The New England Alpine Zone Features Early Color
New England has a fantastic variety of habitats and landscapes, from high mountain peaks to lush forest to rocky seacoasts. The ecology of each setting is largely dependent on local variations in climate and soils, and in each environment, plant species compete to fill a niche. Some environments have a rich diversity of species, while others require significant specialization. Last week, I highlighted one such specialized habitat, the forested wetlands. Trees in these communities have a propensity for an early peak, and many swamp maples are already ablaze across the region. The most specialized habitats in New England though are the alpine-arctic communities found above treeline on our highest peaks, and these areas are set to reach peak foliage this week. If you’ve never visited the alpine zone, or have never been in autumn, it looks like it will be a great weekend to do so!
The alpine zone is covers an extremely small percentage of the New England landscape. The entirety of the White Mountain National Forest contains only eight square miles, yet contains the largest alpine zones east of the Rockies in the Continental US. To find a similar landscape to the New England alpine zone, you would need to travel a straight line more than 600 miles due north from the Canadian border, to places where caribou roam and permafrost lingers underfoot.
The plants in the New England alpine zone are low to the ground, fragile and stunted by the harsh conditions and very short growing season. These areas are essentially arctic islands in the sky, and the plants found there are remnants left from the last ice age. And they are beautiful, especially in autumn when the whole of the tundra turns a variable mosaic of red, orange and brown.
Reaching the alpine zone, which typically lies above 4000 feet of elevation, is perceived as a challenge, and indeed, there are some great, fun and challenging trails that take you up Mount Katahdin in Maine, The Presidential Range and Franconia Ridge in New Hampshire, and Camel’s Hump in Vermont. But there are also roads to the top of Mounts Mansfield and Washington, and even a train you can take beyond treeline. When you arrive, you’ll be struck with the simple and primitive landscape, endless views, and rich tapestry of colors across the ridges. Before hastily exploring though, it is important to be mindful of the incredibly slow rate at which these plants grow, and that a single footstep off the trail or rocks can erase a decade or more of growth.
For more information on the New England alpine zone, you’ll find the websites of these four non-profit organizations particularly helpful:
As for other foliage in New England right now, outside of the alpine ridges and maple swamps, not much is going on yet. I took a ride through Pinkham Notch this past weekend, and though the colors lacked the lush green of summer, the reds, oranges and yellows remain largely masked. That should change this week though, as a strong cold front will push temperatures near and perhaps briefly below the freezing mark in the far northern valleys by the weekend. This first real cool snap will really accelerate the turning foliage, and just in time, as the far northern areas usually see peak conditions by the last week in September. We’re almost there!
There is good news on the accessibility front as well. Major sections of roadway are opening by the day after the large washouts shut down access to many areas. On my drive up Route 16 this week, lane shifts worked traffic around remaining washouts. The Kancamagus Highway reopened this week, well ahead of schedule, and crews are working hard to open Route 302 in Crawford Notch. Vermont has seen similar progress with large runs of Vermont 100 ready for travelers set to arrive as the color does next week across the north.
Overall, despite Irene, early foliage predictions are still seeming to hold on track. This still promises to be a fine foliage year, and peak should still be on time if not slightly late across the region. Next week we should see the first widespread color emerge, and we’ll be talking about color for the subsequent six weeks as the peak heads south and towards the coast. Keep and eye out, and be sure to post your reports to Yankeefoliage.com, and on our social media and mobile app. We love to see the color in your neck of the woods!