Boulder Bridge in Rock Creek Park is a great spot to peep leaves during peak foliage.
Labor Day is over, school is in session, and pumpkin spice products are back on grocery store displays; while the current almost-100-degree heatwave might be dampening both our armpits and autumnal spirits, fall is around the corner.
At least, on a calendar.
Soon enough, D.C. area residents can hopefully ditch their flip-flops for boots and head out for a favored fall pastime: leaf-peeping. But record-challenging September temperatures and an unusually dry 2023 so far may make for a less-than-spectacular visual experience in the region's forests this autumn.
Every year, leaves in the D.C. region typically reach peak vibrancy somewhere in the last half of October to early November — although predicting an exact window for peak leaf-peeping is a complicated science. According to Troy Morris, a timber, fire and heritage staff officer for the U.S. Forest Service's George Washington and Jefferson National Forest, elevation, temperature, rainfall, and tree type all factor into a leaf's vibrancy, and when it eventually falls. For example, black gum, dogwood, and tulip poplar trees tend to turn color the earliest, whereas oak trees wait until the end of fall to make their seasonal switch. Trees at higher elevations will also be more likely to take on vibrant hues of orange, red, and yellow.
However, early September's hot-as-hell temperatures and this year's moderate drought might dull the color change this year, Morris says. If dry conditions persist and hot days extend further into September, more trees may lose their leaves earlier, before they've gotten a chance to don their autumnal best.
"I think one of the things I'm even seeing down here in the Roanoke Valley, is some of the leaves are starting to kind of burn out a little bit and are even dropping a bit prematurely, without a big change in leaf color," he says. "If you have a prolonged drought, they might just burn off the tree and then just drop. It really depends on a whole lot of factors, with temperature and rainfall being a couple of the bigger factors that will impact that."
Claire Comer, an interpretive specialist and public affairs officer with Shenandoah National Park, said some areas of the park are also seeing a premature color change and drop.
"I think one of the things we're going to notice is that we're not going to be as vibrant as we are in a normal year," she says. "The colors will be somewhat muted."
Comer says leaves are still expected to reach their most colorful hues around mid-October — she estimated a ballpark date of around Oct. 23 for Shenandoah — but that it may be a much quicker, and less-prolonged leaf drop. It's still early on in the season, though, and an event with significant rainfall or a cold snap could adjust the schedule.
"Anything could happen, if we get, say, a hurricane that drags up the coast and we get significant rainfall from that, that would make a difference," Comer says.
As we wait to see how the trees shake out, there are plenty of tools to try your best to plan a leaf-peeping excursion. Virginia's Department of Forestry will publish a fall foliage report in mid-September, and within the next two weeks, Shenandoah National Park will be publishing a weekly foliage update, as well as live webcams that allow viewers to assess the change in real-time. SmokyMountains also publishes a national map of peak foliage, which currently reports that our region is expected to have the brightest colors the week of Oct. 23. In Maryland, the state's Department of Natural Resources will be releasing a fall foliage outlook later this month.
Below are some of the favored leaf-peeping spots in the region.
Obviously, Rock Creek Park is one of our area's most popular peeping places. The 3.5-mile Boulder Bridge Hike takes you on a loop through the forest and along the creek. (For any birders out there, you might also be able to catch some migratory birds before they pack their bags for warmer weather.)
With summer tourists trickling out, the Tidal Basin is also a great spot to catch changing leaves, and the National Arboretum is another great spot to stroll (or run a 5k, if that's your thing) through the changing trees.
Shenandoah National Park is a favored locale for leaf-peeping, although there are a few tricks to avoiding crowds, according to Comer. If you're coming from D.C., she recommends using Route 340 to enter at one of the park's southern entrances like Rockfish, and taking Skyline Drive north to view the trees. This will avoid congestion and allow you to view both the color of the park and the trees of the neighboring communities surrounding Shenandoah. She also recommends reserving a ticket to the park in advance online; you may still have to wait in line, but it should help the line move a bit faster. And if you're willing to go a bit farther out or planning a weekend getaway, George Washington and Jefferson National Forest in Millboro covers 1.8 million acres of the Appalachian Mountains, making it one of the largest areas of public land in the eastern U.S.
For closer-to-home options, Scott's Run Nature Preserve in Fairfax County includes a loop with foliage views and a challenging stretch of the Potomac Heritage Trail for more experienced hikers. (To avoid crowding, try to arrive earlier in the morning.) You can also check out Great Falls National Park in McLean, or Fountainhead Regional Park in Fairfax Station.
Seneca Creek State Park in Gaithersburg spans 6,300 acres of hiking trails, a lake, picnic areas, and playgrounds. From April to October, visits are free on weekdays, and $3 per person for Maryland residents and $5 for out-of-state visitors on weekends. Sugarloaf Mountain, located about an hour outside of D.C., also offers hiking loops of varying lengths — from 2.5 to 7 miles — as well as a lookout point if you'd like to soak in the view from a vehicle.
This story originally appeared on DCist.com