at one time include the: Conifers Larch, Bald Cyprus and Dawn Redwood.

In snowy regions, evergreen trees are able to carry snow because the waxy coating on needles, along with their narrow shape, allows them to retain water better by keeping it from freezing inside (which would otherwise destroy the leaf).

Needles also prevent snow from weighing down and breaking branches. Finally, needles allow an evergreen tree to sustain the production (though slowed) of chlorophyll through winter. Whereas, broadleaved deciduous trees would be damaged if they kept producing chlorophyll and didn’t drop their leaves.

Evergreen trees do lose their leaves and the leaves do change color. It just isn’t as spectacular. 

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Why Do Deciduous Trees Lose Their Leaves?

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Snowcreek (11/2/15) Alicia Vennos

It’s survival not just of the fittest, but of the wisest.

Deciduous trees drop their leaves in order to survive.  As days grow shorter and colder, deciduous trees shut down veins and capillaries (that carry water and nutrients) with a barrier of cells that form at the leaf’s stem.

Called “abscission” cells, the barrier prevents the leaf from being nourished. Eventually, like scissors, the abscission cells close the connection between leaf and branch and the leaf falls.

Had the leaves remained on branches, the leaves would have continued to drink and, once temperatures drop to freezing, the water in the tree’s veins would freeze, killing the tree.

Further, with leaves fallen, bare branches are able to carry what little snow collects on them, protecting them from being broken under the weight of the snow. So, by cutting off their food supply (leaves), deciduous trees survive winter.

The fallen leaves continue to benefit the tree through winter, spring and summer by creating a humus on the forest floor that insulates roots from winter cold and summer heat, collect dew and rainfall, and decompose to enrich the soil and nurture life.

It’s a cycle of survival, planned wisely. 

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Why do Leaves Change Color?

Chlorophyll Molecule (Wikipedia)

Leaves on deciduous trees change color in autumn from green to various hues of lime, yellow, gold, orange, red and brown because of a combination of shorter days and colder temperatures.

Throughout spring and summer, green chlorophyll (which allows trees to absorb sunlight and produce nutrients) is made and replaced constantly.

However, as days grow shorter, “cells near the juncture of the leaf and stem divide rapidly but do not expand,” reports Accuweather.com. “This action of the cells form a layer called the abscission layer.

“The abscission layer blocks the transportation of materials from the leaf to the branch and from the roots to the leaves. As Chlorophyll is blocked from the leaves, it disappears completely from them.”

That’s when vivid yellow xanthophylls, orange carotenoids and, due to a different process, red and purple anthocyanins emerge.

Orange is found in leaves with lots of beta-carotene, a compound that absorbs blue and green light and reflects yellow and red light, giving the leaves their orange color.

Yellow comes from Xanthophylls and Flavonols that reflect yellow light. Xanthophylls are compounds and Flavonols are proteins.  They’re what give egg yolks their color.

Though always present in the leaves, Carotenoids and Xanthophylls are not visible until Chlorophyll production slows.

Red comes from the Anthocyanin compound. It protects the leaf in autumn, prolonging its life. Anthocyanins are pigments manufactured from the sugars trapped in the leaf, giving term to the vernacular expression, “the leaves are sugaring up.”

The best fall color occurs when days are warm and nights are clear and cold. California’s cloudless skies and extreme range of elevations (sea level to 14,000′) provide ideal conditions for the development of consistently vivid fall color, as seen in these reports. 

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The Science of Changing Leaves

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Is red a defensive color? (11/22/18 – El Dorado Hills) John Poimiroo

Last year, Smithsonian.com posted a fascinating time-lapse video of leaves transforming from chlorophyll-filled green to tones of yellow, red and brown. The video was accompanied by an article explaining how leaves change color and some misconceptions about the process.

The video was created by Owen Reiser, a mathematics and biology student at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Reiser, Smithsonian.com reports, took 6,000 photos of leaves to weave the video together.

CaliforniaFallColor.com has reported previously how the change of leaf color results from the loss of chlorophyl, due to shorter days and fewer nutrients. Though, David Lee, Professor Emeritus of biological sciences at Florida International University and author of Nature’s Palette, The Science of Plant Color, says many (including us) have misreported (we won’t make the mistake again) that yellow and red leaves change the same way, when they do not.

Lee states in the Smithsonian.com article that the breakdown of chlorophyll in the leaves does reveal yellow and orange (carotenoids) hidden beneath, but that red (anthocyanin) pigments are produced within the leaves as they die.

There are two schools of thought as to why this happens. One is that the red color is a defensive measure to make the plants look an unhealthy red as the leaf dies, protecting it from plant-eating bugs and animals which are conditioned not to eat red foliage.

The other thought is that red is a form of photo protection. Horticulturist Bill Hoch, Smithsonian.com reports, believes red’s wavelength helps shield the leaf by absorbing excess light allowing the plant to more efficiently remove nitrogen from the proteins that are breaking down and send that nutrient back to tree limbs and roots, saving as much of it as possible before winter.

Whatever the cause, the result is spectacular and less than a month away from being seen in California.