Michigan's insane fall colors have arrived in all their glory

Michigan's fall foliage is reaching peak pigmentation.

As summer's last gasp of high temperatures relent to fall's cooling chill, a flurry of reds, yellows, oranges, and purples will blanket Michigan's forests. Worry not if a drive up north wouldn't render the colors you're seeking - according to the Pure Michigan website, the beginning of October marks the beginning of that fall color sweet spot you could be after.

But how do nature's pillars know when it's time to show off their colors? It's a combination of daylight, temperature, and moisture.

"All the plants drop their leaves this time of year because they're trying to survive the drought they'll experience in the winter," said Todd Barkman, a professor of biology who specializes in plant DNA at Western Michigan University. "Sure it's cold, but the real problem is there won't be any water available to them because it's frozen up in ice."

In the summer, trees expend a lot of energy growing leaves. The color of that foliage is determined by the chlorophyll in the leaves - which displays primarily a green pigment. Key to turning sunlight into energy for trees, when a surplus of daylight is replaced by night time, those trees begin to retract the nutrients it sends through its branches. 

And that means the green pigmentation will go with it.

"One of the main things they salvage from chlorophyll is nitrogen. It's the main fertilizer that helps them grow better," Barkman said. "As they're doing that, they're storing it in their trunks and roots and branches - the wood parts of the plant. They're also storing whatever nutrients and sugars from the leaves. As they're doing that and once the chlorophyll disappears...other pigments in the leaves show."

In the same way you can't see stars during the day because the sun is too bright, the green pigment in leaves dominates all other colors that might otherwise show themselves. But when that green pigment is no longer being fed, trees showoff their more colorful quality. 

You may remember when FOX 2 sent their drone over Michigan's colors last year. Expect more of the same this year.

Baldcypress, sugar and red maples reveal a dazzling display of deep reds and majestic oranges, while aspen and hickories adorn a golden yellow shade. If you're looking in the right places, you might be able to spot tamarack, which is the only native conifer that sheds its needles after they turn yellow.

"One of the signals is temperature - that's for sure. The other major signal is day length," Barkman said. "Plants have ways of detecting how long the day is. They measure that."

Using that barometer is helpful when the fall season can unleash a burst of cold or remain unseasonably warm. Because the amount of daylight - or the photoperiod - remains impervious to the changing nature of weather and climate, it serves as a helpful measuring stick for when trees should start shedding their leaves. 

Prospective travelers should be wary of Michigan's erratic weather, however. If a cold frost sweeps down into Michigan and freezes much of the landscape, trees may drop their leaves rapidly. Barkman recommends for anyone seeking the best views of colorful leaves, find somewhere high that overlooks the forests below.

If you'd rather stay in the car and enjoy the view from behind windowpanes, try these scenic byways:

  1. Pathway to Family Fun, which follows M-15 off of I-75 to Saginaw
  2. West Michigan PIke, the M-31 highway up the Lake Michigan coast
  3. Sunrise Coast, the US 23 highway that lines Michigan's northeast coast
  4. Tunnel of Trees, a scenic route on M-119 in Emmet County, near the top of the lower peninsula
  5. Lake Scenic Byway, the US-2 drive on the southern end of the upper peninsula
  6. Tahquamenon Byway, located in the northwest region of the upper peninsula on M-123
  7. UP Hidden Coast, along M-35 that follows the upper peninsula's southern portion