By Hannah Wiest
The Sheridan Press
SHERIDAN — It’s the season for knit hats and fuzzy sweaters, hot cocoa and football games, and landscapes painted orange, gold and red in a dazzling display of color before winter snows fall.
According to U.S. Forest Service researchers, that dazzling display can be broken down into the science of cells. It works something like this:
Nights become longer and trees begin to produce less chlorophyll, the green pigment found in plant cells that enables photosynthesis, which is the chemical reaction that turns sunlight into sugar for food.
As chlorophyll production decreases, two other pigments — carotenoids and anthocyanins — begin to emerge.
Carotenoids, which produce yellows, oranges and browns in things like corn, carrots and daffodils, are present within plant cells along with chlorophyll; they just begin to shine through more as chlorophyll production lessens and leaves lose their green hue. Anthocyanins, which produce the reds and purples found in apples, plums and berries, are typically produced in the fall in the watery liquid in plant cells in response to bright light and excess sugars.
As the green pigment in chlorophyll fades away, the reds, purples, yellows and oranges of carotenoids and anthocyanins are unveiled and, voila: It’s autumn!
Temperature and moisture affect the brilliance of an autumnal display, but those are the basics. Armed with a little knowledge, it’s time to get out and enjoy.
Here are a few recommendations on where to head to catch those leaves doing their thing, compliments of Cheri Jones, recreation program manager for the Tongue Ranger District in the Bighorn National Forest. Make sure to start high since leaves change at higher elevations first.
• Shell Canyon: Take U.S. Highway 14 west over the mountains, turn south at Burgess Junction and head into Shell Canyon. Look for the yellows, oranges, reds and purples of deciduous vegetation that lines the many drainages along the highway. Colors should peak in early October.
• Burgess Overlook: Take U.S. Highway 14 west from Dayton to Burgess Junction. Drive along Forest Road 15 from Burgess Junction to U.S. Highway 14A. Look for stands of yellow aspen and deciduous vegetation and undergrowth such as whortleberries, chokecherries and huckleberry brush in hues of rust red and plum purple. Due to its elevation, colors here are on their way out so head up soon.
• Side roads off of Highway 14: Black Mountain Road (FR 16) runs south off of Highway 14. It is a dirt road suitable for passenger cars, and fall colors burst out along the road. Take FR 223, Taylor Mine Road, east off of Black Mountain Road for a backcountry look at fall colors. This road is not maintained for passenger cars; 4-wheel drive is recommended, or take a hike. FR 184 and 185 are rough 4-wheel drive trails north off of Highway 14 and also offer good fall colors as they head toward Box Canyon. Fall colors will be peaking soon.
• Tongue River Canyon: Take County Road 92 west out of Dayton to reach the trailhead for Tongue River Canyon. Look for aspen and deciduous vegetation such as whortleberries, chokecherries, gooseberries and poison ivy. Fall colors in Tongue River Canyon usually peak in October, Jones said.
• Red Grade Road: State Route 335 out of Big Horn becomes County Road 26, otherwise known as Red Grade Road. Aspens and other deciduous vegetation on top of this road are at their height, so head out soon to catch the color.
• South Piney Creek: Take U.S. Highway 87 and State Route 193 into Story. Follow Fish Hatchery Road to the Lions Park and turn left onto Thorne-Rider Road, a dirt road that leads to the South Piney Creek Trailhead. Colors should peak in early to mid-October along this easy hike along the creek that also features oranges and reds of deciduous vegetation.
Tips for fall color photography
Don’t forget the camera on that fall drive or hike!
Neil Hoversten, owner of Photo Imaging Center in Sheridan, shares these tips for photographing fall colors:
• Look for aspens, willows, ash, cottonwood and ground cover foliage. Use snow-topped mountain scenery as a spectacular backdrop to fall colors.
“Try to capture the fall scenery unique to our area — pasture and range land with creeks and mountain backdrops all in fall splendor are something we should never take for granted,” Hoversten said in an email to The Sheridan Press.
• Shooting in early morning and late evening — the golden hours — will add great lighting and shadows to photos. If you must shoot in sunny midday lighting, a circular polarizer will make a huge improvement in your photos.
“A simple guideline is, ‘if you are wearing sunglasses, put sunglasses on your camera lens,’” Hoversten said.
• A neutral density filter will allow you to use slow shutter speeds without overexposing. This can be helpful for capturing flowing water in creeks and waterfalls beneath fall colors in surrounding foliage. Use a tripod for slow shutter speed photos to prevent blurring the photo due to camera movement.
• Get close. A single leaf, an apple, dried berries or frost on a flower in its last moment of glory offer macro photography opportunities and a new world of photographic vision and discovery. Most newer point-and-shoot digital cameras have good macro capabilities built right into them. Find the flower on your camera controls; it indicates the macro photo mode.
• Use the camera you have with you. Your new iPhone or Android phone will take great fall photos.
“While new smart phones do not compete with dedicated digital cameras, they do take very good photos and you can use apps like ‘iPIC Photos’ to print photos from your iPhone and include them in your photo books and Christmas cards,” Hoversten said.