CYBER SCOUT; Reds and Yellows On the Screen and on the Trees
By BOB TEDESCHI
Behind football and baseball, leaf watching is perhaps the most popular fall spectator sport, but it involves jostling for prime viewing position. And with each passing autumn, those with Internet connections have an increasing edge over their unwired counterparts in finding the best leaf-gazing spots at the best times.
Kaia Monroe, a Brooklyn resident who divides her time between ”freelance teaching” and secretarial work at a Manhattan ad agency, used the Web last fall to execute that most difficult of autumnal tricks: finding a place where the leaves were nearly at their multichromatic peak, and where she could enjoy almost complete solitude.
Ms. Monroe, a South Dakota native who had never made a leaf-watching excursion in her five years in New York, said she was searching for destinations she could reach without a car. A friend suggested traveling to upstate New York, then pointed her to EscapeMaker.com, a site specializing in information about weekend getaways in the eastern United States. There she found information about various towns, including New Paltz, in the Hudson Valley.
From there, Ms. Monroe found a bed-and-breakfast in the town center, information on hiking and rock climbing areas, bike rentals and winery tours — all of which she relied on during a Wednesday-through-Friday visit. On the biking trails especially, she said, she was totally alone. ”The only sound was the crunch of the leaves under my wheels,” she said. ”It was fantastic.”
EscapeMaker.com is a good source for autumn travel near New York City. It includes many useful links, like those for portal sites devoted to wine tours. (See the Special Interests link at the bottom of each page.) Caylin Sanders, EscapeMaker’s president, said the site had until recently focused on quick trips for New Yorkers, so information about states outside the New York region is still comparatively thin.
Other Web sites range farther. The Miracle of Fall (www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/fall color), produced by the University of Illinois Extension, provides dozens of links to foliage updates, driving and hiking tips, Web cams with live panoramic views of foliage, and places to go for activities like apple and pumpkin picking.
Some sites, like Weather.com, include maps showing the normal peak times for fall color across the nation, and can provide decent guidance for timing a trip. Since nature’s schedule is fluid, though, it also makes sense to rely on the Miracle of Fall to find more immediate updates.
The site includes links to roughly two dozen state and regional foliage updates, and links to telephone-based foliage updates as well. The quality and frequency of these can vary, depending on the interests and resources of the site in question. In fact, one of the best foliage timing sites, the Foliage Network (www.foliagenetwork .com) is missing from the Miracle of Fall. Based in Niskayuna, N.Y., the Foliage Network provides color-coded maps for the Northeast, Southeast and Midwest, using data from roughly 500 ”spotters” affiliated with the site. The information is updated twice weekly and includes text descriptions of both color change and ”leaf drop.”
Marek Rzonca, the Foliage Network’s publisher, suggests timing a trip not to coincide with peak colors, but just before. ”When there’s still a little green you see the full spectrum of colors,” he said. ”Besides, if you shoot for the peak, one good windstorm and you’ll miss it.”
Once you’ve figured out when to go, there are countless sites steering you to different destinations, but the best of them have fall drivers in mind. The Miracle of Fall provides a good sample of driving tours in the Midwest — a region that gets little credit for fall beauty. For the multitudes heading to New England by car, though, New England Foliage Central is a worthy choice.
The site, on the About.com site (found at gonewengland.about.com/library/blfoliage central.htm), is produced by Kim Knox Beckius and Deborah Fowles, both New England-based authors. Of particular note is a section on Fall Day Trips (found beneath the Foliage Central heading on the top right). Halfway down the page is a link for Fall Foliage Driving Tours in New England, which gives way to pages of tips divided by state.
The Massachusetts link, for example, includes a link to the Mohawk Trail, a 65-mile drive on Route 2 through the northwest portion of the state. The description is vivid and filled with suggested sites and activities to check out.
Gorp.com, the outdoor recreation Web site, has a host of foliage-related information of its own. But because the Gorp page essentially appears within an About.com frame, the information appears much more slowly than it would if you had found the page on Gorp to begin with.
Owned by the Away Network, an online travel company devoted to outdoor activities, Gorp deserves a visit on its own merits. The site’s Fall Regional Roundup (gorp.com /gorp/features/fall/fall2.htm) is a good source for broad ideas on what to do in different regions in the United States. It also features some good lists, like the Top 10 Fall Forests and Scenic Drives (where the Mohawk Trail tour appeared).
For travelers to the Northeast, Yankee Magazine’s foliage guide, YankeeFoliage.com, provides similar lists, tailored to New England. The site also includes a fairly active Foliage Forum where visitors can post questions or peruse discussions for insider advice.
As comprehensive as the fall roundup sites strive to be, they’re no match for the local tourism sites that shamelessly promote even the most mundane municipal sidelights. Promotional as they may be, they frequently pick up details that can escape Web sites with regional or national ambitions.
If, for instance, you had planned a drive through the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, the bigger roundup sites and the Berkshires tourism site, www.berkshires .com offer lots of ideas but they miss some key information, like certain orchards that offer apple picking. If, however, you know that your route goes, say, through the town of Richmond, the town’s Web site (www.richmondmass.org) lists two orchards with fall apple picking — one of which, Hilltop Orchards, is also a winery.
These facilities, of course, have their own Web sites, which contain more information (www.bartlettsorchard.com and www.hill toporchards.com).
Ms. Monroe, who traveled to New Paltz last fall, found a generous list of activities on EscapeMaker.com. The section titled ”See full list of activities and businesses” allows users to select activities, then print a personalized itinerary of sorts.
It is also where she found out about a bike shop near her B&B. Ms. Monroe said the ride was so inspiring that she found it difficult to return the bike to the shop. So she didn’t. ”I ended up buying it,” she said. ”I have it here in the city.”