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Good year for fall colors?

Golden trees line the Little Missouri River in October 2008 as it flows near Medora, N.D. (GF Herald photo by Brad Dokken photo) 1 / 6
Maple trees show resplendent reds while other trees are just beginning to turn during Buena Vista Ski Area and Logging Village's annual Fall Colors Tour in September 2012 north of Bemidji. (Jennifer Laitala/ Buena Vista Ski Area and Logging Village)2 / 6
Fall colors make their appearance on Namakan Lake along the U.S.-Canadian border in Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota in this undated photo. (GF Herald file photo by John Stennes)3 / 6
Shorter days and cooler nights trigger the chemical changes in leaves that result in spectacular fall colors such as this shoreline scene at Maplewood State Park in western Minnesota. (Minnesota DNR photo) 4 / 6
The Little Missouri National Grasslands in western North Dakota offers an opportunity to view fall colors in the assorted shrubs and other vegetation, as shown in this October 2008 photo. (GF Herald photo by Brad Dokken photo)5 / 6
Shades of gold highlight the Little Missouri River in October 2008 as it flows through the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park near Medora, N.D. (Brad Dokken photo)6 / 6

It's too soon to say for sure, but the rainy summer of 2016 might be setting the stage for spectacular fall colors across Minnesota and forested areas of North Dakota, experts say.

Val Cervenka, Forest Health Program coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in St. Paul, said the far southwest corner of the state is the only place where conditions are too dry.

"Otherwise, we've got an overabundance of water everywhere, so it should be a great year," Cervenka said. "We're going in with really healthy trees, which gives the trees the best chance of showing fall color."

A similar scenario is taking shape in North Dakota. The state doesn't have an abundance of maple trees that produce the spectacular red colors, but aspen and birch trees should provide fall color watchers with an abundance of yellows and golds.

As in Minnesota, wet conditions could accentuate those colors, as long as hard frosts don't stop the show before it has a chance to start, said Lezlee Johnson, community forestry specialist with the North Dakota Forest Service in Bottineau, N.D.

"I know people have said it's wet, and we might not have good fall colors, but rainy and overcast days actually help the color development," Johnson said. "It doesn't do much for our viewing; we might want nice, sunny, clear days, but if we have rainy days going into fall, it's good.

"What is bad is if we get a wet, windy day and the leaves fall off. If it's nice and chilly and not quite freezing, that actually helps."

Color triggers

The fall color phenomenon results from shorter days and cooler temperatures, which in turn trigger chemical changes in the leaves. Chlorophyll gives leaves their green color, while anthocyanins, carotenoids and tannins produce the reds, golds and browns that come to the forefront in the fall.

"Basically, the tree leaves are little sugar factories, and when it gets cold in the little sugar factory, the chlorophyll can't function anymore," Johnson said. "Chlorophyll turns leaves green, and when the chlorophyll breaks down, it unmasks a couple of colors that are there all the time."

Carotenoids produce the yellow and orange colors while the reds and purples result from anthocyanins, Johnson said.

Trees such as native bur oaks produce tannins and simply turn brown.

Minnesota offers an abundance of maple trees, perhaps the most spectacular in fall, and east of Grand Forks, the brilliant reds and oranges first appear closer to Bemidji. In North Dakota, community forests likely offer the best viewing options for color watchers who want to see red.

Native grasses and similar vegetation also offer color opportunities in North Dakota, Johnson said. That was apparent when she moved to North Dakota from her home state of Missouri.

"I came up here like Oct. 1 about three years ago, and it was a beautiful time because all of the native grasses along the ditches and the aspens were turning," Johnson said. "It's a beautiful time of year and not just for the trees."

North Dakota Tourism on its website offers a fall color tour with the 13 best places to view fall foliage in the state along with periodic color reports for each of those destinations. Besides obvious destinations such as the Pembina Gorge, Turtle Mountains and Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the fall color roundup includes the Red River Valley, along with Turtle River State Park, Devils Lake and Bismarck-Mandan.

Johnson said the Pembina Gorge is a favorite.

"We have a lot of nice aspens and birch there, and if conditions continue kind of the way they are, we might have some really pretty yellow colors coming out of the Pembina Gorge," she said.

The Little Missouri and Sheyenne rivers also offer good viewing options.

"You just have to drive a ways between the spots" in North Dakota, she said.

Color updates

September is more than half over, but the fall color season is just getting started.

In the Turtle Mountains, ash trees already are turning yellow and lead the fall color rush, Johnson said. Lake Metigoshe State Park near Bottineau is at about 10 percent color, she said.

"I just drove across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Wisconsin and Minnesota, and they're just barely starting to have a blush of color over there, too," Johnson said. "Someone can go that way in a couple of weeks and they probably won't be disappointed."

In Minnesota, the DNR's Parks and Trails Division has a detailed fall color section on its website called "Feel the Wow of Fall." The online fall color finder includes color reports updated every Thursday for all of Minnesota's state parks, along with a fall color events calendar, a page with information on when and why leaves change color and places to view and share photos.

The DNR's Cervenka said the website is her go-to source for fall color updates.

"I can just scroll over the dots on the map that represent each of the state parks and say, 'This is a good place to go this weekend,'" Cervenka said. "Parks staff from all over the state call in and say where they're at so color in that particular park is up to date."

Explore Minnesota Tourism also offers weekly fall color reports and opportunities to share fall photos in real time on social media tagged #OnlyinMN. Sign up for the weekly updates at exploreminnesota.com/fallcolor.

Most of Minnesota is at 10 percent color or less, although Buffalo River State Park east of Moorhead is at 25 percent to 50 percent color based on the website report. Typically, colors in far northeast Minnesota peak in mid- to late September, while mid-September to early October is prime time across the rest of northern Minnesota. The peak color dates get progressively later farther south in Minnesota.

How the fall ultimately plays out for color depends on Mother Nature, but if conditions are right, the potential definitely is there.

"If we keep going with some cooler nights," the colors will be better, Cervenka said. "If it stays warm too long, the color is not going to be as brilliant.

"Light frost and cool nights in the 40s really helps increase that color."

• On the Web:

North Dakota Tourism: ndtourism.com and click the Fall Foliage Tour window.

DNR's "Feel the Wow of Fall": mndnr.gov/fall_colors/index.html.

Explore Minnesota Tourism: exploreminnesota.com.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is editor of the Herald's Northland Outdoors section and also works as a copy editor and page designer. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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