Autumn. Fall. A time when a nippy chill in the air returns and leaves of deciduous trees all over the northern hemisphere put on a brilliant final act before Winter's arrival. As if the show the trees puts on wasn't enough, wildlife is also changing their habits, becoming more showy and active as they prepare for mating season, hibernation, or survival during the winter months to come. For many, myself included, this is our favorite time of year and, at least for me, the time when I wish I could clone myself so I could be in so many different places all at once taking in the beauty.
However, this year, I have not done much traveling during the fall foliage season. What traveling I did was for classroom-type teaching rather than fieldwork. With Covid a constant worry, the last thing I want to do is get back from a event that required air travel to then jump in the car and travel to different states and, in the slim chance, spread the virus. So I have been spending several weeks between trips at home before traveling again to try and do my part the best I can. This has highlighted one of the weaknesses of my current home location as we are not in an area that gets fall colors.
Instead, I would like to introduce you to some of my favorite spots for fall foliage and seasonal wildlife displays that I have had the privilege of photographing over the years. These images, with a lone exception, are not from this year and are from years past, so this is not an article meant to reflect the most current year, but to give you ideas and insight into locations you may consider visiting in upcoming years either on your own or with me as I will be offering several fall foliage tours in 2021 and 2022.
Domestic (to the United States)
A favorite of mine, this region is where my photography and outdoor experiences started as a small child. Later, once I was grown, I continued to return to these mountains for further exploration. While I have not been back in several years, (I was suppose to have been there this past spring) a visit is in the works for later in 2021.
The most visited park in the National Park system happens to cover a good portion of the Appalachian mountains along western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee: the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For anyone looking to take in fall colors and animal behavior this is the spot to go. Throughout the park, you will find a variety of hardwood species that paint the mountain sides with color. Underneath their canopies runs a series of rivers and streams. This combination is one that draws me to locations around the world as I just love flowing water through forests, regardless of the time of year.
Photo tip: When photographing running water, especially in the shade of the forest, use a tripod and a longer shutter speed so as to capture the movement in the water without the distraction of every little bubble or drop being sharp. A circular polarizer is also an amazing tool, not just to cut glare off the surface of the water but also the surface of the leaves allowing the beautiful colors to really deepen and pop in your image. Make sure to get a quality polarizer as cheap glass can impose a color cast to your entire image. I use B+W and Breakthrough Photography filters.
The other reason I suggest the Smoky Mountains is because you can also witness a wide range of wildlife within the Park. In 2001, the National Park Service reintroduced elk to the southern end of the park and they can often be seen near the Oconaluftee Visitors Center or within the Cataloochee Valley. Other wildlife exhibiting interesting behavior during this season in this area include white-tailed deer, turkeys, and squirrels. Cades Cove Auto Loop is a great place for observing these animals.
Photo tip: Bring a longer lens to ensure you can comply with the Park Services wildlife viewing safety practices and so you can capture images ethically without stressing the animals.
For those who find themselves in the Western U.S. during this time of year, I highly suggest visiting Grant Teton National Park and the surrounding areas. I enjoyed the Tetons more than Yellowstone both in scenery and wildlife experiences and when I plan future visits, I often only plan a few days up towards Yellowstone before spending the majority of my time in the Tetons. Maybe it is because of the trees and the mountain views, but the Tetons seem more intimate while having more character than Yellowstone. Again, personal opinion. If it is your first time to the area though, do make time to go north and at least see some of Yellowstone. It is worth the visit.
For landscapes, the Teton area offers a range of lakes and river vistas from which you can frame and capture the reflections of the Teton mountain peaks themselves. Subjects include the contrast between evergreens and grasses that burn with seasonal color at the edge of the water. Or, if you visit at just the right time you can catch the cottonwoods and aspen glowing yellow at dawn down on Oxbow Bend.
This area is prime for witnessing the moose rut. Large males parade through the river bottoms looking for females, some who have calves from the past spring still in tow. The pronghorns, a special animal specific to the North American plains, are also rutting during this time as well. Bears, both black and grizzly, are out gorging on berries and roots to gather as many calories as they can before going to den for the winter. Lots going on and lots of ground to cover, so make sure you set aside at least several days for this adventure.
Photo tip: Moose are large animals and have dark coats, which means they often rest or hide during midday, especially on sunny days when temps get over 50°F. Look for them first thing in the morning and then again in late afternoon into the evening for the best chances of seeing them out in the open.
So, for those willing to put up with cold and rain, Oregon has some amazing scenery in fall. Pairing the magnificent waterfalls found in the state with the autumn color and moody weather makes for some portfolio worthy images! Places like Silver Falls State Park and the Columbia River Gorge that splits Oregon from Washington, are key locations to visit this time of year. For those who may be interested in joining me in the field, I am offering a "Silver Falls in Fall" Photo Adventure October 2021. More information can be found here.
Oregon also has a population of elk that can be found along the coastline. Some of the best viewing can be found near Reedsport, OR, at the Dean Creek Wildlife Area. Like elsewhere in the states, rut sets in around September and goes through mid- to late October.
Photo tip: Be prepared for cold rain that permeates and dampness that lingers. Ensure your gear is up to the elements or invest in a rain cover. Bring lots of microfiber cloths to wipe droplets off your front element. Also, make sure you are properly covered. Waterproof outerwear is a must for your safety and health. The last thing you want is to have to leave a location early because you are soaked, verging on hypothermia, and needing to seek shelter from the elements.
Tohoku Region, Japan
For those planning for international travel in the coming years, might I entice you with the idea of visiting northern Japan in the autumn? Mountains, lakes, streams, and cultural heritage sights all dressed in Autumn's glory. There really isn't anything better than getting back from a day of photographing amazing colors in the forest to slip into a yukata (casual kimono used to lounge in your room or worn to visit the bath) before soaking in a natural onsen (hot spring with natural minerals and heated geothermically).
The avenues of cherry trees that held everyone's attentions in spring put on their second show of the year when the leaves turn orange and red. Alpine meadows blaze with yellow and orange grasses while the mountains are often kissed with a dusting of snow starting in mid- to late October.
Photo tip: Thinking of doing this on your own? Make sure to rent a car as much of the rural north is not serviced by mass transit but once a day (if that). Driving is on the left (right hand driver's seat) and you will need an International Driver's Permit. When packing make sure to take your tripod and polarizer filters for the same reasons mentioned above. It will make all the difference. Add a neutral density filter or two as these can help you slow your shutter down even further so you can use a long exposure at popular locations to blur people out of your shot as they move about.
Interested in this but don't feel comfortable going on your own? Contact me as I am putting a very small group (no more than three clients) together for Autumn 2022. Details are in the works, but if you are interested message me to get on the list.
Overall, there are so many choices of beautiful places to visit during this time year. While these are my favorites, what are some of yours?
Until next time, cheers!