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Fall colors abound at Itasca State Park

Itasca State Park naturalist Connie Cox said there are a variety of colors in the park already, with peak colors expected in mid- to late September.

Fall colors
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Enterprise file photo
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Meteorological fall arrived Sept. 1 and people are starting to make plans for fall trips to view the colors. Itasca State Park naturalist Connie Cox said there are a variety of colors in the park already.

“People are going to start seeing hints of color in the understory plants, such as purple and mauve colors in poison ivy, dogbane and others. We are also starting to see a sugar maple or red maple branch on the Main Park Drive. We are also starting to see some yellow ash leaves and hints of yellow in Basswoods.”

The lower section of the Dr. Robert’s Trail that leads to the old timer’s cabin, the Headwaters area are good spots to watch for aspen. Maples are most visible along the Main Park Drive between Peace Pipe Vista and the campground office entrances as well as along Wilderness Drive from the Headwaters towards the one-way.

In addition to leaves starting to turn, Cox said the early part of September also features a variety of colorful flowers and mushrooms.

“Many species of asters are displaying light blue to purple colors. Also, the goldenrods are blooming and fall sunflower species as well. If people walk down to a lake, they can see wild rice starting to develop and drop. They may also see aquatic plants flowering, like spotted touch me nots that look like cornucopia.”

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Cox said paths along the headwaters are good for flower spotting.

Animal activity is also increasing. “Acorns are dropping. Pine cones are being cut by squirrels. Racoons, bear and deer are feeding. Chipmunks are calling, and there are a lot of pileated woodpeckers on the ground feeding on ants. Out on the lake, you may see groups of adult loons as they get ready to migrate. Starting as early as 6 p.m., you can also see otters moving around, bald eagles and osprey flying over, an entire beaver family, blue winged teals, mallards and Canada geese feeding on wild rice. It’s a great time to look for wildlife and also see those early pops of color. It’s heaven for photographers.”

There are also many varieties of mushrooms in the park. “We’ve had regular rain and are seeing some really interesting mushrooms,” she said. “There are some amazing mushrooms. One I discovered with our intern is a lovely red and only the size of the opening of a pen. It’s shaped like a cup and if you enlarge a picture of it up on your computer the edges of the cup have what look like eyelashes. It’s called the eyelash cup fungus.”

Cox said damp shaded areas along the bike trail are ideal for mushroom spotting.

“I walked a small section of the bike trail recently and there were large leaf aster, goldenrod, large sunflower species all in the same area. I wished I had a panoramic camera to show them interspersed with the pattern of sunlight on the bark of the red pine. This is really a pretty time of year.”

Conditions for ideal fall colors

Cox said trees are sensitive to the shortening amount of daylight and individual leaves are being sealed off.

“A variety of factors determine how fast those leaves drop off,” she said.

The forecast for warm sunny days and nice cool evenings with temperatures in the 40s is the perfect blend for creating stunning fall colors.

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“Being a little bit on the dry side also helps give us those vibrant colors,” she said.

Early frost can hasten leaves maturing and dropping off trees.

“Things can change profoundly in just one day,” she said.

The park is popular with tourists.

“People come here from all over the world,” she said. “Travel clubs and tours from all over the United States and Canada come to see the fall colors. We also get a lot of international travelers.”

Three rounds of color

Cox said that the first round of color occurs in mid September. “That’s when maples really get going,” she said. “The black ash and basswoods are also in this round.”

The second round of color is the end of September and the beginning of October. “There’s more color, but it tends to be those deep reds and browns of the oak and the deep cold in the aspen and paper birch. There are also hints of salmon pink as the big tooth aspen starts to change.”

The third stage is when the tamaracks turn a rich, vibrant gold in the middle of October.

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The Fall Color Finder feature on the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website shows, as of Sept. 2, up to 10% of leaves were showing their fall colors in the Park Rapids area. In the Park Rapids lakes area, the map shows the typical peak for fall colors is late September through early October.

Itasca State Park and the Lake Country Scenic Byway section of State Hwy. 34 from Detroit Lakes to Walker are two of the most popular locations for viewing fall colors.

Itasca State Park is hosting several fall walks in September.

On Sept. 9, a Junior Naturalist Fall Hike will be held from 2-2:30 p.m. Meet outside the Lakeside Museum in the picnic grounds and learn why leaves on trees and other plants change color in preparation for winter.

It’s Fall on the Mary Lake Trail walks will be held Sept. 9 and Sept. 16 from 1-2 p.m.

Meet outside Forest Inn (across from Douglas Lodge) and take a hike with a park naturalist to explore the changes autumn brings. The trail distance is approximately two miles and includes some uneven terrain.

On Sept. 13, a Fall Phenology Walk will be held from 1 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. Meet at the porch of the Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwaters Center and find out what clues to look for that signify the end of summer and the beginning of autumn.

The Douglas Lodge restaurant in the park is open Thursdays through Sundays until Oct. 2 and the Mary Gibbs Cafe is open every day of the week until early October.

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Lorie Skarpness has lived in the Park Rapids area since 1997 and has been writing for the Park Rapids Enterprise since 2017. She enjoys writing features about the people and wildlife who call the north woods home.
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