Land, Water and People: Fall colors—New England versus Colorado

The reflection of the brilliant ruby red maple and wooden covered bridge shimmered in the smooth, slow moving river glide. I moved to line up the two New England icons into a nice composition to photograph. Clouds blocked out the harsh sun creating an even light and saturated colors. Click.

I continued to work the scene for another 15 minutes before a light drizzle began to fall from the sky. I got what I wanted, so headed back to the car where my brother, acting as my guide, had already retreated and headed out to the next idea.

Autumns can be spectacular in the Northeast, which is why I routinely visit my brother in New Hampshire in early October. Things were running a little slow this year, so I didn’t catch the peak in central New Hampshire. A few days earlier, I drove north to the White Mountain National Forest and the colors were fairly muted. Some people blamed the warm, dry weather.

New Englanders are proud of their fall colors and will tell you they are the best in the world. The diversity of hardwood trees creates a kaleidoscope of color covering the hills and mountains. Reds, oranges, yellows and even purples create a visual feast. Plus, the shrubs below the trees are equally beautiful. Viburnum, with its nearly hand-sized, heart-shaped leaves often forms dense stands of multi-colored leaves. One shrub may have yellow leaves, while the one next to it has purple leaves and some are two-toned.

One of my favorite autumn photo subjects in the hardwood forests of New England are paper birch. Their leaves turn a muted yellow, but their white bark contrasts sharply with the grey trunks of neighboring trees and the brilliant colors of maples, ash and cherries.  

It’s easy to see why New Englanders are proud of the autumn colors in their area and understand why a trip to the Northeast in the fall is on many a Westerner’s bucket list. But, let me tell you, our colors are pretty darned good too. Whereas the diverse hardwood forests of the East look like an artist splattered different colored paints onto the mountains and hills, Colorado’s colors look more like a jigsaw puzzle of colored aspen clones. Some are yellow, some gold, some orange and some can even turn orange-red. The larger areas of similar toned aspen pieced together is quite pleasing to the eye.

Additionally, the mountain ranges in Colorado provide a spectacular canvas on which the autumn colors are painted. The White Mountains of New Hampshire are beautiful too, and yes they are real mountains. The elevation change in the Presidential Range runs from 4000 to 5000 feet, similar to the San Juan Mountains. But, I must admit, my bias leans towards the San Juans.

Although the colors weren’t peaking in central New Hampshire, there were still plenty of pockets where many of the leaves had changed. My moto has always been that although the scene may not be what you were hoping for, there is always beauty to photograph. You just have to change your frame of mind and see what is in front of you instead of what you were visualizing.

My brother next brought me to a swampy pond, where the trees tend to turn earlier. Crimson red maple, orange sugar maple, yellow ash and silky green white pine lined the pond. Clear channels of calm water curved through dense stands of brown, arrow-leafed pickerel weed creating pleasing lines leading to the forest backdrop. I worked the shoreline, zooming my lens in to isolate scenes and then zooming out to take wide-angle photographs.

As so often happens when I get caught up with taking pictures, I lost track of time. Then, the rain began again, sending me back to the car. It was mid-afternoon and time to catch the Red Sox game. The 30-minute drive to my brother’s house was stunningly beautiful, but better than Colorado? This former New Englander wouldn’t say that.

Mike Blakeman is the public affairs specialist for the Rio Grande National Forest. He spends much of his free time scrambling around the mountains with a camera in his hand.