fall leaves in grand rapids mn

Be-leaf it: fantastic foliage makes great Grand Rapids trip

By Aaron J. Brown

Autumn in the Grand Rapids area is arguably the best time of year for an affordable Minnesota fall vacation up north. No traffic, and the entertainment is free. Something special happens ever year in Itasca County. Hot becomes cool. Air becomes crisp. Green becomes a rainbow. Suddenly it becomes easy to go outside and stay outside all day long.

Early September Colors

Fall leaves typically start changing in early September and remain on the trees sometimes through mid- or even late-October. You can track the peak fall leaves at the Minnesota DNR’s fall leaves tracker.

fall leaves foliage photo by Karen OothoudtThe autumn leaves of Northern Minnesota change because of four biochemicals found naturally in trees: chlorophyll, carotenoids, anthocyanins and tannins (source). And while these four components might sound like scary dinosaurs or trendy new baby names, they are in fact elements that create the fall splendor producing the romantic getaways, motorcycle expeditions and family adventures.

Chlorophyll is the element that keeps leaves green. During the spring and summer it’s a crucial part of what keeps trees growing and thriving. As days get shorter and cooler the tree starts preparing for winter. Chlorophyll breaks down and reveals Carotenoids. These are the elements that produce the bright yellows and oranges we see driving up Highway 38 from Grand Rapids to Bigfork.

Anthocyanins produce the stunning reds and purples that add such depth to fall colors in the Grand Rapids area. These are products of sunny, warm fall days. Every tree produces slightly different colors each year based on the weather, temperature and conditions. That means every Minnesota fall vacation to Grand Rapids is completely unique. Literally. That’s just science.

Tannins make oak trees turn brown. Now, you might say, so what? Brown is boring. But what is salsa without chips? The earthy tones of old oak trees pop the colors of maples, poplars, and basswood trees when you drive down the Scenic Highway 7 on your way back to Grand Rapids.

Deciduous, Tamaracks, & More

scenic byway photo by john connellyIn lower areas you’ll see even coniferous trees change colors sometimes. The needles of larches, such as the ever-present tamarack, turn a lighter color before shedding for the winter, just like the deciduous trees.

Each year, the fall colors remind us to enjoy time with our family, to take that one last romantic getaway before it’s too cold to hold hands without mittens. It’s a gift of beauty that we should all enjoy while we still can.

Fortunately, beauty is easy to find on a Minnesota fall leaves tour of the Grand Rapids area. A hundred miles of smooth, winding roads within an hour of the city give plenty of time to explore an autumnal wonderland with enough time left over to enjoy restaurants, shopping and world class outdoor recreation.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and blogger who lives in the Grand Rapids area. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Grand Rapids-based Northern Community Radio (KAXE.org).