Will dry weather dull this fall’s colors in Kentucky? Here’s when to see peak foliage

Despite some periods of dry conditions across parts of the state, foresters expect this fall to be a good year to catch lush and colorful foliage across the Bluegrass State.

While New England and the Blue Ridge Parkway are often heralded as top destinations for leaf peepers, Kentucky’s more than 120 types of native trees and wide expanse of forestland make it an excellent place to enjoy fall colors, Laurie Taylor Thomas, an extension forester with the University of Kentucky’s Department of Forestry and Natural Resources Extension, told the Herald-Leader.

She noted the moisture level through the spring and summer has been “pretty good,” even with some recent drier weather.

“It should be a good fall. Even if we do get a little drier … the colors should be good this year,” she said.

Those in Lexington may be seeing the start of changing colors soon, especially the dogwoods, but peak color is not expected for several weeks.

Taylor Thomas said the eastern part of the state will explode first, with colors coming later in the western stretches of Kentucky.

Among the tools the cooperative extension uses to predict peak leaf season is the Smoky Mountains fall foliage prediction, which relies on data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Its interactive map of the continental U.S. shows the expected progression of color for the 2022 season.

It predicts most of the color in the state will be “near peak” around Oct. 24, and then peaking for much of the region around Halloween before leaves begin their decline and drop in November.

Taylor Thomas agreed, saying Kentuckians should see patchy color soon.

“Typically Kentucky, especially from Central to Eastern Kentucky, will be a little bit more toward the latter part of October. And then, as we get to the western part of the state, it may be even toward the very end of October,” she said.

The Farmers’ Almanac, meanwhile, anticipates peak color beginning a bit earlier – Oct. 5 to 21 for the eastern part of the state and Oct. 12 to 28 for the western part.

Leaf drop varies, but much should occur toward the beginning of November for many deciduous species, Taylor Thomas said.

Green, yellow, red and orange leaves are on display on a tree in Bell County, Ky., on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021.
Green, yellow, red and orange leaves are on display on a tree in Bell County, Ky., on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021.

What causes the leaves to change in the fall?

While beautiful, fall foliage occurs as trees ready for winter.

Chlorophyll, the green pigment leaves display in spring and summer, produces food for trees by photosynthesizing sunlight and carbon dioxide. Less daylight in the fall triggers the preparation for winter and the end of chlorophyll production. The green that masked other pigments fades to allow a bounty of autumn colors.

The pigments beta-carotene and xanthophyll give off yellows, oranges and browns, while anthocyanin results in red hues.

Leaf colors are also affected by weather and light.

In Kentucky, where about 50% of the state is forested, a wide variety of trees provide for lush autumn colors. The state has many oaks that pop russet brown or red, hickories that turn yellow and maples, which give off orange, yellow and red, depending on the species. Flowering dogwoods and black gum can add purple to the array.

The state’s heritage tree, the Kentucky coffeetree, will turn yellow, while the state tree, the tulip poplar, will give a golden yellow, Taylor Thomas said.

“Certainly we have different trees in the east, up in the mountains, and then we go across the state all the way over to the Mississippi (River), so that leads to just a great diversity in trees and in topography and habitat for those trees,” the forester noted. “So we’ve got a really good opportunity for people, just in Kentucky, to do some leaf peeping.”

Pine Mountain State Park. Friday, Nov. 5, 2021
Pine Mountain State Park. Friday, Nov. 5, 2021

Best spots to catch fall foliage in Kentucky

The state’s Department of Tourism promotes a slew of areas as top destinations to see all autumn has to offer. Some of those spots include Daniel Boone National Forest and the Red River Gorge in Eastern Kentucky, Land Between the Lakes in the western part of the state and more.

For those in Lexington, Taylor Thomas recommended exploring the palisades region in the fall, where a self-guided hike could lead to some spectacular views.

Even if you can’t take a hike, a quick drive around the city or along a scenic byway could scratch the itch for autumn colors.

“Driving views are always nice, too,” Taylor Thomas said. “People kind of forget about taking … a Sunday afternoon drive, but you can see a lot of leaf color just driving down the Mountain Parkway.”

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