Every Michigander knows of the autumn colors up north, but there is plenty of autumn splendor right here in Washtenaw County. Photo Taquamenon Falls by Dennis Buchner on Unsplash

| 3 min read | by Doug Marrin | |

While we frolicked in the summer sun, the leaves on the trees in the streets, yards, parks, and country worked hard keeping us cool and helping us breathe, not to mention providing the lumberjack’s share of scenic bucolic splendor. But now as our summer vacation comes to an end, it is time for the trees, more specifically their leaves, to take a break of their own.

Autumn is coming, and with it the stunning array of colors we all anticipate with great excitement. But, what exactly happens to our deciduous friends that they should change into a coat of many colors before shedding their garb completely for the cold months of winter?

We have innumerable places in The Suntimes News area to experience an explosion of fall colors. If you want to get outside in the cool autumn air, the Metroparks are a great place to stretch your legs while enjoying the colors. Walk the three-mile loop at Hudson Mills or the half-mile jaunt at Dexter-Huron. Both are loaded with hardwoods and Huron River views.

The greenbelt along the Huron River offers lots of vibrant hardwoods to view, even at ground level. Photo by Dennis Buchner on Unsplash

If you’re a cyclist, or long-distance runner, the Border-to-Border Trail connects Hudson Mills to Dexter-Huron with a short cruise through Dexter. The extension from Dexter-Huron to Zeeb Rd., scheduled for completion later this fall, will create an 11.6-mile one-way ride from Hudson Mills once finished. Stop in Dexter at the cider mill, bakery, or coffee shop. You’re going right by them anyway.

When the leaves are green, trees use sunlight to convert water and carbon dioxide into sugar, i.e. food. This is photosynthesis. The trees use chlorophyll to fuel the process. Chlorophyll is green, hence the green color of leaves.

The changing angle of the sun late summer into fall means we get fewer hours of sunlight. Trees need sunlight to produce chlorophyll.  Less sunlight means less chlorophyll. Less chlorophyll means less green. At some point, the other colors emerge.

As the green chlorophyll in leaves recedes due to reduced sunlight, the underlying colors emerge. Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Dimming the lights on the leaves isn’t the only factor in leaf color. Perhaps you’ve noticed that in some years, the red fall colors seem brighter and more robust than in other years. The temperature and cloud cover can make a big difference in a tree’s red colors from year to year.

If you would rather stay in the car for your autumn tour, there are plenty of roads. Grab a coffee at Zou Zou’s or Agricole in Chelsea and then head west out to Cavanaugh Lake Road. From there it’s simple – go anywhere. There are miles and miles of hardwoods every which way you turn. Stick to the roads less traveled for a slower roll. You’re in no rush.

Annual rainfall also affects autumn leaf color. We all look better when we’re properly hydrated. A drought can delay the arrival of fall. An unseasonably warm, wet fall will mute the vibrancy of colors. A severe frost will kill leaves turning them brown.

Conditions for the best autumn colors are:

  • a warm, wet spring
  • a summer that’s not too hot or dry, and
  • a fall with plenty of warm sunny days and cool nights.
The best colors can be seen off the beaten path such as the country west of Chelsea. Photo by John Michael Lindsey on Unsplash

Tree roots, branches and twigs are tough customers that can endure frigid temperatures. Leaves are delicate by comparison. Leaves full of water-sap will freeze in winter. The flora law of survival teaches us that any plant tissue unable to live through the winter must be closed off and shed. Nobody likes carrying dead weight.

For a more robust adventure, check out the U of M property at Peach Mountain. Park at Kids Land on N. Territorial Rd. just west of Dexter-Pinckney Rd. Be courteous. The preschool is doing us a favor. Cross the road and head down the Dexter Animal Clinic driveway and keep going straight for about ½-mile. Just before the gravel pit there are trails to the left and right. There are lots of pines and hardwoods. The 700 acres has not been logged since the 1930s so the trees are tall. The trails are not marked so pay attention. But the greater the effort, the greater the reward and it is certainly true at Peach Mountain.

Washtenaw County has many parks and preserves for an up close and personal autumn color experience. Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

The leaves die when the veins transporting the sap-water gradually close. Once closure is complete, the tree sees no reason to keep hanging onto a dead relationship and makes the break. Down to the ground the leaves go. The exception is oak leaves. For some reason the might oaks just can’t bring themselves to fully detach.

Washtenaw County is loaded with lots of opportunity to enjoy the season in short, easy walks. Another U of M property, Saginaw Forest is 80 acres loaded with an amazing variety of huge trees. Go to 2|42 Community Center on Wagner Rd. and park in the southwest corner of the parking lot. You’ll see a trailhead right there.

While the big parks get most of the attention, there are many smaller preserves in Washtenaw County with varied topography that can be enjoyed with a brief visit if you don’t want to gear up or have time for a hike. These are great to do with kids who may not be up for the longer walks.

Regardless of how you enjoy fall, on a path, in a car, or from your chair, it is nature’s fireworks putting on our favorite show. And even understanding the process that turns the leaves from green to yellow, orange, and red, can’t take away the magic we know as autumn.