It’s here – summer’s over and the leaves are starting to turn. But where do you go if you want to see a spectacular display? Here are our top hints.
Get Out of Town
If you can, get out of the city. Forests are where the truly brilliant displays are. Mixed, younger forests will have a variety of colours as they’re known for their multitude of tree and shrub species. Older forests, especially old-growth forests like Mark S. Burnham Provincial Park and great tracts of Algonquin Park, will have fewer kinds of trees, but they tend to be enormous – and sugar maples often dominate. If you’re looking to see grand swaths of fire-engine red high overhead, look for old-growth maple forests.
If You Can’t Get Out of Town
Find big parks – Toronto’s High Park is a prime example – or ravines in the city. They’re the next best thing to getting way out in the woods.
Know Your Growing Zone
As a general rule, the colder your growing zone, the sooner forests near you will lose your leaves. Live in Kenora (a chilly zone 3)? You’re going to have to get a move on a lot faster than St. Catherine’s (a relatively balmy zone 7). The further north you go, the sooner the leaves drop.
This can be extra important for people heading up from southern Ontario to see the forests turn. Algonquin Park is a gorgeous spot to go, no doubt – and it’s going to reach peak colour long before Toronto (which gets warmer sooner and stays warmer longer) does. Conversely, if you live in the north, you can head down south to, say, Lake Erie area well after the fireworks are done near you, and see Fall happen all over again.
Lucky for you, Ontario Parks has a handy-dandy Fall Colours map that’ll give you an idea of when, where, and how the leaves are changing.
Know Where the Trees Grow
Yes, I know, trees grow all over. That’s not what I mean.
You don’t have to have a degree or anything, but knowing what you’re in for and what you’re looking for will help.
Northern Ontario’s boreal forest is massive. For those of you who live there, I don’t have to tell you just how cold it gets. This means there are far more conifers (trees with needles that stay on all year – pines, firs, spruces, etc.) than deciduous trees (broad-leaved trees that turn colour and shed their leaves in the fall – maples, hickories, oaks, etc.). You’ll get a fair amount of lovely golds and yellows in fall (birch, poplar, tamarack), and not a lot of crimson or burgundy because those trees just can’t hack northern winters. What you do get is year-round green thanks to all those gorgeous conifers, and there’s nothing quite as magical down south as the deep green boughs of a black spruce blanketed in snow, glittering in the winter moon.
They may not be high overhead, but definitely look for blueberry patches at the edges of forests and along powerlines. They’ll turn dazzling red, and seeing carpets of them is a bit surreal.
Weather dependent, peak leaf season in the boreal forest often hits around the middle to end of September.
The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence forest stretches from Kenora to Thunder Bay, to Manitoulin Island, to North Bay and Algonquin Park, the Bruce Peninsula and Lake Simcoe area, and up to Ottawa. Though not as enormous as the boreal forest, it’s a huge stretch, is not as remote, and is known for a mix of red and white pine forests, with northern hardwoods like maples and oaks. Oaks can go yellow, brown, burgundy, or red. This depends on the species and their soil. Many younger ones will keep their leaves through the winter. Young beech trees, closely related to oaks, will keep tawny, translucent leaves all winter long. Silver and red maples will turn yellow and gold most often, while sugar maples will give you the classic red maple leaf. They are, after all, Canada’s national tree, and the inspiration for our national flag. At the edges of forests and along roadways, be sure to watch for the shocking crimson of staghorn sumacs.
Old-growth forests in this area are often dominated by hemlocks and white pines (which are evergreens), and sugar maples, making them perfect candidates to see forests of dappled green and red.
Again, weather dependent, peak leaf season varies in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence forest from late September to early October.
Canada’s Carolinian Forest exists only in Ontario and stretches from Windsor along the south shore of Lake Erie and the very southern tip of Lake Huron, up to the Greater Toronto Area, finding its last great refuge in Scarborough and Pickering’s soon-to-be Rouge National Park. Here, evergreens become increasingly less common the further south you go. Unfortunately, so do forests. Very little of the Canada’s Carolinian forests remain, now in isolated parcels cut off from one another by cities, farms, highways, and industrial land.
Here you will find brilliant fall displays throughout October, as well as some of the most vibrant exhibitions of colour in the province. Red sugar maples alongside garnet black maples; the burgundies and earthy oranges of white, red, and chinquapin oaks; the staghorn sumac’s startling crimson; the sunny golds and yellows of black walnuts and tulip trees; and, if you’re lucky, the ruddy purples and flaming pomegranate reds of black gums (check out Backus Woods in October to see them) are all on display here. That is, if you can find them. Provincial parks are good bets, as are the conservation areas outlined in Ontario’s Old-Growth Forests. Botanical gardens in Toronto, Hamilton, Niagara Falls, and Guelph are good bets, too.
However you like to see the colours, wherever you like to go, make sure to take your time. The season doesn’t last forever. Remember to put down your camera, breathe deeply, and enjoy.
Also don’t forget to bust open some milkweed pods and watch the seeds float away on the breeze.