Each September and October, the trees of Maine put on a grand show, their leaves bursting into fiery colors. Red, orange, yellow and gold — the bright foliage dazzles visitors and locals alike. The season, however brief, is nature’s final hurrah before winter.
It may seem like magic, but the science of this annual transformation it is actually quite simple.
As the temperature drops and the days shorten, leaves stop producing green chlorophyll. When this happens, the yellow and orange pigments that already exist in the leaves — such as xanthophyll and carotene — become visible. And in some tree species, anthocyanins are formed, giving leaves red, purple or bluish hues.
Because this natural change is signaled in part by the temperature, the timing of it varies from year to year. To help people plan leaf peeping trips, the state puts out weekly fall foliage reports from mid-September through mid-October.
Many people choose to enjoy fall foliage by hiking, an activity that is especially enjoyable in the fall, when the weather is just cool enough to be refreshing. Another advantage of fall hiking is the lack of mosquitoes and blackflies that plague hikers earlier in the year.
When planning a fall foliage hike, you’ll want to choose a place with plenty of deciduous trees. (Evergreens look pretty much the same year round.) Silver maple, aspen and birch trees can produce bright yellows; while red oak, sugar maple, flowering dogwood and black gum trees often produce red or crimson leaves. But they can also display orange, peach and indigo.
To get you started, here are a few trails and trail networks that I find to be exceptionally colorful in the fall.
Viles Arboretum in Augusta
Where better to enjoy fall foliage than an arboretum, a botanical garden devoted to trees?
In the midst of Maine’s capital city, the Viles Arboretum is 224 acres of fields, orchards, gardens and forests that the public can explore on a 5-mile network of intersecting trails. Most trails are smooth and easy, though there are a few hills and rougher forest trails along the edges of the property.
The arboretum dates back to 1981, when the Maine Forest Service began its development by planting 120 trees and constructing many fences, bridges, trails and a boardwalk. The next year, a private non-profit corporation was formed called the Pine Tree State Arboretum to manage the preserve, and the following year, a visitors center was built near the parking area. Also near the parking area is “The General Sugar Maple,” a giant old sugar maple that should be marvelous in the fall.
The grounds are open to the public for free daily, dawn to dusk, year round. Dogs are permitted if on leash at all times. Hunting is not permitted. For more information, visit vilesarboretum.org or call 207-626-7989.
Directions: The arboretum is located at 153 Hospital Street in Augusta. If driving south on I-95, take Exit 109A; and if driving north on I-95, take Exit 109. Both exits lead to Western Avenue, where you will drive east on for about 1.5 miles to a roundabout. At the roundabout, take the second exit to continue on Western Avenue across the Kennebec River. After the bridge, at the next roundabout, take the first exit onto Stone Street (Route 17) and drive 0.5 miles. Continue straight onto Hospital Street and drive about 0.7 miles and Viles Arboretum will be on your left, marked with a large sign.
Bald Bluff Mountain in Amherst
With granite outcroppings that provide stunning views of the region, Bald Bluff Mountain in Amherst rises 1,011 feet above sea level and features a 2.2-mile hike. Much of the mountain is covered in a variety of deciduous trees, making it an especially colorful place to be in the fall.
The mountain is one of three hiking destinations in Amherst Mountains Community Forest, a state-owned preserve that covers nearly 5,000 acres and contains six remote ponds. The hike to the top of Bald Bluff is mostly gradual, but there are a couple steep sections of trail on the south side of the mountain, between the overlooks and the summit.
Dogs are permitted in Amherst Mountains Community Forest if under their owner’s control at all times, and they must be leashed at campsites. Access is free. Hunting is permitted. For more information, call the Eastern Public Lands Office at 207-941-4412. The AMCF management plan can be found at www.maine.gov.
Directions: From the intersection of Route 9 and Route 181 in Amherst, drive west on Route 9 for 1.5 miles and turn right (north) onto Ducktail Pond Road, which is also known as Ducktail Pond Lane. (This turn is on the left approximately 22 miles from the traffic light at the intersection of Route 9 and State Street in Brewer.) Drive 5.9 miles on the gravel Ducktail Pond Road to the parking area for Bald Bluff Mountain, which is a small turnout that can fit two or three cars. The trailhead, marked with a sign that reads “trailhead,” is just before (south of) the parking area.
Sargent Mountain in Acadia National Park
Rising 1,373 feet above sea level, Sargent Mountain is the second tallest mountain in Acadia National Park, which is a spectacular place to enjoy bright fall foliage. Like many of the mountains in the park, Sargent rewards hikers with breathtaking views of Mount Desert Island, the ocean and nearby islands.
Located northwest of Jordan Pond, the mountain can be hiked by a number of different trails. The closest parking lot to the mountain is the Bubbles Divide Parking Lot. From there, the quickest route to the summit of Sargent Mountain is 1.8 miles and includes four trails, ending with the 0.8-mile East Cliffs Trail. This hike features a historic stone bridge, a walk along the shore of Jordan Pond, a scenic wooden footbridge, granite staircases and a steep, rocky section that requires hand-over-foot climbing.
Dogs are permitted but must be leashed (6 foot maximum), and this trail may be too steep and rocky for some dogs to traverse safely. Hunting is not permitted. All park visitors are required to pay a fee upon entry from May through October. Park pass costs vary, but most people purchase the $30 private vehicle pass, which is valid for 7 days. You can also purchase an annual vehicle pass for $55. For more information, visit www.nps.gov/acad or call 207-288-3338.
Directions: Drive onto Mount Desert Island on Route 3. After the causeway, veer left and drive toward Bar Harbor on Route 3. After 7.7 miles, turn right to enter the park at the Hulls Cove Entrance on Paradise Hill Road. Drive a few hundred feet and you’ll come to a stop sign. Turn left onto Park Loop Road (labeled as Paradise Hill Road on Google Maps). Drive 5.9 mile and park in the Bubbles Divide Parking Lot, which will be on your right.
This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s September 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.