Get a head start on the fall color season in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Jennie Vasarhelyi
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
New England Aster is a favorite food of Monarch butterflies as they make their fall migration south.

Fall is a favorite time of year for outdoor experiences. Natural sites become crowded in October as fall colors reach their peak. However, you don’t need to wait until October to enjoy fall colors. Nature has already begun the slow fall changes. Start paying attention now to enjoy a long season of fall beauty and increase your awareness of nature’s subtle changes. Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s proximity gives you the opportunity to come to the park time and time again to watch seasonal change unfold.

The easy 1.8-mile Oak Hill Trail is one place in the park to enjoy early fall changes in September. This relatively flat trail wanders past former farm fields that have become shrubby meadows, through woodlands, and along Sylvan Pond.

Deep woods trees are some of the last to change colors. Early color changes highlight aspects of woodlands that you may have missed when everything is green. Two tree-hugging vines—Virginia creeper and poison ivy--are among the first plants to change color. Their similar look causes them to be easily mistaken for each other. Their other similarity is fall fruits—blue for Virginia creeper and white for poison ivy—that are important food for birds.

Virginia creeper changes color first. Its leaves turn a rich, dark red that contrasts with the green of the host tree’s leaves. Poison ivy vines follow and are more variable in color. In sunny areas, poison ivy can turn a bright red or red-orange. The leaves take on a duller color in the shade, sometimes just drying up before they fall. Leaf shape will also help you distinguish between the plants. Virginia creeper has leaves comprised of five leaflets that grow in a palmate form, radiating from one point like fingers on a hand. In contrast, poison ivy has leaves comprised of three leaflets.

Shrubs also add to the early color change. Gray dogwood is particularly lovely. You will find it growing at the end of Oak Hill Trail if you walk the trail clockwise. This area of the trail was most recently farmland, and you can see how succession is causing the field to be overtaken by woody plants. In addition to leaves that turn a deep purplish red, gray dogwood’s contributions to fall colors include white berry clusters and red stems. This plant provides food and cover for birds, so take time to observe birds visiting gray dogwood while enjoying its beauty.

In the woodlands in September, you might come across a few blooming wildflowers that add their own splash of color. While most goldenrods grow in open fields, you will find a variety in the woodlands. Its yellow flowers bloom in small clusters where leaves join the plant’s stem. Also look for daisy-like asters. One of the fall woodland asters you might find has a light purple flower.

Later in the month, early changing trees add to the color display. Red maple is a common tree in our forests. The red maples growing along the woodland edge are the first to turn color. You will find them growing along the forest edge adjacent to Sylvan Pond. Sassafras, one of the smaller trees in the woodlands with leaves that often have mitten-shaped lobes, is another early changer with brilliant colors.

Fall colors occur when leaves shut down for the winter. Leaves are green due to the pigment chlorophyll, which captures sunlight and converts it into food. As winter nears, trees stop make chlorophyll. When the existing chlorophyll breaks down, other pigments dominate. Carotenoids produce yellow, orange and brown; anthocyanins produce red.

As you get more in tune with fall colors, you will notice variation from year-to-year as well as through the season. While timing of color change is primarily regulated by day length, weather can also make a difference. A late spring, or a summer drought, can delay fall colors. Color intensity also varies.

Warm, sunny September days and cool, but not freezing nights, contribute to spectacular color displays. The warm days stimulate sugar production in the leaves. Higher levels of sugars are linked to higher levels of anthocyanin, thus more brilliant reds. Rainy and overcast days in September decreases sugar production, creating less anthocyanin and less brilliant reds. Early frosts can injure or kill leaves before the pigments reach their maximum development with similar results.

Oak Hill Trail is located at 3901 Oak Hill Road, 1.3 miles south of Major Road in Peninsula. For more information about the trail, call 440-717-3890 or visit online at www.nps.gov/cuva.

Vasarhelyi is Chief of Interpretation, Education & Visitor Services for Cuyahoga Valley National Park.