There’s a nip in the air and some tint in the trees.
It’s time to start planning your fall foliage viewing, and the Laurel Highlands is the perfect place to start.
Don’t take our word for it, though. That’s the verdict from voters for the Best Destination for Fall Foliage category in the 2020 USA Today 10Best Travel Award Contest.
The Laurel Highlands ranked third nationwide.
“We’re lucky around here to have a lot of great opportunities to see the fall colors,” says Dave Planinsek, a Laughlintown-based forester with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
“What’s great is that even in the lowlands to the west, in Allegheny and Washington counties, no matter where you are in the region, you can drive an hour and see great color,” he says.
You could argue that 10Best got it wrong. According to the DCNR, Pennsylvania has a longer and more varied fall foliage season than anywhere else in the world. Its latitude and varied topography support 134 species of trees, shrubs and vines that contribute to the autumn palette.
The Keystone State is “the meeting ground of northern trees that flourish only on mountain tops farther south and southern species that are at the northern limits of their range.”
A few of the northern tree species found here include gray and white birch, mountain ash and quaking aspen. Southern species include black gum, black walnut, flowering dogwood and magnolia.
Pennsylvania is one of only three regions worldwide that support deciduous forests sporting fall color. The others are the British Isles and parts of northern Europe and northeastern China and northern Japan. In other parts of the world, tropical or coniferous forests dominate.
When to go
In general, fall foliage viewing in Southwestern Pennsylvania is at its peak in mid- to late-October, says Jason Frazier, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Moon.
“A lot of factors, like temperature and precipitation, go into the peak timing,” he says. “Periods of cooler weather help precipitate the change, so folks can start looking for it after the first cool snap.”
“Cool mornings and bright sunny days are perfect for developing fall colors,” Planinsek says.
This summer’s moderate drought, which has eased with recent rains, means that some leaves will turn earlier this year, Planinsek adds.
“We had sort of a dry summer,” he says. “Trees with shallow roots, like birch and maple, will dry out earlier and change color and drop their leaves earlier.”
Up-to-date foliage reports are available at dcnr.pa.gov.
Where to go
“I’m always searching and discovering places that are new for fall colors,” says Ann Nemanic, executive director of the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau.
One of her personal favorites is Baughman Rock Overlook, perched above the Youghiogheny River Gorge off Sugarloaf Road in Fayette County. Another is Linn Run State Park in Ligonier Township.
“I used to take my daughter there when she was little,” Nemanic says. “With the leaves and the water, it was a very special spot for us.”
“One of my favorite driving areas is Jones Mill Run Road (in Somerset County),” Planinsek says. “I like sugar maples, and there’s a lot of sugar maple along that route. But any country road in Southwestern Pennsylvania is a great place to see some color.”
Nemanic says there are signs that a lot of folks will be leaf peeping in the area this fall.
“We’ve been encouraged by what we’ve seen in lodging occupancy and a steady uptick in reservations for cabins, bed and breakfasts and hotels,” she says. “We anticipate that to continue in October, and the motor coaches are also returning this fall.
“We are the destination that folks want to visit, and those are very encouraging signs to see.”
Take a drive
• Laurel Highlands Scenic Byway, Route 711 and 381, heading south from Seward to Farmington
• Route 30, heading east from Latrobe to the Flight 93 National Memorial
A fall scene along Route 381 in Ligonier Township.
• Route 381, from Route 30 east of Ligonier through Rector and into Linn Run State Park (travel through the park and up the ridge to access Laurel Summit and Laurel Mountain state parks)
• Route 40, heading east from Uniontown, past Fort Necessity and over the Youghiogheny Dam into southern Somerset County
• Route 31, heading east from Mt. Pleasant, past Kooser State Park, ending in Somerset
For a longer trip, the DCNR offers two options, both beginning at Exit 91/Donegal of the Pennsylvania Turnpike:
• Southern Loop, about 70 miles and 2½ hours of driving time: Travel east on Route 31, then south on Route 711/381 to Ohiopyle, southeast to Baughman Rock, and continuing the loop through Confluence and New Centerville and past Laurel Hill State Park and Seven Springs Mountain Resort before returning to Donegal.
• Northern Loop, about 125 miles and 4 hours of driving time: Travel Route 711 north through Ligonier and New Florence to Seward, travel east through the Conemaugh Gap to Johnstown, returning to Ligonier on Route 271 and then back to Donegal.
Driving directions on the DCNR website also provide information on points of interest along both routes.
Take a hike
Area state parks and Forbes State Forest are great places to take a hike to view fall colors, Planinsek says. Some of the most popular vistas are found at these spots:
• Beam Rocks, a short hike from a parking area along Laurel Summit Road in Forbes State Forest
• Wolf Rocks, a 4-mile round-trip from Laurel Summit State Park parking lot
• Spruce Flats Bog, a 1/4-mile walk from Laurel Summit State Park parking lot
Pockets of trees changing colors are seen from Beam Rocks in Forbes State Forest in 2019.
Planinsek also is a fan of the North Woods Trail System, a series of loop trails traversing Forbes State Forest off Route 31 between Donegal and Bakersville, because of the area’s abundance of sugar maples, “the king of fall foliage.”
Beyond the Laurel Highlands, check out these drives:
• Route 18, south from Raccoon Creek State Park in Beaver County to Waynesburg, Greene County, or north to Erie.
• Route 258, from Zelienople to Slippery Rock
Trees display their fall colors near Moraine State Park in Butler County.
• Route 36, from Punxsutawney to Altoona
• Route 6, from south of Erie, east across the state’s northern tier to the Connecticut border
For leaf peeping beyond the Pennsylvania borders, it’s probably better to go south instead of north.
Colors in New England are peaking now, and New York state will enter prime viewing time soon, according to the fall foliage prediction map at smokymountains.com. But the Appalachians won’t peak until mid-October.
Here are three colorful spots to try:
• Appalachian Trail, 250-mile section from Damascus to Danville, Va. According to thetrek.com, this section is known for its smooth trails and tunnel of trees that offers the best place in the Blue Ridge Mountains to see fall color.
Late-autumn hikers traverse a section of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia.
• Blue Ridge Parkway, stretching 469 miles over east- and west-facing slopes from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. Elevation varies from about 650 feet at James River, Va., to more than 6,000 feet south of Mt. Pisgah, N.C.
• Red River Gorge Geological Area, part of the Daniel Boone National Forest, southeast of Lexington, Ky. Hiking, driving and rock-climbing opportunities abound in the home of Kentucky’s best fall foliage.
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