By Zach Porter
After being pummeled by the harsh rains and winds from recent tropical storms, then enduring a red hot Indian summer in October, Georgia's resilient leaves are finally revealing their true fall colors.
At many of the state parks across Northern Georgia, Mother Nature has set the stage for many anxious fall leaves to strut their stuff. However, some park visitors say the anticipated color change has come a few weeks later than last year, and without the intensity of previous fall seasons.
"This late warm weather has kept the colors from turning. The peek has come later this year," said Mike Libbey, a regular visitor to Amicalola Falls, an 827-acre park near Dawsonville. "The leaves were in full color a few weeks earlier last year. You could not find a parking spot (in Amicalola) anywhere."
Last weekend was considered to be the peek weekend for fall color at Amicalola Falls. Despite the Sweetgums and Red Maples prolonged wait to unveil their beauty, visitors flocked from the Atlanta suburbs as well as from out of state to see those leaves whom had finally obtained the warm spotlight of the sun.
"It's finally starting to feel like fall", said park visitor Maurice Cantrell, atop a 729-foot waterfall, the park's signature attraction.
Planning the right weekend to witness the fall colors at Georgia State Parks can be a daunting task with figuring out when the leaves will change, what the weather will be like on a particular day, making reservations for lodging, and dealing with traffic on the highways.
"Timing is really critical, if you miss one weekend then you may have missed the whole season," said Ed Gao, a photo hobbyist from Alpharetta. "Traffic can be a nightmare up Georgia 400 but if you avoid the traffic you could miss a good weekend (for fall color). It's hard to predict what the best time to come is." Other park visitors agreed that the window of opportunity to catch a breathtaking symphony of color in North Georgia was slim.
Since it's hard for Atlanta residents eager to see the dramatic fall colors to know whether or not those luminous golden yellows, and deep reds await them in the mountains, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources has developed a new Web page dedicated to tracking the progress of Georgia's fall leaves. The webpage, titled "Leaf Watch 2004" is part of the Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites Web site and can be viewed online at www.gastateparks.org.
Georgia Department of Natural Resources public affairs officer Kim Hatcher, who originated the idea for Leaf Watch and helps maintain the site, said it was developed by her and others to help reporters and visitors to stay easily informed about the changing colors at Georgia State Parks. Now, in this age of automation and convenience, the curious "leaf peeper" can just get online and check the status of fall colors at the park, without worrying about inconveniences such as a busy signal or keeping state park employees' phones ringing off the hook. "The parks were overwhelmed with calls from visitors asking ?is it pretty yet?'", said Hatcher.
Each week an official from every one of Georgia's 27 parks and historic sites contacts Ms. Hatcher with a short description of what trees are turning and a projection of when the peek weekend for color will arrive. Hatcher then updates the Web site accordingly for thousands to view over the Internet at any given time.
Phil Delestrez, who reports to the Web site for the progress of leaves at Panola Mountain State Park, has been somewhat disappointed in the fall color this year. Delestrez blames one of the driest spring seasons that the park has ever had on record. Because of the lack of water in the spring for the trees their leaves did not turn out that healthy. "Even though it's several seasons later, spring still has an impact on the health and vigor of the trees. Our Maple Trees did not look so good this year." Delestrez said. Still though, Delestrez urged that interested trail hikers would find Dogwoods and Sweet Gum trees at the park boasting a nice "reddish-purple wine color", while Panola's Pignut Hickory trees radiated a "bright lemon yellow."
Another purpose for the Leaf site is "to show people you don't have to go to the mountains to see fall colors", Hatcher said.
According to the current web updates, four middle Georgia State Parks that are a short road trip from Henry and Clayton counties are in the midst of turning colors, with peek weekends yet to come. "So the next two weeks should be the best time to visit the park and walk the 3 mile nature trail", advises the current write-up for Sprewell Bluff State Park in Thomaston, which is south of Griffin. The Web site also offers tips on hiking, making reservations, and an explanation of why leaves actually change color, which happens when a leaf's "chlorophyll fades to reveal other pigments colors that have been there all along."
Some photo enthusiasts at Amicalola such as Ed Gao still lamented, "The color of the leaves is not too healthy this year". But "shutterbugs" such as Charles and Amy Milne, who recently moved to Atlanta from Houston, Texas, were ecstatic to see any color at all. "In Houston there is mainly just concrete and not much greenery, the leaves turn from green to brown and then they die. The view here is a breath of fresh air."
The Leaf Watch Web page saved Dennis and Cheryl Broussard of Lafeyette, Louisiana a wasted trip to Amicalola three weeks ago when the leaves had not yet begun to turn in great numbers, and prompted them to reschedule for last weekend's explosion of color at the park. Like many other couples, they traveled from far away and trekked up over 600 stairs at the park to take in the magnificent foliage surrounding the waterfall. Looking up from a footbridge that crosses in front of the swift flowing waterfall Dennis Broussard exclaimed, "It was worth every mile and every dime."