Peak fall colors likely to dazzle in the NW this year

BELLINGHAM, Wash. -- Washington might be the Evergreen State, but there's plenty of fall foliage to enjoy. From now until the first week of November is when leaf colors peak in the lowlands of Western Washington, but weather conditions will likely make this year's color more vibrant than usual.

"It's gorgeous," says Annette Bagley with the Bellingham-Whatcom County Tourism. She's a Washington Native but has called Bellingham home for two decades. "This is my favorite time of year to be in Bellingham."

Fall beauty gives us pause. Autumn is nature's brake pedal and along Chuckanut Drive that wraps between Skagit and Whatcom counties, you can see why.

"The north end is where you really get the leaves and the trees and the winding road," says Bagley.  "On the southern end, you're going to drop through the Skagit Valley."

As we slow down from summer speeds and head back to school and work routines-- nature has a routine too. And this dozen mile road carved in 1896 into cliffs perched above the Salish Sea is a great place to check it out.

"I think there's no right or wrong," says Bagley. "Either direction is beautiful."

It's a stretch so picturesque it's home to Washington's first-ever state park.  Larrabee State Park is known for its postcard views of Samish Bay and the San Juan Islands.

"And along Chuckanut Drive, you get those red, yellows and greens," says Bagley, "and then you get the blue of the water."

Leaves are seasonal solar panels for many plants, so shorter days are the primary trigger for the yearly wash of tree color.

Chuckanut Drive, also known as State Route 11, dead ends into one of Bellingham's first neighborhoods-- the colorful tree-lined Fairhaven.

"The beauty of the trees, especially in Fairhaven," says Scott Ward. He's executive director of the Historic Fairhaven Association. "With the old brick buildings and the red, orange and golden trees-- is just really spectacular."

Production of chlorophyll in trees slows and then stops as nights become colder and longer.

"That coolness of the air that makes you want to grab a hot chocolate at a coffee shop and cozy up," says Bagley.

Without that green pigment, the yellow and orange colors can shine.

"It's the spectacular journey of fall," says Ward. "You know when are mixed with the dark greens it's even more spectacular."

A hormone the leaf itself called ethylene triggers the leaf to fall and maybe triggers tourists too. Bagley says the number show it. "October we do get that bump of people looking for a nice casual getaway."

From each leaf, in a process called abscission, the tree draws any nutrients remaining and stores it in the roots for next spring. The loss of leaves protects deciduous trees from cold temperatures and moisture loss over the winter months. And being leafless in the spring helps tree pollen spread more effectively and farther too.

An agriculture study done by Michigan State University extension found the best displays of fall foliage occur when there's a period of warm, dry sunny days along with cool nights, so this year the Pacific Northwest is in luck.

For more on Chuckanut Drive and stops you can make along the way, check out this tourist map from the Bellingham-Whatcom County Tourism.