Maples and as­pens are nice, but you bet­ter look down if you want to see fall’s best color show.

Backpacker - - Contents - By Will McGough

UP­SIDE-DOWN FALL Noth­ing against trees, but on the tun­dra, the glory of fall plays out un­der your feet.

THERE’S SOME­THING to be said for look­ing at your feet when you’re hik­ing. As I walk, I watch ex­plo­sions of fall hues seep out from be­neath my mud-splotched boots. Red. Yel­low. Green. White. Pur­ple. They carry my gaze all the way to the hori­zon, where the tun­dra meets the sky in a blur of color.

In these val­leys and alpine ar­eas of Alaska’s Tal­keetna Moun­tains, the ecosys­tem ex­ists al­most en­tirely on the ground. In­stead of trees, vi­brant brushes, river­side lichens, and berry patches dot the place. They each burst into life come fall: The blue­ber­ries ripen, moss glows vivid green, and the thick brush flashes its au­tumn per­son­al­ity.

Each step feels like an­other stroke of the paint­brush. My left foot lands un­der the crim­son leaves of the bear­berry bush; my right next to white, sponge-like Cari­bou moss. Off the side of the trail, I can see the burnt-yel­low leaves of the Arc­tic wil­low shrub. I pause reg­u­larly to take photos of the plants be­side my boots, fas­ci­nated by the con­stantly chang­ing ter­rain.

I’m not here to ar­gue against the tra­di­tional fall ex­cur­sion. See­ing the tree­tops turn crim­son in the North­east, orange in the South­east, yel­low in the Rockies—or even chas­ing the golden larches in the Pa­cific North­west—is an an­nual ob­jec­tive for hik­ers, and should be. But when it comes to ex­plor­ing wilder­ness, the thing that binds us through­out the year, fall to fall, is a sense of ad­ven­ture and a de­sire to dis­cover new ter­rain and new spots. So why do we re­vert to the “same old” each and ev­ery au­tumn? Why do lists of the “best fall hikes” and “best fall col­ors” al­ways spew the same trips for tree leaf­peep­ing, when color-chang­ing ground cover is no less spec­tac­u­lar?

Con­sider this: A for­est full of the same tree species dis­plays con­trast within it­self, the in­di­vid­ual trees chang­ing at dif­fer­ent rates, al­low­ing the for­est as a whole to ex­hibit the var­i­ous phases of sea­son­al­ity—green to yel­low to brown, say. Land­scapes dom­i­nated by ground cover, how­ever, of­fer us not only the con­trast of col­ors, but the di­rect com­par­i­son of dozens of plant species, side by side, all chang­ing at the same time in dif­fer­ent ways and at dif­fer­ent rates.

The ob­vi­ous rea­son for the tree bias is that forests are more ac­ces­si­ble than, say, tun­dras. (Not ev­ery­one can make it up to Alaska on the heels of sum­mer.) But that’s no ex­cuse. Amer­ica is full

of na­tional grass­lands, with 20 pro­tected prairies across the West and Mid­dle Amer­ica. High­lighted by ground flow­ers like fall-blooming asters and gold­en­rods, they, too, go through color tran­si­tions. The North­east? Well, it has its own pock­ets of tun­dra. That means there’s a ground-level color show just around the cor­ner, no mat­ter where you live—an easy add-on to your reg­u­larly sched­uled leaf-peep­ing plans.

Half­way up the hill­side, I pause to look out over the val­ley be­low. With no trees to block the view, the col­ors outrun my vi­sion in ev­ery di­rec­tion, the patches sit­ting ad­ja­cent to one an­other like a well-stocked pal­ette. It’s a view I won’t for­get. All my life, I have looked up to fall; to­day, I get to look down upon it.

No trees, no prob­lem in De­nali Na­tional Park

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