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 24, 2014):

Most of the leaves have fallen, but tamaracks still have their golden needles.  They play the last chords in our autumn symphony.  Come enjoy these strange deciduous conifers, and the final notes of fall.




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

Laurentian District

Tofte District (Sawtooth Mountains)

LaCroix District (Discovery Auto Tour)



1.  October 24, 2014

2.  October 17, 2014, no report

3.  October 10, 2014

4. October 2, 2014

5. September 25, 2014

6. September 19, 2014

7. September 12, 2014

8. September 4, 2014

9.  Slideshows

10.  When is the Peak?  Visit our weekly pictures from our photopoint on the Honeymoon Trail since 2008.  See if you can predict when this year's peak will be!

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




October 24, 2014

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country.

- Edgar Allen Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher


A partial solar eclipse caught in branches and clouds There are bright and cheerful October days filled with apple cider and the warm smell of fallen leaves, days for raking piles of leaves and jumping in them full of laughter.  And then there are foggy, cold, and mysterious October days, days that let us know that there is a reason Halloween haunts the end of this month.  This was one of those days.  Trees concealed trails that seemed to lead into nothing, unknown curves appeared in familiar roads, and even the sun hid behind the moon in a partial solar eclipse.  This is a different kind of fall color, one that is less inviting than it is beckoning, one that is less celebratory than it is introspective.  In the gray of the fog, spots of color stand out.  The branches of young tamaracks appear like fireworks against a background of somber spruce.  Bright green mosses, present but unnoticed earlier, suddenly are vibrant on rocks and stumps.  But the colors only serve to underline the pervasive grays and blacks in foggy woods which vanish into the mists. 

In the fog, the world collapses, the acres surrounding you telescope into the tiny patch of land that you can see clearly, forcing you to notice your immediate surroundings, undistracted by distance.  An old metal sign, a bit of lichen, a leaf that somehow fell impaled on a branch - things you might not notice in bright sun seem to be full of meaning and portent.  While the draperies of the fog created a small space on earth, the solar eclipse was a visible reminder that the entire planet is a small space compared with the larger universe.  It is the draperies of our own limited comprehension that create the illusion that our earth is large.  The paths we take to understanding the universe are, like the paths through the fog, filled with unforeseen curves, and lead us off into the unknown.   The trail beckons, and being a species of explorers, we head off into the mist.  But, the farther we go down those paths, the more special our planet seems, a small bright spot of color in the blacks and grays of space, a bit of green in a universe of fog.


Our photopoint on the Honeymoon Trail on October 23, 2014 Bracken fern from a mouse eye perspective.
Gold tamaracks with other conifers in the distance. Tamaracks along the Sawbill Trail.
Bare maple trees in the fog. A partial solar eclipse caught in branches and clouds

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



October 10, 2014

“When the hunting moon of October first appears, it is big and orange and full of strange excitement.  Then it is at its best; later it pales, but those first few moments are moments of glory.”

- Sigurd F. Olson, Runes of the North


Fall colors along Hwy 61.Mid-October, another step on the road to winter.  Winter can have days, weeks, even months that are very much alike.  It is hard to tell a day in late-January from a day in mid-December from a day in early-March.  Summer too, plop yourself down on a summer day in the forest, and one day under the green canopy of leaves is much like any other.  But fall, fall changes daily.  This week is not like last week, the maples are bare and the aspen and birch are brilliant yellow along the shore.  This week is not like next week, when the aspen may be bare as well, but the golden tamaracks will be glowing in woods.  The joy in autumn is the change and the unpredictability.  A wind or rain may drop leaves quickly, or they may hang on for two weeks.  It may be a year with more yellows and reds, or it may be a year that favors browns.  There is road map of what might happen, but it is impossible to tell how long the trip on the road will be, or what the exact scenery is.  That wondering, that feeling of what will the woods be like:  that is one of the keys to fall.  It makes every walk with the dog exciting, every hike in the forest an adventure, and every trip down a familiar trail something new. 

Nature is palpably stirring in the fall, you can tell the earth is alive in a way that is hard to sense in the slower moving seasons.  It can spur you to be more active yourself:  summer may be spent lazing away in the backyard listening to the monotonous whine of the neighbor’s lawn mower, winter spent inside huddled around bowls of soup, but fall is when the garage gets cleaned, the lawn raked, the cars vacuumed, the hoses drained, and the flower beds tucked in.  Just like in the forest, one day is not like the next, each is separate, identifiable, and unique.  So, get outside and enjoy this fall day, at least for a few minutes, because the one thing that is guaranteed about fall is that by tomorrow, today will be gone.


Our photopoint on the Honeymoon Trail on October 9, 2014 Yellow birch and aspen against a cliff face.
A stand of golden aspen along a road. Sunrise over Lake Superior.
A rainbow over Oberg Lake. Birches with yellow leaves.

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



October 3, 2014


There's a battle outside, and it's ragin'.
It'll soon shake your windows, and rattle your walls,
For the times they are a-changin'!

- Bob Dylan


A drop of water on a branch refracts Carlton Peak The times are a-changin’ indeed.  There is a battle outside between the warmth of summer and the cold of winter, and the chill wind this past week shaking your windows leaves little doubt over which will be winning in the weeks to come.  With the winds came rain, bringing down many of the leaves and giving us a shorter than usual peak of fall color.  But, the rain is good for the forest, providing plants the water they will need later to grow again in the spring and tempering our fall fire season, even if we would have liked to have had it hold off for one more week. 

As the leaves changed from on the trees to on the ground, the birds changed as well.  Warblers that were everywhere a week ago are now farther south, but the ground is in motion with pipits, turning over leaves and looking for tasty morsels.  The large flocks of geese that have been in the sky the last few weeks seem to have mostly passed south as well in search of water that won’t be changing to ice. 

A large change could take place this weekend.  The prediction of “rain, changing to snow” was in the forecast for the first time, and there is the possibility of the ground changing to white.  Summer jackets are being changed for winter coats, and the sunscreen and mosquito repellent are being swapped out with hats and gloves.

All these changes are part of the normal cycle of life here in Minnesota, but recently the change of seasons are haunted by the specter of a less natural global climate change.  There is a battle outside that isn’t just a seasonal change as we fight to preserve a climate that provides us with the moose, pine, and cold walleye lakes that we love.  It is a battle fought with thermostats, insulation, and carpools.  In the spirit of that battle, it is the light bulbs and our habits we are a-changin’.  Fall is a great time to do some of these updates around the house.

Our fall forest is around 75% of peak color, but dropping quickly as the weather continues to pull on the leaves.  There are still some full 100% patches, often in birch and aspen stands, but most of the maples have lost their leaves in many areas.


Our photopoint on the Honeymoon Trail on October 2, 2014 A CCC era cabin in the fall.
Looking out over the colorful forest in mist. A cluster of maple leaves hang on while others have fallen
A fallen twig hosts lichens Yellow hardwoods contrast with green evergreens

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



September 25, 2014


We sit in silence drinking in the radiant glory about us. Words would have been sacrilege.

- Sigurd F. Olson,  Nashwauk [Minn.] Herald, ca July 1921


A winding road on the Fall Color Tour Fall is here, and all nature tells us so.  Kettles of hawks drift down the shore of Lake Superior over the changing forest, yellow-rumped and other warblers chip from the trees, gleaning fuel for the flight southwards toward a winter supply of insects.  The constellation Orion stands tall in the morning sky, striding across the heavens toward when he will rule the winter nights.  Our days are now shorter than our nights, the equinox has past.  Day length shortens rapidly; days shorten fastest at this time of year and we lose minutes of light with each passing day. 

Through all these signs, nature tells us of fall, but she tells of it loudest through the trees.  You might miss a warbler, or not be up before dawn to see Orion, but it is hard to miss the extravagantly orange cloaked maple at the corner of the road.  And now, now it is not just that single maple singing out the news, but an entire chorus of trees proclaiming the end of summer and foretelling the arrival of winter.  Acres of forest are all offering up a paean to autumn as we approach the peak of our fall colors here on the Superior.   There is a reason that Sigurd Olson called this “the singing wilderness”, and fall is perhaps when the wilderness sings loudest of all. 

Should you care to join that chorus and come to the Forest to experience autumn, this week may well include that mythological peak of fall colors.  In the span of a few days, we’ve gone from around 20% color overall to 50 to 75% color, with many areas at 100%.  If though your favorite part of fall is the sound your feet make in the fallen leaves, you may be better off waiting as there are relatively few leaves on the ground yet.  Better still, get out twice or more.  With around three million acres of national forest, there are a lot of variations on the tune the wilderness is singing, and a lot of autumn to explore.


Our photopoint on the Honeymoon Trail on Sept 24, 2014 A single maple leaf that is past prime, but still has beauty
Colorful hardwoods with evergreens A tiny  bit of Lake Superior shows beyond Carlton Peak as seen from Britton Peak.
A scene along the Sawbill Trail near Tofte in fall White birches contrast with fall colors

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



September 19, 2014


Autumn days come quickly, like the running of a hound on the moor.

- Irish proverb


A bright understory below birch and aspen Last week, some people wondered why we had fall color reports already.  This week, some people were already crying “Peak!”  Fall not only progressed this week, it sprinted.  While not even close to peak really, there are some trees that have definitely given up on summer.  If you look across the forest at a scenic vista, it isn’t so much the birch, maples, and aspen which catch your eye, as the dark evergreens which stand out more and against the yellowing hardwoods, with an occasional stand out tree or patch of trees in flame. 

It is wonderful week to go for a hike.  In fact, you should go on several hikes.  Even on the same trail, you will get a different experience every day as fall moves on, and even a different experience for every hundred yards of trail.  You’ll pass through a section of yellow, then turn a corner and you are back in midsummer green.  But you’ll find that it is getting harder and harder though to find sections of forest with no sign of fall, and the yellow patches are quickly spreading across the landscape. 

The patchy nature of the forest is more apparent at this time of year.  For a little while here in the fall, we can see what has been apparent to the birds all the time.  Our forest isn’t one large unit, it is a collection of smaller pieces that vary in age and species of tree, in climate, and in soil.  Possibly “Superior National Forests” with an ‘s’ would have been a better name for the area, but most of the year this richness in diversity is hidden from us in a uniform shade of green.  In the fall though, all the patches start to show as they take their individual paths toward winter. 

Because of this patchy progression of fall, it is very hard to get a number on percent color this week.  Over the landscape, it may be 15 to 20% color, but some areas are up near 100%, until you turn the corner of the road and are down to 0%.  Generally, the shore area near Lake Superior is behind the inland areas, and once in the interior, cool valleys are ahead of uplands.  The best thing to do is to take your time, and enjoy all the different routes through fall that our patchy forest mosaic takes.


Our photopoint on the Honeymoon Trail, Sept 18, 2014 An unidentified fungus on the forest floor.
A close up of early fall orange maple leaves A big red maple against a blue sky
Yellow maples against a blue sky Overhanging branches against a blue sky

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



September 12, 2014


I have seen flocks streaming south in the fall so large that they were flowing over from horizon to horizon in an almost continuous stream all day long, at the rate of forty or fifty miles an hour, like a mighty river in the sky, widening, contracting, descending like falls and cataracts, and rising suddenly here and there in huge ragged masses like high-plashing spray.

- John Muir, regarding passenger pigeons


Paddling in the Pagami fire area, three years post fire Fall is a season for anniversaries.  On September 1, 1914, the last drop in the mighty river of passenger pigeons described by John Muir passed away, and autumn in North America would never again be the same.  We may revel in the leaves as they change, but imagine what it would have been like with thousands upon thousands of migrating birds coursing through the landscape.  We’ve kept the trees and the forest, but it is like the set of a play with all the supporting actors, but missing a lead role.  While our Superior National Forest lacks the large stands of oak where these birds thrived, we are still in their historic range, and they would have been part of our autumn colors.

Humans were responsible for the passing of the passenger pigeon, but fifty years ago on September 3, 1964, we were also responsible for passing the Wilderness Act.  Where fifty years earlier, we’d caused the end of a species, the Wilderness Act set aside land to be forever wild, and provided homes for endangered species.  Our Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness helped provide refuge for wolves, eagles, and other animals that found their existence threatened, and helped these animals recover from the edge of extinction to sustainable populations. 

The BWCAW was the site of another event with a September anniversary.  On September 12, 2011, the Pagami Creek Fire roared over 16 miles in one day, on its way to burning approximately 90,000 acres.  Today, the forest is regenerating, as it always has in this fire dependent ecosystem.  Jack pine in the area are up to knee high in some places, and aspen are as tall as a person.  The cycle continues, even as it did when passenger pigeons haunted the forest, just as fall is part of the cycle of seasons.

What other anniversaries are there for you in the fall?  Memories of autumn fishing trips, the first apples from the tree in your yard, or the last time you jumped in a leaf pile?  Fall is a season for anniversaries.

If you go to make your memories this week, about 5 to 10 percent of the leaves have color.  Many of the birches and aspen are showing yellow, or at least yellow green – but the overall impression is still of a green forest.  But keep your  eyes open, right around that corner might be that one red maple tree.


Our photopoint on the Honeymoon Trail Sept 11, 2014 Birch leaves are starting to yellow
A pitcher plant in the bog A bright red maple, earlier than others
Red bindweed in the Pagami Creek fire area A boardwalk leads to a bog

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



September 4, 2014


T'is a thing which I remember;
To name it thrills me yet:
One day of one September
I never can forget.

- Helen Hunt Jackson "September"


A single black eyed susan flower Winter is coming!  It is autumn!  Time to prepare!  We humans can our tomatoes, press our apples, and perhaps plastic our windows.  A few more strokes of the paint brush while it is warm enough for paint to dry instead of freeze.  A last hole dug in ground that isn’t hard as iron.  Another armful of logs split for the woodpile.  Yes, summer and the state fair was but a week ago, but the leaves and the woods and the scent in the air tells us that things are changing. 

We are not the only living things starting preparations for winter.  Birds that only spend their summers in the north are flocking up and heading south.  Flights of dragonflies too are headed south, and three of our seven species of bats will also be winging their way to warmer climes.  Animal activity is high in the fall.  Everything is eating as much as it can, converting seeds and berries and meat to fat and fur.  The bats which stay, along with snakes and other hibernators, have to store enough energy as fat in their bodies to last a winter, with enough left over to successfully wake again in the spring.  Animals which are active in the winter are caching food, adding undercoats and guard hairs, or finding shelters.  Some types of butterflies and frogs are changing their body chemistry to allow them to freeze during the winter and thaw again in the spring.  Other animals won’t survive the winter, but are leaving eggs, or larvae, or cocoons to last through the snows, growing in the spring into a generation that will never know their parents.  Everything is preparing for the winter to come.

You scoff?  You say there is still time?  You say you aren’t ready yet?  Look at the one tree turned bright red already.  Nature knows – winter is right around the corner.  Luckily, we still have autumn between now and then to soften the blow with colors and sounds and aromas.  So, get prepared, find your stocking hat, but take time to go for hike and enjoy fall.  It won’t last long!


Our photopoint on the Honeymoon Trail, Sept 3, 2014 A fall stockpile of wood for winter
A garter snake Is this the first red branch of 2014?
A goldenrod head as seen from the top Flower flies visit Joe Pye weed flowers

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




Slideshows: Fall photos from around the Superior National Forest


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.