Boston — In most parts of the world autumn leaves turn brown and fall off with little, if any, fanfare. But all over the Eastern mountain ranges of the United States -- not just in New England, as New Englanders would have you believe -- leaves turn wonderful mellow colors around October or so. You'd think people would be satisfied with that, but no; there is a snobbery to leaf-peeping. Merely yellow leaves can be found in the East wherever there are deciduous trees; the challenge is to catch the big trophy -- peak season, when entire hillsides turn orange, yellow, purple, and most important of all, red. Appalachian Mountains
The Appalachian Mountains, a range that angles up from Alabama all the way to the Gasp'e Peninsula in Canada, are known for their colorful autumns. Tom Watson of Winston-Salem, N.C., who hiked the whole Appalachian Trail one fall, says that Vermont might be a little more spectacular than the rest, because it has more deciduous trees -- maples and birches, for instance -- while southern Appalachia has more pines and firs. ``But our trees come out with reds and golds also,'' he says proudly.
The yellow pigment is common because it is present in the leaves all the time; when green chlorophyll is no longer produced, the natural yellow tone asserts itself. The elusive orange, red, and purple colors are created by another pigment, anthocyanin, that is produced only in the fall, particularly when the temperature drops to between 32 and 45 degrees F. The intensity of autumn colors varies from year to year; warm days and cool nights create the most brilliant effects. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
A particularly popular spot for an autumn outing is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, an international biosphere reserve and home to 130 species of trees. ``You cannot move in this park on October weekends, so I suggest October weekdays,'' says Park Service spokesman Stephanie Gibert.
If you must come here on weekends, you might try the nearby 620,000-acre Cherokee National Forest, which offers brilliant color and smaller crowds. Horseback riding, cycling, and hiking are a few of the ways of seeing the forest; the Smokies can be viewed the same way, but are too hilly for bikes, except in the Cades Cove area.
One special Tennessee foliage event is the Fall Color Cruise and Folk Festival, held near Chattanooga. On Oct. 19-20 and 26-27, excursion boats will take visitors through the Tennessee River's ``Grand Canyon'' to the Shellmound Recreation area; events there include a pickin' and fiddlin' contest, clogging, and sky diving exhibitions. (For more information, call the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-322-2244 outside of Tennessee; in Tennessee, 800-338-3999.) Another event of note is the Aut umn Leaf Special (Oct. 12-13, 19, 20), a steam-train ride over the Cumberland Mountains (contact the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, Chattanooga, 615-894-8028). A list of events and other information can be obtained from Tennessee Tourist Development, PO Box 23170 Nashville, Tenn. 37202; telephone (615) 741-2158.
Foliage in eastern Tennessee usually turns its most colorful around the second week in October; in Chattanooga the season often goes into November. Shenandoah National Park and Blue Ridge Parkway
A natural for a foliage drive is the Blue Ridge Parkway, built to connect the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee with the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia in such a way that the road itself would be a sort of park. This year the 470-mile long parkway celebrates its 50th anniversary.
Connected to it is the Skyline Drive, which is completely contained within Shenandoah National Park and follows the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains for 105 miles.
Dennis Carter, chief naturalist of Shenandoah National Park, says that an advantage of Shenandoah and the Blue Ridge Parkway is that they are so ``accessible. You can just drive along the ridge and look for color everywhere,'' he adds. Another is timing: ``Once the color is on its way out in New England, it's starting here. People who live in between and can't see it there, can catch it down here.''
One of the pleasures in leaf-viewing is shuffling through leaves and picking out the most colorful to take home. Shenandoah, like other national parks, has the advantage of many paths where visitors can enjoy the leaves in a leisurely way.
Among the colorful trees the park has to offer are some maples, which turn red and yellow; oaks, which turn red, yellow, and brown; hickories which turn yellow; ash, yellow or purple; black gum, scarlet and purple or scarlet and orange; dogwood, bright red; and Virginia creeper, red.
The foliage season goes from mid-September to early November. ``People are always talking about `peak,' '' says Mr. Carter.``There are periods from mid- to late-October when the maximum number of trees have turned -- that varies quite a bit from year to year depending on weather.''
Finding the most colorful spot in the area is complicated by the fact that the weather is different on either side of the Blue Ridge. The best way to get information on where the best color is to be found is to call a park and ask for the naturalist's office, says Mr. Carter.
``Many people come too early -- say the first week in October -- and at that time there usually isn't much color. Starting the second week on, there's more,'' he continues. ``Another factor is that often there's good color at lower elevations later in October and even into early November. Some of the most spectacular color I have seen is later in the season when it's supposedly all over.''
Another factor to be aware of before rushing the season, he says, is that some of the high ridges are quite rocky and have fewer trees. ``The color tends to fade fast at higher elevations. [Also,] the principal tree is red oak, which is not one of the more colorful trees.''
The Skyline Drive attracts hordes of visitors at foliage time. Martha Steger of the Virginia Division of Tourism suggests tourists take advantage of its 72 scenic overlooks. ``You don't have to be on the road all the time,'' she says. However, some overlooks are more popular than others, and ``when Americans see a line they tend to get in it. If people would be aware of that tendency and not pull off where everyone else does'' they would have a pleasanter experience.
After mid-September, the Parkway has a number (1-704-298-3202) which will give brief recorded foliage reports that are updated daily.
North Carolina shares parts of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway. The parkway is even more mountainous in North Carolina than in Virginia; although the speed limit is 45 m.p.h., [you can] only count on going 25 or 30 miles in an hour, says Ms. Teague.
The Virginia Division of Tourism has packets of fall information ready for travelers: the address is Virginia Department of Economic Development, Division of Tourism, 202 North Ninth Street, Suite 500, Richmond, Va. 23219. For calendars of events and other information in North Carolina, write the Division of Travel and Tourism, 430 North Salisbury Street, Raleigh, N.C. 27611 or call 800-VISITNC.
South Carolina's ``upcountry'' -- the northwest corner of the state, and the end of the Blue Ridge Mountains -- is where people in this state go for fall color. The Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway (Highway 11) stretches 130 miles past state parks, rolling hills, and Revolutionary War sites. The state parks offer fall color walks. For information and events, write South Carolina Division of Tourism, PO Box 71, Columbia, S.C. 29202, or call (803) 758-8735. Kentucky
The southeastern part of Kentucky, in the mountains again, is the foliage area; Natural Bridge and Pine Mountain State Resort Parks are popular in the fall.
In New England picking apples and buying pumpkins are good excuses for getting out of the city; in this part of the world you might also find people hawking their homemade sorghum (good on biscuits) by the side of the road. October is a busy time for both apple and sorghum festivals; you can receive a calendar of events, foliage reports, and other travel information by calling (800) 225-8747 or writing to TRAVEL, Frankfort, Ky. 40601. West Virginia
A full 75 percent of West Virginia is forest land, and 80 percent of that is covered with hardwood trees. The two most popular areas for leaf-peeping are the Potomac Highland area -- that's in the mountainous eastern section of the state, and the New River area, home of the famous Greenbrier resort, in the south. The Monongahela National Forest, which stretches along the Virginia border, is particularly recommended.
Outside of West Virginia you can call (800) 624-9110 for foliage updates, as well as other travel information; inside the state call (304) 348-2286.
A sellout event is the yearly steam train excursion of the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historic Society through the New River Gorge; this year Nickel Plate Road engine No. 765 will take visitors through the mountains at predicted peak foliage time: Oct. 12, 13, 19, and 20 (call 304-522-6140 for information).
Another popular event is the Mountain State Forest Festival, held in Elkins the first week in October. Horse-pulling, jousting, muzzle loading, woodchopping and sawing, banjo and fiddling are promised. Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania, which means ``Penn's woods,'' claims 127 varieties of trees. Perhaps this is why almost every town seems to have a foliage festival. These all feature pleasant autumny activities; for instance, on Oct. 20 there will be a state championship fiddlers' contest in Uniontown, while in Clarion County the Autumn Leaf Festival includes a Miss Autumn Leaf Pageant, an antique car display, a parade, and barbecues (Oct. 7-14). A calendar can be obtained from the Bureau of Travel Development, Pennsylva nia Department of Commerce, 416 Forum Building, Harrisburg, Pa. 17120.
In the Poconos, the north-central area is the most popular place for leaf-watching. Scenic routes that are recommended: US Route 6, a northern east-west road, and its southern counterpart, the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
For foliage information, call the Pennsylvania Travel Bureau at 1-800-VISITPA.