As a Libra, I have always enjoyed fall, but I've certainly never considered myself a die-hard fan of the season — you know, the type of person who floods their social media feeds with memes about sweater weather, decks out their home with skeletons, and plans big afternoons spent "leaf peeping" well before the official first day of Autumn each year. Yet, here I sit, typing this story, with a fall-scented candle burning beside me and a "Fall Vibes" Lo-Fi playlist pumping through my earbuds. In the year 2020, the many elements of autumn that are often thought of as "basic" are being embraced with open arms precisely because of their predictability. Chief among them are fall foliage trips.
"Every year foliage in New England is massive, and we look forward to it. It's like the most predictable yet also the most wildly exciting time of year in terms of what the colors are going to do," Aimee Tucker, senior digital editor for Yankee Magazine and NewEngland.com, tells me over the phone. "After six months of everybody being so stressed and worried and cooped up and having to cancel their plans and adjust their lives, foliage has gone on, and it's been a really nice, slight return to normalcy for a lot of people."
The COVID-19 pandemic, the forthcoming election, and the most stressful news cycle many of us have ever lived through have made the certainty of something as simple as the changing of the seasons feel extremely welcome. Summer's high temperatures offered opportunities to escape to parks, beaches, and outdoor restaurants, which revealed just how much being outside could improve our mental health after months of quarantining. Many of us are not ready to let go of that connection with nature just yet, and luckily, we don't have to.
In fact, unlike almost everything else in the world, tourism to top fall foliage destinations will be largely uninterrupted by the pandemic. While summer trips abroad were likely canceled, most people will be able to move forward with leaf peeping plans. "The whole point of leaf peeping is to get outside in fresh air or remain safely in your car and enjoy the sights of the season," Tucker explains. "The good news is that doesn't have to be canceled because so many of the things we look forward to most about fall, whether they're road trips or day trips or getaways, can be done safely."
Tucker also notes that many local inns, bed and breakfasts, hotels, restaurants, and other tourist destinations around New England have put in the work to find ways to be safely open and serve visitors during fall foliage season. That's another positive for weekend trips or the increasingly popular remote worker getaway.
As we move into mid-October, people across the country are already turning to fall foliage for a much-needed escape into relative normalcy. According to data from private tour platform ToursByLocals, in the past four weeks, tour bookings for fall foliage season in east coast cities like Boston, Pittsburgh, D.C., and Philadelphia have increased, making up around 15% of total 2020 sales in the U.S. and Canada. During the same period last year, it was sitting around 8%, which means interest has almost doubled. Top fall foliage destinations outside of New England and the Northeast are also seeing spikes. Data from the vacation rental platform VacationRenter shows that many spots are rising in popularity compared to September through November of 2019. Interest in Gatlinburg, TN is up 219.12%; Pigeon Forge, TN is up 93.1%; Asheville, NC is up 43.24%; Lake Tahoe is up 248.16%; Blue Ridge, GA is up 232.66%; Breckenridge, CO is up 143.79%; Rudioso, NM is up 110.69%; Big Bear Lake, CA is up 239.42%; Deep Creek Lake, MD is up 231.76%; and Boone, NC is up 264.89%.
In addition to hard numbers, people who regularly inhabit peak leaf peeping areas have already noticed a shift. "My retreat and hideaway from life is up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and I have never seen traffic and use of the forest as heavily as last weekend, and it wasn't even the big three-day weekend that usually brings people to the White Mountains," Jim Salge, Yankee Magazine's fall foliage expert tells me. "I think the take-home message, much like most of the pandemic, is that people are discovering new areas and places local to them. It's a lot of people who normally have lots of other traditions and experiences in the fall and for recreation available to them who are taking to the trails in the woods, which is fantastic for fall foliage season."
In 2020, it seems, fall foliage is for everyone. Sure, it's definitely for those who drink PSLs from mid-August to December and make sure to do at least one leaf-peeping photoshoot for Instagram every autumn. But it's also for those who have never before felt the urge to gaze at the changing leaves. This year, more of us than ever will be marveling at them in all their basic glory.