Fall in this part of the country presents us with an open-air art museum with no admission charge. It is a palette that is constantly morphing, with certain shades and hues burning brighter each day, while others slowly fade into subtle background tones.
Visitors from the humid and green south and those from the dry and brown west marvel at our forests and woodlots and even at that lone maple tree standing guard in the front yard, turning more and more crimson with each passing day. Those that don’t see such beauty on a regular basis seem to have a great deal more appreciation for it.
The trigger mechanism for Ohio’s brilliant autumn colors comes from the mix of the longer, chilly nights and the shorter, sunny days we experience this time of year. That is the simple formula.
What really transpires is that as the amount of sunlight decreases, it prompts a chemical change in the leaves of certain hardwoods like walnut, birch, hickory and beech, and they slowly but steadily change to yellow, brown and orange. These colors are called carotenoids, and they are part of the chemical makeup of the leaves all year, but the dominant green chlorophyll did not allow them to be exposed in the spring and summer months.
Other hardwoods, such as our oaks, maples and sweetgums, have a high sugar content and an ingredient called anthocyanin pigments that produce the multitude of shades of red and purple. Trees that have a combination of these two chemical factors produce bright reds, deep golds and bronze-tone shades.
Combine the more than 100 types of hardwood trees, we find in Ohio and you end up with the indescribable panoramas we enjoy each fall. And contrary to popular belief, there is a lot more of it to enjoy today than there was a half-century ago. The Buckeye State had just 15 percent of its area covered in forest in the middle of the 20th century, but that has increased today to the point that more than 30 percent of our state is covered in trees.
We are in the prime time window for enjoying the autumn colors these millions of trees are wearing. Here in the heavily agricultural northwest corner of the state, the woodlots stand out like bright square patches on an otherwise dull, brown quilt. In the more forested southeastern portion of Ohio, the colors roll on for miles, with the tones changing as the elevation moves up and down.
The best way to enjoy and appreciate these fall colors is by taking a traditional drive through the countryside. This used to be a much more common family practice, before our lives became slaves to cell phones, 500 cable stations, laptops and multi-tasking. It is still a wonderful exercise, especially on a bright, sunny day with the windows down, the radio off and the speed modest and measured.
There are a number of special routes mapped out just for fall color enjoyment, but following your own path is just as exciting. There are spectacular sights over the next rise, around the next bend in the road and just past the horizon.
If you prefer a high concentration of color and less meandering, Ohio has 74 state parks, 20 state forests and 131 state nature preserves that all offer up prime viewing of the brilliant fall foliage. Most of them are ideal for a walk in the woods, where the colorful landscape wraps its arms around you.
We should all take the time to collect the family, jump in the transportation of choice and take in the autumn colors. They reach their peak very quickly, and with a bit of wind and rain, the show comes to an abrupt end.
Matt Markey is The A-T outdoors columnist
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