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 26, 2015):

We are definitely past peak, but there are still enough leaves clinging to trees to make the woods lovely, and there are plenty of leaves on the ground to make for pleasant rustles when hiking and good smells in the air.  There are flocks of snow buntings as well, and snowy owls have been spotted in the area.




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

Laurentian District

Tofte District (Sawtooth Mountains)

LaCroix District (Discovery Auto Tour)



Note:  As Flash player becomes less supported on more internet browsers, we are trying to supply our video and slideshows on other formats.  Selected content might be repeated in two formats, and some may play as an embedded video using one browser, and as a link when using a different browser.  We apologize for the confusion, and hope you can find a version of our content in a format that works for you.

1.  October 23, 2015

2.  October 16, 2015

3.  October 8, 2015

4.  October 2, 2015

5.  September 25, 2015

6.  September 18, 2015

7.  September 11, 2015

8.  September 4, 2015

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.


Fall video clip



October 23, 2015

No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds -

Thomas Hood


Looking out over a forest nearly devoid of trees. 

While it is not quite November yet, it is certainly late in the autumn with winter in the morning air.  While the calendar has hasn’t changed, nature certainly has.  Fall is a season of huge changes, but we often forget the enormity of autumn in its familiarity.  Take a moment to really try to comprehend what has happened in the past two months.  From the beginning of the fall color season, back on September 4, we have lost two hours and forty five minutes of daylight, going from over thirteen hours a day to a mere ten and a half.  Our average temperature has gone from a high of 71, with only 36% of the time in the ‘cold’ temperature zone and 24% in the ‘comfortable’ zone, to an average high of 50 with 77% of the time in the ‘cold’ zone - and virtually no time in ‘comfortable’.  Our summer diversity of 225 species of birds has been reduced by migration to only 57 species willing to spend the winter here.  Our mammal species list has dropped as well, not through migration but by hibernation as bears, bats, and others take to their beds for the winter.  The diversity of insects has dropped to near zero as cold weather forces insects into dormancy, or outright kills them. 

In the plant kingdom, annual species also die off, trusting in seeds to sprout again in the spring.  Perennial species cope in many ways.  They may die off above ground while roots continue to live, or they may be one of the few that brave the winter weather as evergreens and mosses do.  The deciduous trees have a different strategy.  They keep the woody trunk through the winter, but drop their leaves.  Millions, perhaps billions, of leaves with a total of millions of acres of surface area have fallen to the ground, forming a carpet several inches high.  That amounts to an estimate of almost a cubic mile of leaves across the Forest if someone decided to rake them into a gigantic pile.  During the course of the next few weeks, while temperatures remain high enough, and then again in the spring, this mile high mountain of leaves will rot down into soil, disappearing almost entirely by next fall. 

The changes in the natural world in fall have been huge, far more than our human changes of turning on the furnace and replacing the swimsuit in your dresser with turtlenecks.  It is a sweeping, far reaching, and truly amazing change as the natural world shifts gears for winter.  The changes are in preparation for the most significant change of all: the replacement of liquid water by ice, ice that will stop blood and sap in their vessels, ice that will expand and rupture living cells, ice that will tie up the water needed for the chemistry of biology to function.  There has been frost on the grass, and a few drifting flakes of snow, but as yet no skim of ice coating the lakes.  But nature knows what is coming, and after delaying as long as possible, it is quickly getting ready for the approaching season.


Our photopoint on the Honeymoon Trail on October 22, 2015 Turkey tail fungus.
A close up of a snow bunting foraging in the gravel and leaves. A fallen leaf crossed by shadows.
Fungus grows from a fallen log and stump. Conifers reflected in the pond just above the beaver dam.

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



October 16, 2015

The chiding autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which.

William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream


Late fall in the woods with leaves gone except in the understory. 

The world in fact is changing its livery from autumn to winter, and indeed, it is hard to tell this time of year which season we are in.  In Duluth, leaves on the trees proclaim it as mid-autumn, but a scant three hours north, it is winter’s bare branches against the sky.  A day of 80 degrees last weekend was swapped for 27 degrees this Friday morning.    The shift in temperature was brought in on the wings of a wind that gusted to 45 miles an hour, stripping off leaves that otherwise might have clung to twigs for another week, but instead ended their day on the ground, gathering in drifts large enough to remind us of snow to come.  Even within a day, nature seems unsure of what season it should be.  Bright sun, dark clouds, drizzle, hard rain, clear sky all were within a single afternoon making us exchange knit caps and mittens for short sleeves, then rain coats, then fleece under the rain coat, then back to the knit cap and mitts.  Still, it is this unsettledness that makes fall an exciting season.  It is predictably unpredictable, and a surprise is around every corner of the trail in the form of a colorful tree where none had been, in the vocal anger of a squirrel disturbed in his autumn harvesting, in the huff of a deer in rut, or in the appearance of sun and a rainbow projected onto the dark of storm clouds.

The Forest is definitely past peak colors as most people define peak, but this doesn’t mean that there isn’t beauty and wonder still out there to find.  This is a perfect time of the fall to pack multiple kinds of coats and gloves, go out in the woods, and search for surprises in the mazed world.


Our photopoint on the Honeymoon Trail on October 15, 2015 Yellow tamarack with spruce trees.
A fallen leaf caught on a branch. A little used road covered in fall leaves.
A wet road leads from sun to dark clouds. A pile of logs near a logging operation.

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


October 8, 2015

Though a tree grows so high, the falling leaves return to the root.

- Malay proverb


Fall colors on a distant hillside. 

As much as we try, it is impossible to actually capture autumn in a camera.  In a maple stand, one isn’t looking at the fall colors the way you look at a photo, one is surrounded by fall, covered with leaves, embedded in autumn.  Fall has a depth to it that can’t show on a picture.  Leaves are within a few feet of your face and then continue on beyond sight.  Orange and red and yellow are everywhere, broken by only the grays and blacks of trunks and twigs that give some perspective to an otherwise incomprehensible scene.  Even with that bit of perspective, it is still more than you can really take in.  A single tree literally has a million leaves on it; multiply that million by the number of trees in the forest and you get something completely beyond our capability to understand.  You just can’t show that in 12 megapixels. 

Add to that the photo’s lack of other senses.  Fall in the forest isn’t just eye candy.  The rustle of leaves in the wind, the crunch of them underfoot, the chittering of a squirrel who has spotted you in his territory - all of the sounds in the forest are parts of fall as well.  It is also a season rich in aromas.  Fall has a totally different scent than spring or summer.  It is an aroma of decay, but not an unpleasant one.  The autumn haze described by early settlers is thought to be made from the breakdown of leaves over millions of acres of original forest, and the scent of our autumn may be just a pale shadow of what autumn smelled like in 1491.  Fall is also motion.  The name ‘fall’ itself is verb, not a noun.  Leaves blow across the ground, tremble on branches, and most of all fill the air as the cascade down in a stiff wind, or drift gently on a tiny zephyr.  Other seasons may be still, or calm, but fall is continuous movement.   

All this means that while we hope you enjoy our pictures of fall colors, we really hope you can get out there yourself and enjoy the movements, sounds, and scents of fall.  Enjoy the autumn, there’s not much left of it.  Fall is at peak now over most of the Forest, or a bit past.  Colors are still very vibrant on the shore of Lake Superior; inland many areas are starting to lose leaves rapidly.  There are still many patches of peak color left though, but by next week...


Our photopoint on the Honeymoon Trail on October 7, 2015 A view from Toohey Lake Campground of fall across the lake.
Looking up into a gnarled elm with yellow leaves. Fall leaves on branches fill the frame.
Looking across a brown fall wetland. A view into the fall forest on October 8th.

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


October 2, 2015

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference

- Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken


A little used road at peak fall color. 

Like no other season of the year, fall imposes on us a sense of time passing.  The Beach Boys sing of Endless Summer, and all of us are too familiar with an endless winter.  Sitting on the deck, one summer day seems much like the next, and time drifts past without leaving much of a wake.  Winter days too run together in our minds.  It’s cold, there’s snow, and tomorrow it will be cold, and there will be snow.  Not so with fall.  Fall changes daily, each dawn unique, filled with colors and leaves that may not be there tomorrow.  Eighty degree days are followed by frost warnings, thunder is followed by sun.  Even the length of the day itself changes more rapidly in fall than in winter or summer.  The morning walk with the dog is filled with birds and sunshine one week, and then the next week you are using a headlamp and seeing Orion in the sky for the first time.  The passage of time that was impossible to sense in the summer now seems obvious and unmistakable.  Hidden in the rapid changes of fall is the peak of fall color.  No one looks for the peak of winter white, or the peak of summer green, because their peaks are more of plateaus, lasting for weeks.  Not so with fall.  The peak will be here and gone.  It will be spread through the forest at different times, but in any one spot, there may only be a few days at best before the rain falls, the wind rises, and the leaves float to earth.  Don’t delay.  Get outside.

Leaves on the Superior are near, at, or just past peak this week depending on where you are.  Inland from Lake Superior is farther ahead than lakeshore, and north is farther ahead than south even over the relatively short north to south width of the Forest.  Good luck in your search for the perfect spot amid the rapidly changing fall forest!


Our photopoint on the Honeymoon Trail, Oct 1, 2015 A close up of a spray of orange maple leaves.
Maple leaves on a fallen log with fungus. A road on the fall color tour at peak color.
A chipmunk with fall colors in background An aspen leaf that fell on a dead branch with lichen

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



September 25, 2015

"Spring rain damps;
Autumn rain soaks."

- Old Farmers Almanac


White birch trunks and yellow leaves. 

Every autumn is different, and every day in the woods is unique.  From indoors, the day was dreary: fog mixed with a heavy mist thickening on occasion to light rain.  It was not the beautiful blue sky and sharp air that fall brings to mind.  The leaves weren’t cooperating either. This was a day near the historic peak of color, yet large amounts of the forest were still as green as summer.  It took an effort to get outside and out of the building where you could smell wild rice soup cooking for lunch. 

Once out though, it was easy to start to appreciate the day for what it was, and not wish for what it wasn’t.  The mist rolled in, covering the distant trees, then revealing them again one ridge at a time.  Simple dirt roads led into mysterious misty caverns, or totally vanished in the distance.  The green background made the orange and red leaves stand out all the more, and rain coated them with a shiny varnish. 

I ran into a group of photography students, come to the Forest on what the leader had predicted to be the peak of fall color.  With cameras wrapped in plastic against the mist and drizzle, they had stopped to take pictures in a particularly green part of the woods.  But they weren’t disappointed.  For whatever reason, fall was a bit late this year, but there was still plenty of beauty, even in a greener woods on a rainy day.

It was worth going out.  Instead of the one picture I planned to take, I returned with 165 images in my camera.  And, after spending a few hours in a drizzly forest, the soup was even better than it would have been.

This past week has seen the official start to fall with the autumnal equinox.  It will finish off with a lunar eclipse on Sunday, a particularly exciting one as the moon will be at its closest approach to Earth during the eclipse.  In places, the leaves are near peak colors, but other spots have nearly no colors.  Over all, around 40 to 50%, but it is very patchy.  This next week and weekend should be some of the best color of the season, but remember, every autumn is different - except that they are all beautiful.


Our photopoint on the Honeymoon Trail, Sept 24, 2015 A gravel road going through a dark woods.
Red leaves on a maple against a white cloudy sky. A wet fallen maple leaf lays on the ground.
Red maple leaves on a rainy fall day. The Sawbill Trail curves into the fall.

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



September 18, 2015

"A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease."

- John Muir


View down a storm darkened forest road. 

The heat of summer does not leave without a protest.  Storms rolled across the Forest today, a battle between cool and dry autumn air carrying the scent of winter and apple cider, and hot muggy summer air redolent of barbecue grills and swimming holes.  A week or two later, and it would have truly been fall, leaves tumbling by the thousands as the winds shook the trees, but this early in the season, most leaves were able to hang on and wait for the true peak of fall color to come.

In the heaviest rain, this was autumn seen from the dry refuge of the driver’s seat.  In between the downbursts, when the rain lessened and the steady drum of drops on the car roof became an irregular tapping, it was worthwhile to pull up the hood of the raincoat and walk in the damp woods.  The cooler air was full of the smell of autumn, the scent of wet leaves and soil.  When the rain increased again, it didn’t seem worth it to run to hide in the car.  Lightning cracked the sky, the flash briefly seeming to stop the raindrops in their tracks.  Thunder pealed, so loud that it seemed that the thunder, and not the wind, was shaking the leaves from their branches. 

As the storm passed, the sky became lighter, but it was clear that autumn had won this battle.  Leaves for the first time were piling up at the edges of the roadways, and partly covering the paths, and the air was cool, whispering of frost instead of swimsuits.

Along the shore of Lake Superior, around 20% of the leaves have changed.  Ash leads the way with yellow, and many birches and aspen at least show signs of turning.  Some stand-out maples are flaring red as well.  Inland from the lake, there are more colors, perhaps 30%, with more in low areas prone to frost.


Our photopoint on the Honeymoon Trail, Sept 17, 2015 A close up of storm tossed fall leaves.
The Poplar River flowing past fall trees. Tire tracks through fall leaves on a dirt road.
Early fall along the Caribou Trail. Rocks make a small rapids in the Poplar River during the fall.

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



September 11, 2015

"Pleasant summer over
And all the summer flowers,
The red fire blazes,
the grey smoke towers."

- Robert Louis Stevenson, "Autumn Fires"


Looking down the Island River. 

Fall, like fire, is both death and the promise of new life.  It is now four years since fall and fire met in the Pagami Creek Fire of September 2011, the largest fire on the Superior in recent history.  Walking through the fire area is a different experience than it was before the fire, but it is also much changed from immediately after the fire.  It is even markedly different than it was just last year, and the promised new life is slowly gaining the upper hand over death. 

Far from being barren as it was immediately after the fire, much of the forest floor is now a tangled mass of regrowth.  Young aspen, alder, and hazel bushes are all tied together with the aptly named bindweed creating an almost impenetrable thicket which is six feet tall in areas.  Other spots are more parklike, but full of two to three foot tall jack pine.  The standing dead trees that have held up are beginning to fall over in greater numbers.  Unlike the aftermath of a wind storm where the fallen all line up the same direction, these trees are scattered like jackstraws, haphazardly lying in all directions. 

Fall colors are in the burned area as well.  Blacks and grays are still dominant colors, but the browns of fall grasses complement the greens of young growth.  Purple and white asters coat some areas, and the bright magenta of a few remaining fireweed blossoms punctuate the forest.  Splashed against this background is the incredibly, almost fluorescent red of bindweed leaves.  Birds are plentiful, including the usually uncommon black backed woodpecker.  They are all here for the abundant insects that are living in the dead trees, eating their fill on their way to the south.

In other parts of the forest, it is still very early in the fall.  Some colors are beginning to show, and birch and aspen are yellowing, though they may not reach their peak until after the still green maples lose their leaves. There are many contrasts in the forest, burned and unburned, old and new growth, fall and still summer.  This is a great week to travel widely and see all the different ways the woods ease into fall.


Our photopoint on the Honeymoon Trail, Sept 11, 2015 A mushroom sprouts from the forest floor in the Pagami fire area
Red leaves and green leaves on maple trees in early fall. A pine marten at the edge of the road.
A jack pine cone burst open from forest fire heat. Young jack pines grow beneath the burnt parent tree.

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



September 4, 2015

"A woodland in full color is awesome as a forest fire, in magnitude at least, but a single tree is like a dancing tongue of flame to warm the heart."

- Hal Borland


A wasp comes in for a landing on a goldenrod flower. When I heard that it was time to start the fall color reports, I did not believe it.  It was hot and muggy, and the air was filled with the summer sound of locusts buzzing.  The leaves looked green to me and the summer seemed unending.  But, the back-to-school sales were done, the trip to the State Fair had happened, and the last camping trip was being packed into the back of the car, ready for Labor Day.  And when at last the day had come to take photos, and the woods were truly explored, it was obvious that there were not just human signs of fall, but natural signs were everywhere in the forest.  Migrating birds hopped on every branch, too fast to capture on film, too drab in fall plumage to identify from the flash of bird visible in binoculars.  Squirrels were laying in supplies for the winter and fattening up, and unseen bears had left their mark on unprotected garbage cans because they too were packing on the winter weight. 

Mostly though, it was the amount of fall color showing through the green that let one know that is was in fact fall and not summer.  While at first glance the woods seemed a uniform green, a closer look revealed the reds and yellows of fall, poised on the brink of their annual show.  A closer look revealed that the green was just a thin covering, a green rind over the real fruit beneath.  A closer look revealed that the green will be soon be shed, and we will have our few glorious weeks of fall color, a few weeks that will sustain us like the squirrel’s seeds through the long winter to come.

Percentage of fall color is still very low, with more visible inland from Lake Superior in cold pockets.  The best way to see color right now is either by walking slowly on a trail to spot single trees and plants, or to climb one of the larger hills to a look out where patches of color can be seen in the mostly green forest below.


Our photopoint on the Honeymoon Trail, Sept 3, 2015 Brilliant blue berries of the blue bead lily
Orange mushrooms sprouting from a birch trunk. A red squirrel looking directly at the camera.
A single red maple tree against a dark conifer A single early red maple leaf.

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


Slideshows: Fall photos from around the Superior National Forest

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.  



2015 Honeymoon Trail Photopoint



2014 Honeymoon Trail Photopoint



2013 Honeymoon Trail Photopoint


2012 Honeymoon Trail Photopoint