ITASCA STATE PARK, Minn. Meteorological fall began Sept. 1, and a few splashes of color are showing themselves against the mostly still green foliage of the north woods. While there are hints at what autumn might look like, there is also an element of mystery.

Connie Cox is a naturalist at Itasca State Park. “It’s hard to say when the peak fall colors will occur,” she said. “Before we got the August rains, some ash and paper birch trees were showing color early and dropping leaves to conserve water.”

Because of the drought, Cox said, fall colors might not be quite as dramatic as other years but a little more muted.

“That’s because the trees were quite stressed, especially in the earlier part of the summer,” she said. “We’re going to have to wait and see if fall colors come earlier than usual. It partly depends on if we keep on getting moisture. If we get good rains this month we could still have some good pops of color. What trees need to get those bright autumn colors, those bright reds, are sunny days and cooler nights.”

According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fall color finder, hints of color are beginning to be visible at Itasca State Park. Main Park Drive is one of the places to catch glimpses of the first colors by car or bike. Other trees in the park starting to show color include scattered red maples and big-tooth aspen.

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“We are maybe a week ahead on the ash trees changing color, but it has slowed down in the maples,” Cox said.

Take a hike

The Aiton Heights fire tower at Itasca State Park used to be a place to watch for wild fires. Now it is a popular spot for viewing fall colors. (Contributed / Minnesota DNR, Itasca State Park)
The Aiton Heights fire tower at Itasca State Park used to be a place to watch for wild fires. Now it is a popular spot for viewing fall colors. (Contributed / Minnesota DNR, Itasca State Park)

Cox said the Dr. Roberts Nature Trail is one of her favorite spots any time of the year, but especially in autumn. “You have the bog pines, oak and aspen,” she said. “You’re along the shore of Lake Itasca. If you’re looking for maples I like the loop when you do the Ozawindib Trail and the Myrtle Lake crossover and Deer Park. That is also our hiking club route.

“Deer Park is a lovely little trail because there are so many small lakes along it. You can see the reflection of the trees on the far shore. Climbing the Aiton Heights fire tower also gives a wonderful view of the colors below.”

Day trips and overnight excursions

The Mary Gibbs Cafe at the Headwaters will be open seven days a week through Oct. 3, and the gift shop open through Oct. 24.

“Take a morning walk in the coolness of a September morning," Cox said. "Stop for a scone or Danish and then go check out the (Mississippi) Headwaters as the mist is rising.

“That’s one of the magical things this time of year. In the morning when it is cool, there are thin ribbons of fog over a body of water or low valley. Mornings and early evenings are also a wonderful time to see waterfowl.”

The Jacob Brower Visitor Center is open all year. Cabin rentals and campsite reservations are available online.

Other signs of fall

Fall foliage, such as the Virginia creeper, adds splashes of vibrant color to Itasca State Park. (Contributed / Minnesota DNR, Itasca State Park)
Fall foliage, such as the Virginia creeper, adds splashes of vibrant color to Itasca State Park. (Contributed / Minnesota DNR, Itasca State Park)

Even though the colors may not be as dramatic as in other years, Cox said there is still plenty to enjoy as nature transitions from summer to autumn. Acorns are falling and squirrels are busy gathering them. Colorful berries are developing on shrubs. Poison ivy leaves are developing bright colors that attract birds to the drab, ivory colored fruits. Birds can eat the poison ivy berries, but people obviously cannot.

“The poison ivy, as always, is displaying the most immaculately beautiful leaves,” Cox said. “You can’t touch them but they really are pretty.”

Late summer flowers are bright golds, whites and purples to the landscape, especially along the park’s wetlands.

“We are starting to see color in the dogwoods and Virginia Creeper,” Cox said. “The sumac, not so much yet in the park, which has more clay in the soil than other areas, which holds moisture a little more. Park Rapids and the Hubbard prairie have sandier soil, so you might see colors advance faster there.”

Cox said while there is not the abundance of fall flowers of typical years, they can still be found if you know where to look.

“We have beautiful displays of wildflowers along our wetlands and lake shores,” she said. “We’re lucky because we have over 100 lakes in the park, and there you will see asters goldenrods and spotted touch-me-not, a beautiful little orange flower. The transition to the late summer and early fall flowers starts before the main colors on trees begin.”

Cox said she has noticed the butterfly population disappearing a little earlier than normal and some bird species migrating earlier as well.

“I haven’t seen any adult hummingbirds at my feeder for a week, but I have seen a lot of immature hummingbirds,” she said. “Some of that could be driven by the drought and a lack of flower sources.”

Cox said ferns that survived the drought are starting to change to a soft tan color.

“The wild rice is ripening on Lake Itasca, and it’s really enjoyable to watch the wood ducks and blue winged teal and mallards feeding in the rice beds,” she said.

“Northern flickers, a woodpecker species that migrates, are gathering on the shoulders of roads feeding on ants.

“Acorns are dropping. Bears really like the burr oak acorns. Squirrels, deer and raccoons also eat them. Red oak acorns tend to be a little more bitter but they eat them as well to put on fat for the winter.

“Cedar waxwings and American robins are flocking to eat fruits on bushes then flying away. When you’re out hiking, you don’t know what you’ll come upon.”

The view from the top of the fire tower at Itasca State Park is worth the climb. (Contributed / Minnesota DNR, Itasca State Park)
The view from the top of the fire tower at Itasca State Park is worth the climb. (Contributed / Minnesota DNR, Itasca State Park)

Tracking fall colors

The fall color finder on the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website (www.dnr.state.mn.us/fall_colors) includes a map updated to track the progression of autumn’s advance.

“Most of Minnesota as of Sept. 1 is in that zero to 10% color change and tracking like typical,” Cox said. “On the shore of Lake Superior there is a tiny spot where it’s 10 to 25% color change. The soils are so shallow in that area that those trees may have been impacted more by the drought.”