Southern Oregon's trees don't have the sheer magnitude of color that's on display this time of year in the hardwood forests of the Northeast, but our vast stands of dark-green conifers create a perfect backdrop for fall's fiery yellows, reds and oranges.
Much of the best fall color happens in the mountains and along streams. Old timers know some of the most intense reds and oranges can be found among the vine maples that grow along the banks of the Rogue River between Prospect and Union Creek.
On clear sunny days, the colors shimmer on the water with all the intensity of a French Impressionist painting.
The stretch of water between River Bridge Campground and Woodruff Bridge is famous locally for its colors, says Togan Capozza, a recreation specialist for the Rogue River Siskiyou National Forest. Capozza says the stretch of water around Natural Bridge, a few miles upstream, also has an exceptional color display.
The Rogue River Trail follows the river through these bursts of color, and several roads cross the trail, so it's easy to tailor a hike for a hour or two or all day.
If driving through the fall color is more your speed, you have plenty of options. Capozza says a loop trip along forest roads from Prospect shows off plenty of vine maples and oaks. The loop follows the Prospect Butte Falls Highway to the Lodgepole Road (Forest Road 34), and follows the Lodgepole Road to the Parker Meadows Road (Forest Road 37), which takes motorists back to Prospect.
The loop passes the historic Imnaha guard station, built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and used by the U.S. Forest Service into the 1970s. These days, the Forest Service rents the rustic cabin for $40 per night to people who want a taste of what life was like when Imnaha was literally the end of the road.
There's plenty of color on the east side of the Cascades, too, though most of it is the sunny gold of aspens and cottonwoods.
"Highway 140 from Lake of the Woods to Rocky Point has lots of aspens," said Vickie Zacharias, the front-desk person for the Klamath Ranger District of the Winema National Forest.
If you call the Klamath district (885-3400) looking for information about the best fall color, Zacharias will likely pick up the phone. She sends people up to Fort Klamath via the West Side Road (Forest Road 33) to Highway 62 and back toward Klamath Falls.
"There's tons and tons of aspen," she says, "and even some larch (one of the few conifers that drops its needles in the fall, but only after they turn a pale golden orange.)
Aspens have drawn scientists' interest in recent years, because they reproduce by cloning. Every new shoot has the same genetic material as the parent tree, and there can be thousands of identical trees in a clone.
Knowing when to find the colors at their peak can be tricky, because weather almost always effects how the show unfolds. An early freeze can kill the leaves before the full range of color develops. An early storm with big winds can strip them off the trees overnight.
Most years the peak happens around the third week in October, so now's the time to plan a trip if you want to get your share of the gold.