Fall foliage one way to enjoy great outdoors


The leaf lookers come out in October, flocking to Brown County and other fiery-colored, lesser-publicized, tree-centric locations in southern Indiana, making pilgrimages to worship up close at nature’s vacillation, nature’s advertisement of changing seasons.

There is no brighter or vivid pronouncement of autumn in the natural world than forests that swap uniforms as if they were sports teams switching from home to away outfits, going from all green all of the time to a mix of green, yellow, orange and red.

Brown County State Park in Nashville may be the most heralded of regional focal points for leaf whisperers. But it is also frequently so jammed with cars, sheriff’s deputies must guide traffic as the rural haven mimics the big cities drivers are escaping from while they crawl bumper to bumper on State Road 46. They do their own tailgate dance much like that associated with football, that other ritual of autumn.

Meanwhile, on the same Saturday, 36 miles south, leaves of the same hues are quite visible in bunches as roadside attractions in Mustacatuck National Wildlife Refuge in Seymour, where the slow driving is free and easy as necks crane upward.

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Also, 32 miles south of Brown County State Park, via a slightly different route, peace and tranquility prevail amidst the kaleidoscopic leaves at Jackson-Washington State Forest in Brownstown. Instead of ticking off the passage of minutes as a 5-mile traffic back-up holds a car hostage, the driver can instead count the number of campers in tents on two hands.

There are other leaves in the world than those promoted by Brown County.

"Our leaves are just as pretty as Brown County’s," said Mustacatatuck park ranger Donna Stanley. "I think it doesn’t get the attention of Brown County. A lot of people enjoy fall in Muscatatuck."

Brown County, she said, just has a bigger advertising budget. The appeal is to fall outdoors lovers who prefer foliage over deer hunting.

Why leaves change colors

American elementary school students learn young leaves on trees change color in autumn. Later, they probably remember the tune to the ABCs song better, rather than the reason for coloration changes.

Not even kids beyond, say the age of 4, believe gremlins sneak out at night with crayons and color in the leaves.

A refresher on reality. Leaves on such trees as maples, ash, beech and oaks, among others, spend more time being green than the Hulk. The green is supplied through high levels of production of chlorophyll through photosynthesis.

During the longer hours of sunlight in summer, trees receive high dosages of chlorophyll. However, when days grow shorter and sunset is earlier, the trees obtain less chlorophyll. Competing pigmentation takes over, resulting in the brilliant reds, oranges and yellows leaf fans admire.

This is temporary. The leaves do not hang around on limbs through the winter and turn green again in the spring. Their role is to transform sunlight into nutrients, food, for the tree, transferred through water.

When they cease doing so, they go into decline. They reach a stage where they are holding onto the tree virtually by a thread until the tree basically kicks them out into the cruel world. Aided by slight breezes, the leaves tumble through the air and create piles on the ground.

Kids do notice leaf changes, for sure, and cartoonist Charles M. Schulz’s old "Peanuts" strips highlight that. In a group of panels, Charlie Brown and Lucy are walking beneath some trees amidst leaves and he asks, "Do falling leaves make you feel sad?" Lucy responds, "Absolutely not! If they want to fall, I say let ’em fall." She continues, "In fact, falling leaves are a good sign. It’s when you see them jumping onto the trees that you’re in trouble."


Sitting in one place in parks, a visitor can watch leaves break loose, swirl through the air lightly and land on the forest floor. The sarcastic have asked, "Who is going to rake them up?" Unlike that individual’s lawn, leaves just stick around wild landscapes. They turn brown and their texture fairly quickly becomes less smooth and more crinkly.

Over recent years, regulars intrigued by fall foliage have acquired the nickname "leaf peepers," though there do not seem to be any volunteer leaf rakers interested in gathering millions of fallen leaves.

Leaf lookers represent bigger business than the average person thinks, taking into account money spent on meals and lodging, gasoline and souvenirs. Some places have done break-out studies of the financial impact of fall foliage. For New England’s six states combined, it was estimated at $8 billion annually.

Aficionados don’t leave Brown County alone

Brown County’s most recent overview of financial impact was done in 2017, and the estimate was $42.7 million, though it is likely higher now. 

The Jackson County Visitor Center’s website touts Fall Foliage tours, highlighting different loops, including ones featuring Muscatauck and Jackson-Washington.

Center public relations manager Jordan Richart said the group does not have statistics indicating how many people take such tours or how much money leaf lookers leave behind.

"We safely assume when people (come), they are probably going to find something for lunch or stop in a store," Richart said. The idea is they will "discover how wonderful our area is."

That includes absorbing the widespread availability of colorful leaves.

"I think a lot of people don’t realize how good Jackson County is," he said, referring to that commodity.

Lists of must-see leaf centers can be read on the internet. Besides New England, there are pretty much coast-to-coast places noted, such as Flagstaff, Arizona, the Smoky Mountains, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon and Glacier National Park.

Smoky Mountains officials produce a prediction map. Brown County has a Leaf Cam and a peak leaf forecast.

Brown County has turned the turning leaves into an industry. Downtown Nashville, population 1,350, can be exhausted by the crush of visitors searching for eats and souvenirs when not studying the leaves. Finding a parking spot on a weekend at the height of the leaf pandemic can be a full-time sport.

The Brown County website calls fall there "When Nature Paints the Hills" but also suggests readers look into weekday trip options. People do come. Hotels are limited, bed and breakfast accommodations bulge with clients and the RV park in Gnaw Bone did not seem to have any extra inches of space.

Visitors from all over Indiana and all over the country clog the streets and the park. Residents pay a $7 park fee, but those from outside the state pay $9. One parking lot turned up license plates from Ohio, Kentucky, Nevada, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Illinois and Iowa.

Brown County is 15,815 acres big and was established in 1929. Visitors can hike, bike, fish, ride horses or look at leaves. In late October, most seemed to have eyes on the leaves with hikers or mountain bikers combining sweating with rubbernecking.

James Person said he has lived in Indianapolis for 30 years and just decided to take a drive to "check it out" since he had never been to the park before.

"No, I’m not really a leaf guy," he said. "I’m a nature guy," though the entire setting gained his endorsement. "The sky, the trees, the leaves."

There were plenty of people around, but he didn’t feel cramped since they were socially distancing sufficiently and there were plenty of leaves to go around for all.

The Bernings’ pause in Brown County was planned. August, Britany and their little girl were on their way home to Marion following a vacation in Florida.

"This was a good stopping spot," August Berning said.

They are passionate about autumn and regulars to this park and Nashville. They follow fall on Facebook in various ways.

"We really love Nashville and the scenery," he said.

Pullouts for cars were filled. The parking at Ogle Lake overflowed. Foreign languages were spoken at some overlooks. People really did find their way to the Brown County State Park leaves from distant locales.

Adam and Jill Ritchey were from more pedestrian Lowell, Indiana, not India or somewhere else in Asia. They bought a new RV this year and planned exotic cruises around the nation, but due to the spread of the coronavirus, they canceled many, including one to New Orleans, where they were supposed to be at the time.

They grabbed the last camping spot at Brown County without a reservation, dragged out their mountain bikes and were viewing the leaves, a favorite activity for Jill, who has no favorite color leaf.

"Everything," she said. "The mix. Fall is so nice."

Jackson County shines, too

Calm pervaded Muscatatuck. There were more cars lined up trying to turn left onto State Road 46 at Brown County State Park than in the entire refuge.

Jan Halstead of Bedford had a cul-de-sac at Lake Linda to herself to smile at the yellow, orange and red leaves blowing around her feet and overhead. She had just eaten lunch at her favorite place in Seymour not far from the park entrance and reveled in the quiet.

"I just like to go and enjoy nature," Halstead said.

Other times, she and her sister, who was not along this trip, have spent hours reclining at the nature center waiting for birds and animals to pass. She is disappointed the center has been shut due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so that was not possible this visit.

But she had seen a heron and blue jays and may have saved a turtle’s life. It was plodding across the refuge’s road. Worried for its safety, Halstead stopped, picked it up and released it across the street.

"I pointed it in the direction it wanted to go," she said.

Halstead said the leaf color was still worthwhile, but she knew days were waning on how long they might last.

"They’re past peak," Halstead said. "There’s still color, but they still look good. It won’t be much longer before the leaves are washed off the trees."

Halstead has done Brown County and was turned off by the crowds and traffic.

"People are going nuts," she said of Brown County.

Jackson-Washington Forest another hideway

Jackson-Washington Forest in Brownstown, 13 miles from Seymour, the atmosphere is less hectic yet than Muscatatuck.

Some people picnicked under falling leaves. Some camped. A few fished. The leaf colors were equally vivid, though.

Or maybe not all trees were equal with each other. Forester Taylor Ardisson said the climate experienced by each tree, how much sunshine, how much wind, how much rain, is key in how quickly green leaves go yellow, orange or red.

"The location of the tree on a slope, too, all of that goes into it," Ardisson said. "A lot of people do come here to look at them."

Marianne and Gordon Davis hiked several miles of trails peering at the scenery. Living north of Indianapolis, they had never heard of the forest before Marianne’s sister tipped them, saying, "’You’ve got to go.’"

Marianne is partial to orange leaves, Gordon to yellow. Plenty of both types surrounded them.

"In Indiana, of all places," Marianne Davis said. "We found this little haven of beauty."

The universal language of leaves was speaking to them.

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