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When Does Ozarks Foliage Peak?

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When Is Peak?
by Gary Cooley

False Peak Occurs First, Typically Between October 14th through the 20th - give or take 2 to 3 days
True Peak Occurs Next, Typically Between October 26th through November 5 - give or take 2 to 3 days
Arrive between these two peak date ranges and you will not enjoy the best color.
The good news is that you do not have to hit prime peak to enjoy fantastic color. If a perfect peak is a "10" but you arrive when peak is at an "8" you will notice very little difference.

Two Peaks? What's That All About!

In reading different area foliage reports you will see discrepancies as to when peak foliage occurs. Quite simply this is because there are actually two peaks. Since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it's a constant debate. When you simply reduce it to two peaks, then it all makes sense.

We call them the False Peak and the True Peak. These two peaks are about 6 to 10 days apart. Both are beautiful yet distinctly different. Yet unless you want to spend nearly a month in the area to experience both, you WILL need to make a choice as to which peak you prefer. If you arrive in that 6 to 10 day period between these two peaks you may not enjoy color the way you hope to.

As far as we know 2Cooleys is the first to anywhere to talk about an area having two foliage peaks, certainly the first in the Ozarks. We understand it's an unusual concept. However, it was real-world experience that lead us to this understanding. While this concept of two peaks flies in the face of convention, it is indeed a fact.

What Are The Differences Between The Two Peaks?

We have two distinct peaks because of our location on Planet Earth, and the diversity of plant life here. Take a look at the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map for United States. You will see that our reporting area lies within three different temperate zones. Further, our reporting area is home to a little over 200 plant species, subspecies, and varieties in 68 families. Most display fall colors. It's not just trees that display colors, but vines, shrubs, and berry plants, all of which are in extreme abundance as native species.

There are 35-plus oak species alone. Each tree specie changes at a different time in a different pattern. Maples, hickory, beech, ash, hackberry, gum, and many more all are on their own schedules.

False Peak: The first peak, which we call the False Peak because it is not really a classic peak as the world knows it, is an event specific to individual trees, or small groups trees. False Peak is when you will see the most intense color, and the widest range of colors.

The False Peak is best enjoyed by driving secondary hard surface roads and back country dirt roads, not the main highways. You need to be up close to the trees, as in 50 yards or less, not a mile away. You will be awed by individual trees, and small colonies of a few trees, not entire hillsides of trees in color. In a good False Peak color year you will see scarlet, deep mahogany, purple, black, blue, and gold in several hues. You'll see leaves having multiple colors, or leaves with exactly one side in brilliant fall color, the other half still green with a line as precise as you could draw with a ruler between the two colors.

True Peak: True Peak is what most people expect to see, where entire hillsides are in bright intense color everywhere you look. Very few green trees, very few bare trees. Just millions of trees in bright display. In the Ozarks you will see green even in True Peak because there are thousands of pine trees sprinkled in with the hardwoods. In some spots the Forest Service planted entire ridges and hillsides in pine so you'll see large areas of green even during True Peak.

True Peak will always occur during the last few days of October and the first few days of November, typically from October 26 to November 5 - give or take a couple of days. If True Peak has not happened by the first few days of November, something is wrong, and that normally is weather was too warm and cloudy. That is why you need to watch the local weather for this area if you really want to nail either peak!

The Differences: The difference between the False Peak and the True Peak is that during the True Peak you see ALL of the forests flaming in orange and yellow. All the hillsides will be in high color form. But while intense in a good year, True Peak colors are limited to the oranges, yellows, and mahogany hues. It is primarily the hardwoods and especially the nut-bearing hardwoods, that turn during True Peak.

Thus, in a nutshell, your choice is between the Quality of color in the False Peak versus the Quantity of color during the True Peak. If you want to experience both plan on being in the area from October 15 through November 5 - a 22 day period. You can't really enjoy the False Peak colors running down the roads at 60mph looking at hillsides a mile away. It's close up versus far away.

What It Takes For Great Peaks

Fall Weather: Peak foliage is highly dependent on weather conditions. It takes clear sunny days with temperatures no warmer than the mid 60's, and cooler nights with temperatures no higher than the high 30's to mid 40's, with a few nights in the 50's. When a peak is about to occur, a few warm cloudy days will slow that turn. Conversely, a hard frost can damage the color because of accelerated chemical reactions within the leaves. Cool days and nights, and plenty of sunshine is the key.

Rain: Don't worry about how much rain there was during the summer. If the leaves are green in the fall, they WILL turn color! We have seen the best False Peak colors during drought years. If summers are hot and dry followed by good rainfall levels in September, all will be just fine. Weather conditions in October are the primary force behind color change, not summer rainfall.

A Slow Turn: An Ozark foliage turn does not happen as quickly as a color change in northern states. In fact there are several stages in Ozark color turns. The first color turns begin along the rivers in low valleys. Turns then progresses up the hillsides. By the time peak color appears on the hillsides most of the trees along the rivers will have long since peaked and dropped their leaves.

Hills Cause Cool Spots: You'll see some hillsides in full color, but across a valley is a green hillside. Pockets of cold air tend to form between low lying north-facing hillside valleys and ridges. As it cools air drains from the ridgetops to the valleys after sunset. If the cold air is trapped by a land formation it can lead to an early turn for that particular spot. These spotty turns are not common in the northern states.

Don't Forget Understory Color: A key point to remember is that you'll see understory foliage as well as canopy foliage. The most beautiful colors occur in the understory, usually no more than a few feet off the ground. Drive down back roads in the National Forests, which are public lands. Park, get out, and walk around next to the road. You will not be disappointed.

Move Around: Foliage turns earlier the further north you go. For example, peak occurs a week earlier in central Missouri than it does in Mountain View, Arkansas. Pick any point on the map in the Ozarks. Plan that for every 30 air miles north you go, the foliage will be one to three days more advanced toward peak.

Follow Local Only: Contributing somewhat to the confusion over peak foliage dates are that the national cable news and weather TV channels run foliage reports showing peak foliage occurring in late September. These reports are for northern, not southern states. Southern states turn about a month to six weeks later than northern states. Don't go by what you see on national TV for this area, they've been wrong for years. They are reporting northern foliages. If you miss the northern peaks, come on down south!



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