It’s a time of year that calls for extra caution on Chippewa Valley roadways as rubbernecking visitors take in more scenery than just the road ahead of them.
The Wisconsin Department of Tourism’s Fall Color Report predicted — as of last week — that Bayfield, Ashland and Barron counties likely would reach their peak later this week. Closer to home, Eau Claire and Chippewa counties were at 40 percent of their full fall color, with the peak to come in the third week of this month. Dunn County was only at 25 percent but its peak was expected to be earlier than in Eau Claire and Chippewa counties.
For those with an interest in the science behind the annual foliage change, the state Department of Natural resources offered the following in a recent news release:
“Leaf pigments determine the range of the color palette. Chlorophyll, which begins to fade in the fall, gives leaves the primary green color and is necessary for photosynthesis.
“Carotenoids, which produce yellow, orange and brown colors, are always present, so trees like aspen and birch have more predictable colors each year. Anthocyanin, which produces red and purple tints, varies with the conditions and makes each autumn unique for other species.”
Colleen Matula, forest silviculturist/ecologist with the DNR’s Division of Forestry, said the intensity of the fall color season is dependent on the weather in September and October.
“To have the most brilliant and vibrant fall color display,” she said, “a series of fall days filled with bright sunshine and cool, but frost-free, evenings are required.”
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Sites in or near Wisconsin that get a lot of press for their fall colors in national periodicals include Door County, Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin Dells and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
The Chippewa Valley, however, also has some prime viewing opportunities. For driving spectators, Visit Eau Claire lists some of them on its website:
• Highway 37 toward Mondovi.
• Highway 85 toward Durand.
• Highway 93 toward La Crosse.
• Highways 178 and 64 toward Cornell.
• U.S. 12 toward Augusta.
• Highway E between Chippewa Falls and Holcombe.
Hikers seeking an aesthetically rewarding look at the changes are advised to visit Lake Wissota State Park, Beaver Creek Reserve, Big Falls County Park or Lake Eau Claire County Park.
Both Josh Pedersen, Eau Claire County Parks & Forest director, and Michael Dahlby of Chippewa County’s Department of Land Conservation and Forest Management, agreed with the state’s estimated timing for peak colors locally.
Dahlby said weather conditions make the duration and diversity of fall colors vary from place to place and that “untimely high winds can also reduce the viewing window.”
“Of course, ‘peak’ is somewhat in the eye of the beholder,” he said. “In my opinion, there are already interesting color variations so therefore I would advise folks not to wait until the third week of October to get out and about.”
Pedersen agreed: “The best colors do not last extremely long, so I would think by the end of third week it should be pretty well done.”
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As far as Dahlby’s favorite route, he admitted to being geographically biased but said his is a northerly journey from Chippewa Falls along the Chippewa River on Highway 178.
“We often poke around in Cornell and Brunet Island State Park and then head north on Highway CC,” he said. “A left turn (west on to Highway M) takes us through the Chippewa County Forest, then the Chippewa Moraine State Recreation Area, all the way out to (U.S.) 53.
“It’s then fun to contrast the colors in the farmlands to what we observed along the river and through the woods as we head back to Chippewa Falls on (U.S.) 53.”
For viewing peak colors in the county forest area, Pedersen suggested a drive along Highway 12 out to Highway M outside of Augusta and then out to Highway H in the Fairchild area.
“Highway H has lots of brilliant colors and different species of trees,” he said, “giving you the full array of fall colors.
“From there you could make a loop up to Highway D and then back down south on Highway 27 back to 12 and to Eau Claire.”
Although the fall colors will be the main attraction for many travelers over the next couple of weeks, road trips often have other perks as well.
“What is really great is the multitude of options to grab some (baked goods), ice cream cones, sandwiches, fish fries or steak along the way,” Dahlby said.
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