Fall Colors On the Superior


A child with his mother points at fall foliage Fall is here and it is time to plan a trip to the Superior National Forest to see Nature put on her annual show.


Current Conditions (October 21, 2016):

Most of the fall color is gone, but aspen and birch are brilliant yellow and tamaracks are golden.  There are even a few spots with maples still.  Please drive respectfully on the narrow Forest roads!  Pull off to let others pass, and park with the doors closed leaving enough room for people to drive by.  Walk on shoulders, and keep an eye out for cars and trucks.

When is the PEAK?!

The peak of fall color is as unpredictable as the spring ice out date.  It depends on weather conditions through the growing season, as well as leaf stripping wind and rain in the fall.  It also depends on what you are looking for as birches, tamaracks, and maples all peak at different times.  The location in the Superior National Forest makes a difference as well.  The North Shore area will peak at a different time than the inland area, but, depending on weather, it could be earlier or later than inland.  The best we can offer is our collection of pictures taken every week at the same photopoint on the Honeymoon Trail since 2008.  By looking at this history, you can decide when you think peak will be this year.


For downloadable maps of the fall color tours, choose from the options below:

Laurentian Fall Color Tour (Laurentian District)

Sawtooth Mountains Fall Color Tour (Tofte District)

Discovery Auto Tour (LaCroix District)

Our nationally designated Scenic Byways and Scenic Drives are also good locations for fall colors:

Gunflint Trail Scenic Byway

Superior National Forest Scenic Byway

North Shore Scenic Drive


1. October 14, 2016

2. October 7, 2016

3. September 30, 2016

4. September 23, 2016

5. September 16, 2016

6.  September 9, 2016

7.  Slideshows

8.  For all the photos, visit our Flickr site.


Fall video clip

The video clip above is from October of 2013.



October 14, 2016

I’ve looked on the hills of the stormy North
And the larch has hung his tassels forth.
Felicia Hemans

Golden tamaracks against a blue sky. Around here, the American larch, or tamarack, is the loudest voice in the closing chorus of autumn color.  They are a pretty tree; the short, profuse, pale green needles giving the tree a delicate wispy appearance unlike the solemn stolidity of red and white pine, or the brooding darkness of spruce.  On a foggy summer morning, tamaracks coated in dew sparkle as the sun comes out, but mostly they hide camouflaged in the forest, afraid in their delicacy to stand out from their more stalwart companions.  In late fall though, watch out.  The tamaracks give up any hint of blending in, and loudly proclaim themselves in golden fireworks and trumpets against the greens of the other conifers.  Unlike the yellow of maple, aspen, and birch, tamaracks are a brassy gold color which both stands out in dark areas and complements the browns of the bogs and wetlands in which they are often found.

Despite its delicate appearance, tamaracks are anything but delicate.  The wood is rot resistant and relatively flexible, and the Abnoki of the Andirondacks called it ‘hackmatack’, meaning ‘snowshoe wood’.  It is used in wooden boats, house siding, and fence posts and anywhere people need a waterproof wood.  Relatives of the tamarack grow farther north than any other tree, and in our woods, tamaracks can often be found in bogs and other areas where other trees dare not grow.

But why drop their needles?  Other deciduous trees have wide flat leaves which maximize photosynthesis in the summer.  During winter, those leaves would lose too much water in a time when free water is scarce.  They also would hold snow, possibly leading to broken branches.  So, even though it costs the trees the ability to photosynthesize, leaves are dropped in the fall.  Pines can keep their needles and continue to photosynthesize all winter because the waxy coating which makes needles stiff also keeps them from losing moisture.  The needle shape further reduces moisture loss, and is able to collapse like an umbrella to shed snow.  The drawback is needles don’t catch much sun, and photosynthesis is reduced.  Tamaracks seem to have split the difference.  They have many needles, allowing them to catch more sun and ramp up photosynthesis during the summer, but unfortunately creating more surface area from which to lose water.  The needles are soft and light green, which might make them metabolically cheaper to produce, but also makes them less waxy and more prone to drying out and being damaged.  It might be this compromise is what allows tamaracks to live in so many harsh locations, but it also means tamaracks have to drop needles in the fall, though they are one of the last trees to turn color, hanging on to needles and photosynthesis right to the bitter end.

While it is fun to consider the “why” behind their display, it is maybe best to just enjoy their beauty as they come into their glory here in late fall, adding those golden notes to the final movement of the autumnal symphony.  Soon it will be over, and the forest will fall into a hushed silence under the snow, waiting for the opening notes of spring again.

Right now, it is the peak of aspen and birch color along Lake Superior, but inland and through much of the forest, fall is on the decline.  Except, of course, for those loud tamaracks.


Rosie the dog stands on a gravel road in fall. Grouse feathers on fallen leaves mark a spot where the grouse was either dinner or an escape artist.
A yellow patch of aspen stands out against bare trees. A bolete mushroom in the fall.
A bog with gold tamaracks on the edges. Fallen leaves carpet the ground in late fall.

For a printable copy of the photos and text above, click here.



October 7, 2016

He found himself wondering at times, especially in the Autumn, about the wild lands, and strange visions of mountains that he had never seen came into his dreams. He began to say to himself 'Perhaps I shall cross the river myself one day.' To which the other half of his mind always replied 'Not yet.'
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

A view over fall colors in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Enough with the ‘Not Yet’:  autumn is an excellent time to “cross the river” and explore the wild lands and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.  Imagine yourself on an autumn canoe trip.  You wake in the morning, not too early, because dawn in the fall isn’t at 5 am like it is in the summer.  At the shore, the fall leaves are reflected in a still lake, vibrant aspen and birches standing out against the dark conifers.  The mist over the lake will soon be swept away by the sun, but for now it holds on to the shoreline, the last bits of night caught on the rocks in the bay.  It was cold last night, with frost still showing in pockets behind rocks where the sun has yet to shine.  A campfire’s warmth feels good as water for coffee and cocoa heats on the fire grate, and soon the steam from your breath in the cool air is joined by the steam from the mug held in your hands.

Autumn clothing even seems better suited for the Boundary Waters.  Quick dry nylons and colorful t-shirts are replaced by red and black buffalo plaid flannel and the muted earth tones of wool, and people blend in and become a part of the scenery.  Falling leaves stick to the flannel and need to be brushed off, and rolling up the tent is noisy with the crackle of leaves.  After a check to make sure the fire is out and everything is packed, the canoe is loaded and ready to go.  The water is cold to wade in, but the sun is rising higher and the warmth on your back is reassuring that you will dry out in a short time.  On the lake, you’re joined by a late pair of loons, soon to be off for a winter in the Gulf of Mexico.  Other migrants visit as well, including circling hawks so far overhead that they can hardly be seen, let alone identified.  Portaging is easier.  Trails that can be a bug infested sauna in summer are comfortable hikes in fall, and there isn’t that desperate need for a water bottle at the end of every portage.

A campsite is found early as nightfall is around 7:30.  Hot food seems like a great idea, and things like soup, chili, and stuffing with gravy are perfect for fall meals.  Even though the skies are clear, the rainfly goes on the tent to keep out the cold night air, and the early sunset gives plenty of time to sit by a fire, or star gaze from the rock by the lake.  If you’re lucky, the autumn yellows and reds of the day are complemented by the greens of the northern lights at night.  Later, when yawns become constant and the night air starts to hint at winter, it is time to crawl into the sleeping bag and in the comfort of its warmth reflect on how there is nothing like fall in the Wilderness.

The Boundary Waters, along with the rest of the Superior, is at, or a bit past, peak fall color this week.  While maples are dropping their leaves, the birch and aspen are at their finest yellow right now, so it is impossible to say what peak fall color really is - so go out and see for yourself!


Looking up at a sunny sky through autumn aspen. A picnic table covered in leaves in the fall.
A fall leaf cradled by a mushroom on the forest floor. A view over the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from Honeymoon Bluff in the fall.
Aspen and birch trees in fall against a blue sky. Yellow maple leaves against the trunk of a tree.

For a printable copy of the photos and text above, click here.




September 30, 2016

“You guys are going somewhere, or just going?"
Jack Kerouac, On The Road

A road curves under fall colors. Road.  Trail.  Path.  Route.  Byway.  Track.  They lead from one place to another, sometimes in a straight line, sometimes in twisted confusion.  Fall is a pathway as well, a route from summer to winter, leading us from hot, humid stillness to snow filled winds.  And, like all good trails, it is not the origin or destination which matter, it is the path itself which matters.

I grew up in an era when gas was 23 cents a gallon.  A Sunday autumn drive, with no destination in mind, was considered a perfectly good way to spend the day.  The windows were open – no A/C – and the smells of the outdoors blew through the car.  The radio was usually off, only AM after all, but that was fine because the point was the drive, and the radio was just a distraction.  While there might be no destination in mind, usually one popped up if we kept our eyes open.  It was often a roadside stand selling apples in paper bags.  There was a table full of samples of Firesides, Haralsons, and Jonathans, with a paring knife for you to cut off your own slice.  No warning signs about sharp objects, no hand sanitizer or plastic gloves, because, after all, if you don’t know how to cut an apple, it’s your own problem.  The air was heavy with the scent of apples, which along with damp leaves and smoke, is the smell of fall.  Then, back into the car, eating apples, thinking of pie.

I set out to take pictures today with a destination in mind - Hogback Lake.  It is a pretty little campground, boat launch, and trail system deep in the Forest, and is a favorite spot.  But, along the way, the trip changed to a Sunday drive.  The radio got shut off, the windows got rolled down, and the straight path that had been planned became something else as interesting side roads were explored, and lake shores investigated.  Fall is like that.  What seems to be a straight road to winter becomes a turning path of leaves changing and blowing down, rain mixed with sun, warm days mixed with frost.  The journey from summer to winter becomes the important part, and the trip that started out too long becomes not long enough.

I did finally get to Hogback Lake, and it was as pretty as I remembered, but most of the pictures I took were from along the way, taken sometime in the fall, sometime between summer and winter, taken somewhere on the road.

This could be our peak weekend for fall color, and the weather looks great.  Time for your own Sunday drive – turn off the Bluetooth and radio, set the climate control to off, roll down the windows, and go explore!


Fall colors in moose maple and mountain ash. Our photopoint on the Honeymoon Trail on Sept 28, 2016.
A gravel road goes up a steep hill in the fall. A seldom used two track road with water in the tracks in the fall.
A gravel road under fall foliage. A fall overlook with colored leaves and a single tree.

For a printable copy of the photos and text above, click here.




September 23, 2016

“Change is a measure of time and, in the autumn, time seems speeded up.  What was is not and never again will be; what is is change."
Edwin Teale

Moose maple leaves against a fallen birch log. Fall rolling toward winter is like a child racing to adulthood.  It starts slowly, but then picks up momentum.  To a parent at the beginning, it seems like childhood will never end - then, one day, you discover he’s got a driver’s license instead of a tricycle.  And, at the start of September, it seems impossible that all those green leaves will change color and the woods will be entirely orange and yellow in October, let alone bare by November.  The summer forest with a few signs of fall becomes almost overnight the fall forest with a few signs left of summer.  Things move fast in the fall.  People try to use cameras to halt the seasons and slow the passage of time.  They have phones choked with gigabytes of preserved time, pictures of orange leaves, pictures of the first day of school, all carefully put up like fall applesauce in canning jars.  But applesauce isn’t really the same as a fall apple straight from the tree.  We talk of capturing images, but you can no more capture the fall than you can capture the child speeding past.  The best you can do is be a part of it, racing alongside the changing maples and the growing child, sharing what time you can, until you can’t keep up anymore, and you have to stop and just watch the winter coming on.  All too soon, the last leaf will fall, the child will be off to college, and all that will be left are bare branches and the echo of bare feet running through the house.

This weekend, pack an apple or two, grab your kid, your dog, or your friend, and go for a hike in the fall woods.  Leave the camera and phone behind, and just experience it.  The forest has gone from a mere 5% changed to 25% to 40% changed.  In some inland areas, people are reporting 75% or more, but on the North Shore, there are still places as low as 10%.


A view over the Forest from the Honeymoon Trail. Our photopoint on the Honeymoon Trail, Sept 22, 2016
Orange mushrooms sprouting from a rotting birch log A bracken fern leaf in September.
A stand of aspen, birch, and maple in various stages of fall color. Two amanita mushrooms, one big, one little.

For a printable copy of the photos and text above, click here.



September 16, 2016

“We can never know about the days to come
But we think about them anyway,
And I wonder if I'm really with you now
Or just chasin' after some finer day”

- Anticipation, Carly Simon

Red begins to take over from green on a red maple leaf. In some ways, fall is entirely about anticipation.  Trees are anticipating the snow and cold of winter, casting off the leaves that would freeze and lose water during the months of snow and cold.  Animals store food or fat, anticipating lean times ahead.  People scurry busily washing windows, anticipating times when they will be restricted to the indoor environment looking out.  Anticipation can be a great thing:  without it, those trees would freeze, the animals would be hungry, and your view of white snow might be shaded gray by dirty glass.  Anticipation can change a week-long vacation to several months of planning and reading travel guides, and change one morning of opening presents into an entire season whose decorations take up three large boxes in the basement.  But, as the song says, there is a darker side of anticipation.  The time you spend “chasin’ after some finer day” is time you’ve lost experiencing the present.

The early autumn woods are beautiful this week.  And to be honest, they will be next week and they were last week as well.  Goldenrods were wonderful bright spikes of yellow last week, and this week they are warm, brown, fuzzy bundles of seeds - both lovely in their own way, both as worthy of experiencing as whatever next week brings.

On a larger scale of years instead of months, this year is the fifth anniversary of the Pagami Creek Fire north of Lake Isabella.  Some people may be anticipating the regrowth of the forest with the tall pines we all knew from before the fire, but they will miss out in participating all the stages the forest will go through in getting there.  Right now, the pines are there, but are three to five feet tall.  With the abundance of vegetation close to the ground, snowshoe hares think this may be the best phase in the life of a forest.  And, with the abundance of snowshoe hares, lynx don’t think it is too bad either.

So, if you are anticipating the peak of fall color, and ask me, my reply might be another line from the song:  “I’m no prophet, and I don’t know nature’s ways”.  No one knows when the peak will be this year, or if it will last a long time, or if it will be as good as last year.  Instead of anticipating the peak, participate in the day you’re in.  Breathe the air, hear the migrating birds, and see what is out there right now in terms of fall color.  You’ll find every day is a peak.

Right now, we are only at about 5% of the theoretic peak, but don't let that stop you.  Get out there; carpe diem!


Orange fall leaves Our photopoint on the Honeymoon Trail on September 15, 2016
Fluffy seeds on a goldenrod seed head. Regenerating pines in the Pagami fire area.
Scarlet berries of the mountain ash tree. Fall leaves against a white sky.

For a printable copy of the photos and text above, click here.




September 9, 2016

"..even the insects in my path are not loafers, but have their special errands".

- Henry David Thoreau

Scarlet moose maple keys against still green leaves.Time moves on, kids return to school, the State Fair comes and goes, and we suddenly realize that the Halloween displays in the stores aren’t quite as ridiculous as when they first appeared at the end of July.  Fall is upon us somehow, and all those summer plans you had…well, some might have to wait for next summer.

Nature has no such luxury.  Animals and plants can’t procrastinate.  Bears can’t say, “Well, I’ll just put off gaining that 40 pounds until next spring.”  As a result, even this early in the fall, you can see plenty of evidence that the natural world is busy preparing for winter.  Fall may seem like a calm, peaceful season as the forest winds down for the year, but under the façade of tranquility, it is a hive of activity.

Hives, in fact, are in fact truly abuzz.  The final flowers of the year, the asters and the goldenrod, are in full bloom, and all the pollinators are taking advantage of the chance to gather nectar.  While the entire hive survives in the case of honeybees, in many other colonial species of insect, only the queen survives.  The diligent workers you see on the goldenrod are truly self-sacrificing - they will die before they ever get a chance to use the product of their labor.  Most bees and wasps though are solitary, not colonial.  They may be more selfish and laying in a supply for the winter, but others are being good parents and collecting just for the sake of their offspring.

Disguised among the bees and wasps are the hoverflies.  They are bee mimics, bearing the yellow and black warning stripes of a stinging insect, but lacking the sting itself.  Most people can tell the flies don’t look quite right to be bees, but may not be able to put their finger on the difference.  The insect’s eyes are a little too big, and are a little too close together, and if you count the wings, there are two instead of four.  Most people and animals don’t really want to get close enough to a bee or wasp to count wings, so these mimics are left alone, just as though they could really sting.  It’s worth getting close though, most of the actual stinging insects are so preoccupied with gathering nectar that they aren’t going to notice you.  So, take a few minutes to really look at the next clump of asters, or flowering stalk of goldenrod in a meadow.  You’ll see that that the disguise of calm the meadow wears is just as false as the colors of the hoverfly.  It’s a very very busy place right now.

Colors are at about 1% of peak, just a very few leaves and branches showing anything.  Birches are turning in a few spots, and the understory of bush honeysuckle, bindweed, large leafed aster, and sarsaparilla is quite full of reds and yellows.  Hazels are yellowing as well, and the seeds on the moose maple are almost fluorescent red.


Our photopoint on the Honeymoon Trail, Sept 8, 2016 A hollow log makes a small cave for a spiderweb.
A ruffed grouse by the side of the road. A tricolored bumblebee on an aster flower.
Wild sarsaparilla next to a birch tree. Curves along the newly paved Sawbill Trail.

For a printable copy of the photos and text above, click here.



Slideshows: Fall photos from around the Superior National Forest

With some browsers, the slideshows will appear automatically with 'advance' and 'back' arrows at the sides of the image.  With other browsers, you will have to click the image to go to the Flickr site, then click the 'Slideshow' icon (little screen with a 'play' arrow on it) at the upper right of the linked Flickr page.

October 14, 2016

Fall Color 2016 October 13

October 7, 2016

Fall Color 2016 October 7

September 30, 2016

Fall Color 2016 September 28

September 23, 2016

Fall Color 2016 September 22

September 16, 2016

Fall Color 2016 September 15

September 9, 2016

Fall Color 2016 September 8

October 23, 2015

Fall Color 2015 October 22

October 15, 2015

Fall Color 2015 October 15

October 8, 2015

Fall Color 2015 October 8

October 1, 2015

Fall Color 2015 October 1

September 25, 2015

Fall Color 2015 September 25

September 18, 2015

Fall Color 2015 September 17

September 11, 2015

Fall Color 2015 September 10

September 3, 2015

Fall Color 2015 September 3

October 24, 2014


October 10, 2014


October 2, 2014


September 25, 2014


September 19, 2014


September 12, 2014


September 4, 2014


Our photopoint on the Honeymoon Trail

Weekly photos taken from the same spot this year and previous years on the Sawtooth Mountains Fall Color Tour.



2016 Honeymoon Trail Photopoint


2015 Honeymoon Trail Photopoint



2014 Honeymoon Trail Photopoint



2013 Honeymoon Trail Photopoint


2012 Honeymoon Trail Photopoint