As the days grow shorter, it’s Northeastern Pennsylvania’s time to shine.
Sunny days and cool nights in the lead-up to fall have kick-started the annual spectacle of leaves changing their color across the state slightly earlier than in recent years, state officials say, with peak foliage viewing expected within the next two weeks in much of Luzerne, Wyoming and Lackawanna counties.
And the tourists seem to know it.
“We just got off the phone with someone from New York City. We’ve been getting calls from all over the place,” said Janet Hall, director of sales and marketing for the Luzerne County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
According to the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Bureau of Forestry, Pennsylvania’s fall foliage season is longer and more varied than any other state — or anywhere else in the world — due to its latitude, topography and the presence of 134 species of trees, being a meeting ground for northern and southern species.
Tool of tourism
Both state and local tourism officials have programs that capitalize on widespread interest in Pennsylvania’s foliage, from websites to glossy brochures promoting travel itineraries that take motorists past some of the most picturesque displays of autumnal scenery.
Hall and her office publish a pamphlet with suggested foliage driving tours in Luzerne County, highlighting Dallas and the Back Mountain, the West Side, as well as Mountain Top and White Haven. It also directs those looking for flashy fall colors to recreation areas, including Wilkes-Barre’s River Common park and the county’s many state parks.
The bureau focuses its promotion efforts on people within 200-mile radius of Luzerne County, or roughly a four-hour drive, Hall said. Their efforts place particular emphasis on the greater Philadelphia area, including the use of cable television ads, as well as the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. areas.
State officials, meanwhile, offer a weekly fall foliage report online, as well as their own lists of must-see foliage hotspots, from Lehigh Gorge State Park to the Pine Creek Valley, a Northern Tier natural attraction often dubbed the “Pennsylvania Grand Canyon.”
VisitPA also offers a customized “Leaf Peeper” road-trip on its website, consisting of a four-day, three-night journey across Pennsylvania’s famed Route 6 along the Northern Tier, said Steven Kratz, director of communications for the state Department of Community and Economic Development, which oversees tourism.
Local and state officials could not say for sure how much revenue foliage generates, but it “is an impactful tourism attraction for several regions of Pennsylvania,” Kratz said.
Peak foliage this year will be anywhere from several days to a week earlier than usual, said Ed Dix, a state forester. Many of the Northern Tier counties will begin to peak between Tuesday and Oct. 10, while Luzerne County and surrounding areas will blaze forth between Oct. 8 and 14.
Trees in the central region, including most of Luzerne County, were at 10 to 20 percent full color as of Tuesday, when the most recent state weekly report was issued.
“The weather over the past couple of weeks has been the dominant factor,” Dix said, explaining that bright days followed by longer, cooler nights speed up the natural processes by which leaves change color and drop away.
Warmer fall weather last year did push the season back further, Dix noted, with full color not arriving in our region until well into the second week of October.
Photosynthesis, the process by which trees and plants turn energy from the sun into food, is enhanced on long, sunny days, Dix said. It relies on chlorophyll, a green pigment that allows plants to absorb light and turn carbon dioxide into sugars.
As the days grow shorter and cooler, photosynthesis slows down and the declining amount of nutrients produced are absorbed by trees as they prepare to go dormant for the winter, Dix said.
As the chlorophyll breaks down in some leaves, yellow and orange pigments, which were already present, become visible once the dominant green hues disappear. With other trees, different chemical reactions actually transform the leaves from green into red, purple and other shades.
Effect of rain
Rain — or lack thereof — can affect the process, but Dix said he does not believe this summer’s dry weather was extreme enough to alter the pace of color change, never approaching drought conditions that could affect the subterranean water table from which trees primarily draw moisture.
According to AccuWeather, rainfall for the Wyoming Valley area is about 8.5 inches below the average annual rainfall to date of 28.5 inches.
“These trees are tough. They’ve been there for 80 to 100 years in most of our forests, and they’ve been through more severe (dry spells) than this,” Dix said.