Pennsylvania looks to a 'banner year' of leaf peeping

You need a few things for great views of fall foliage, and Pennsylvania has them.

Millions of acres of deciduous forests. Check.

Rolling hills, mountains, gorges, and waterfalls. Check.

A good leaf-peeping forecast. Check.

In fact, Pennsylvania has 17 million acres of woodlands, according to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). And more than 2.5 million acres of those are state owned: Promise Land, Lehigh Gorge, French Creek, Elk, to name a few. Many offer camping and other lodging nearby. And there’s also the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.

The sweep of gray and paper birch, mountain maple, mountain ash, red oak, sweetbay, sourwood, persimmon, and sweetgum trees should provide a spectacular canopy this fall, say state foresters.

“Our Bureau of Forestry experts tell us recent weather should usher in a banner year,” Cindy Adams Dunn, secretary of the state’s DCNR, said in an emailed statement.

The DCNR released its interactive fall foliage map this week and will issue a weekly report throughout the season. Typically, the season begins around the start of autumn, which falls on Sept. 22 this year.

In the spring and summer, trees make food within their cells that contain chlorophyll, a pigment that gives a leaf its green color. Chlorophyll absorbs energy from sunlight and uses it to transform carbon dioxide and water into sugars and starches.

In fall, trees stop that food-making process when they sense lower levels and duration of sunlight, as well as cooler temperatures. The chlorophyll breaks down, so the green disappears to reveal the other vibrant colors, such as yellow and red, hidden within.

Those colors really start to pop in the first few weeks of October, though Terry Brady, a DCNR spokesman, said foresters are already reporting “amazing” colors starting in the northernmost tiers of the state.

Brady said the colors this year will be much more vibrant because of ample rainfall during the spring growing season. The past few years were marked by stretches of drought. The only negative, he said: The emerald ash borer, an invasive species plaguing ash trees throughout the U.S., has taken a toll.

According to the website poconomountains.com, about 10 to 15 percent of the trees in the most northeast region of the state are already starting to color. Peak color in the Poconos generally runs around mid to late October.

Leaf peeping is a big tourism draw for the state, though it’s tough to parse out exact figures. The Commonwealth draws about 200 million domestic travelers annually, generating about $40.8 billion for the economy. That translates to about $4.1 billion in tax revenues. Roughly 310,000 jobs are related to tourism.

“Fall is Pennsylvania’s forte,” says Carrie Fischer Lepore, deputy secretary of the Department of Community and Economic Development’s Office of Marketing, Tourism, and Film. “Wherever you are, opportunities abound to see the vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows dotting the mountains and lining the rivers and roads across the state.”

Similar conditions are expected in New Jersey, which also produces a fall foliage map. Autumn changes in the Garden State begin in the mountainous areas of Sussex and Warren Counties near the Water Gap. Although southern New Jersey is marked by the Pinelands National Reserve, it has plenty of forests of deciduous trees such as oaks and maples.