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Guide to Fall Colors in the U.S.

Where to check out the best fall foliage across the nation

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Guide to Fall Colors in the U.S.
© Arkansas ShutterBug via Flickr

While pumpkin flavors are all the rage, autumn happens to be my favorite season of year because of its beautiful fall colors. From late September to early November, Mother Nature puts on her most spectacular show. Trees of all types slowly transition from their standard leaves to shades of red, orange, gold, brown, and even purple. Landscapes across the country pop with vibrant colors and serve as a brief reminder just how stunning nature can be.

It's a great time for hiking and scenic drives in the U.S., and below are all the resources you need to make your trip happen. Whether you want to know just why leaves change their colors or are looking for where to see specific shades, the answers are here.

Why Do Leaves Change Colors?

The answer lies in one word: chlorophyll. It's the chemical that gives leaves their green color. Chlorophyll is also responsible for photosynthesis -- a process where plants turn water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and sugar. Confused? Let's back up to the basics.

Trees take water from the ground using their roots. They also take carbon dioxide from the air. But trees need oxygen and glucose to grow big and healthy. In order to do that, they use sunlight to turn the water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and glucose. That's photosynthesis. And chlorophyll helps make it happen.

When summer ends and autumn begins, there is less sunlight since the days get shorter. This is an important hint for trees and other plants to prepare themselves for the winter. Since there isn't enough light and water during the winter for photosynthesis, trees go into rest-mode and will feed off food they have stored up over summer. While processes shut down, chlorophyll starts to disappear from the leaves, taking away the green color. As the green fades, the leaves show other colors that have been there all along -- yellow and orange. They have been hidden all summer by chlorophyll and during the fall, it is their time to shine!

You're probably wondering about the other signature colors of autumn -- red, purple, and brown. Well, in some trees, such as maples, glucose is trapped in the leaves after photosynthesis stops. That glucose is turned into a red color from the sunlight and the cool nights of autumn. The brown color of trees, such as oaks, is made from tannin -- a waste product left in the leaves.

The brilliance of colors you see every fall is directly related to weather conditions. The brightest colors are seen when late summer is dry, and autumn has bright sunny days and cool evenings. A good supply of rainfall also keeps the leaves on trees longer and helps to enhance the color.

Learn more about molecular change and leaf pigments.

Best National and State Foliage Sites for Fall Colors

Below are links that will help you determine where to go and what colors to expect when you plan your fall foliage excursion.

State-by-State Guide to Fall Foliage: Check out the peak months and colors of the state's that offer beautiful foliage.

The Foliage Network: Get foliage reports during September through November from all over the country.

National Forest Service: Information on fall foliage throughout the United States. Call the Fall Color Hotline at 800-354-4595.

The Weather Channel: View a fall color map of the U.S.

Fall Color in the Southwestern United States: Get regional information from About.com Southwest U.S. Travel.

Yankee Magazine's New England.com Foliage Central: A variety of resources for celebrating the fall season in New England.

Live Foliage Cams

Looking for live views of fall's display? Check out these sites for some of the best live feeds.

Leaf Peepers: This site offers live camera views from Canada to North Carolina.

Earth Cam: A collection of the best fall foliage cams.

For more fall foliage webcams, check out About.com Foresty's Best Fall Foliage and Autumn Color Web Cams.

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