Fall Leaves 2019

Once September rolls around the questions about Fall Colors on the North Shore begin. When will they start? Why do leaves change colors? Have they started? When will they hit their peak? Where is the best place to go to see them? So in this post, we will be answering those very questions, and more!

Fall Colors on the North Shore: When Will They Start?

Fall Colors on Temperance Road

Fall Colors on either side of Temperance Road near Tofte

Answering this question is usually one big guess, with some basic knowledge and science to back up our response. It’s vague, but in general, we tell everyone that Fall Colors starts around the second week of September and will last until the last of the leaves fall off the trees. This is usually the first week of October. However, there are a few variables that may cause a late or early Fall Colors season.

Understanding when the peak of the season will hit means understanding why leaves change their color in the first place.

Why Leaves Change Color in the Fall

Chlorophyll is the substance that gives plants green coloring. Leaves in the spring and summer are full of chlorophyll, making them a vibrant green color. The summer sun triggers leaves to make chlorophyll throughout the summer months. Long days, lots of sunlight and moisture from rain help the trees maintain their green leaves for most of the summer. Once the days get shorter, the trees receive fewer signals to keep making chlorophyll. The colder temps in the fall also attribute to the changing of the leaves.

As other pigments take over for chlorophyll, the leaves will start to change colors. Yellow trees are yellow because of xanthophylls. Red leaves are red because of anthocyanins. And orange trees are orange because of carotenoids. What you are seeing is literally nature playing with chemicals and putting on a show.

Canopy of Fall Colors

A canopy of Fall Colors on Country Road 60 near Grand Marais

However, this natural science experiment has some variables that can change the when and where of Falls Colors on the North Shore. As mentioned above, trees need ample amounts of both sunlight and moisture to continue making chlorophyll. If either one of those goes away for any period of time, it can trigger an early change. Drought conditions cause more changes than too many cloudy days for trees. Drought years may find Fall Colors appearing weeks, even months early depending on the trees themselves. Likewise, summers with a lot of rainfall may see the Fall Colors season shifting a week or two in the other direction- giving the area a cover of color well into October.

Planning Your Trip to see the Fall Colors on the North Shore

It’s very difficult to plan a trip far in advance to see the fall colors. If you make a reservation for the second week of September, you may be too soon. If you plan it for the first week in October, you may be too late. Usually, if you plan a trip the third or fourth week of September you will likely see plenty of fall colors, if not the peak itself. But, that’s not always the case.

Again, the when largely depends on the weather. What sort of weather has the area been receiving this year? Lots of rain? Aim for that fourth week in September. Drought? Maybe start planning your trip for the second week of September. Cold summer? Earlier leaf change. Warm summer? Later leaf change.

Late Fall at Magney-Snively Natural Area

Late fall at Magney-Snively Nature Area in Duluth (Trail to Ely Tunnel)

That being said, if you come anytime in mid-September, you will likely see lots of colors, no matter the weather. So while Fall Colors on the North Shore may hit earlier or later than expected, we expect it will still arrive and be very beautiful!

If you can, wait until the last minute to book your trip to the North Shore for Fall Colors. Keep an eye out on Minnesota DNR’s Fall Color Finder for daily reports on where leaf changes are being seen. Once it hits 50-75%, plan your trip! “Peak Season” (75-100% change) only lasts a few days to a week, at most!

Have the Leaves Started Changing Yet?

2021 brought one of the earliest Fall Colors seasons we’ve seen in a while. In fact, some trees were turning even in August due to the hot, dry summer. Luckily, the summer of 2022 has been cooler and we’ve had plenty of rain this season. The trees along the North Shore and even inland stayed green much, much longer than expected.

In fact, peak didn’t really hit until after October 1. On October 5 all of Cook County was considered “Peak” while areas of Lake County are still at only 50%. The 2022 Fall Colors Season will officially run from about October 1 through October 15.

Lutsen Mountains Gondola in Fall

Lutsen Mountains Gondola during Fall Colors

Where is the Best Place to go to see Fall Colors on the North Shore

The simplest answer to this is: Anywhere! Driving along Highway 61 will just to get to your destination should greet you with plenty of colors. However, we find some of the back roads away from Lake Superior to be the best places to really enjoy a canopy of Fall Colors. Also, the leaves will start to change inland, first, and slowly move down towards the Lake Superior shoreline. So, if you come early in the season, inland will be the place to go. Later in the season, enjoy the colors down along Lake Superior.

Check out our Fall Drives on the North Shore article for some of our favorite routes to take to see the leaves change. Of course, if you arrive later in the season, you can enjoy the colors right along the shoreline from any of the area’s public beaches! And whether you come early, or come late, the Lutsen Mountains Gondola is the best way to view the leaf changes! The scenic gondola is enclosed in glass and provides 360-degree views miles inland and all the way down to the Lake Superior shoreline. Once you hit the summit you can take scenic hikes to lookout spots along Moose Mountain. Really, the views cannot be beaten!

Listen to Joe and Jaye explore Fall Drives on the Exploring the North Shore Podcast: