East Rock Park view of West Rock Park, New Haven and Hamden


Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.
—from The Misunderstanding by Albert Camus

Not every leaf in New Haven is a flower. Indeed, most aren’t. Not yet. But there’s no denying the city’s greenery has begun its annual transformation to yellow, orange, crimson, brown.

Connecticut as a whole is at the height of “leaf-peeping”—foliage-gazing—season, according to the people who keep track of such things at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP). According to a week-by-week map on its website, peak color hit Connecticut’s upper corners last week; it hit the middle of the state this week; and next week it’s New Haven’s turn. By the beginning of November, we should be deep in it, like kids buried under piles of crunchy curled-up leaves. By mid-November, if we extrapolate from the rate of progress shown by the map, the prime of New Haven’s 2014 peeping season will be a thing of the past.

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Go-to places to see some prime color are East Rock, West Rock and Sleeping Giant State Parks—not just because they offer heavier concentrations of trees and dramatic views of the surrounding land, but also because leaves at higher elevations tend to turn sooner than those in lower. Moreover, cooler temperatures up there can lead to brighter pigments than those closer to sea level, especially during warmer autumns like the one we’re experiencing.

Still, in East Rock Park at least, you don’t even have to leave the parking lot at the bottom, just off Davis Street and Farnam Drive, to get a strong dose of fall. At the moment, large explosions of gold and smaller blasts of plum and nectarine reds surround a large grassy expanse. Even out-of-towners sometimes figure out they should head to East Rock Park this time of year; at the overlook facing the city last week, a man with his partner and teenage child, clearly traveling to look at colleges, was overheard saying, “Well, this puts Princeton to shame.”

In another couple of weeks (as of yesterday, it’s still all green), you can find the polar opposite autumnal view—intimate, close, urbane—in tiny Phelps Triangle Park. Located between the intersections of Trumbull, Whitney and Temple streets in downtown New Haven, like autumn itself the site is pretty but fleeting: if you aren’t paying much attention, you can easily miss it. Maintained by the Garden Club of New Haven, the group that spearheaded its development from a dreary, neglected park into a well-maintained site back in 1949, club members spend 200 hours a year on upkeep, according to its website. Ensconced by an outer layer of plant life, offering a buffer between pedestrians and passing cars, and with several benches dotting the interior, it creates a fall-lover’s oasis not far from the city’s other central diversions.

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For those who prefer to view nature from the climate-controlled confines of their car, a particularly beautiful leafy spread is already shimmering along the Merritt/Wilbur Cross Parkway. This time of year the road really lives up to its designation as a National Scenic Byway (bestowed by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration). The Merritt has been a popular drive for color-chasers every fall since it was built in 1934, according to the Connecticut Office of Tourism. The changing leaves that line the road can make even the worst rush hour traffic bearable.

But let’s face it: serious leaf-peepers must be willing to go off-road. That’s one of the DEEP’s good general tips for doing your foliage-gazing, and for those needing proof that the extra effort is worth it, start with East Rock Park. Take the short and pleasant drive from the base to the summit. The way up will give you an easy taste of the beauty of deep-woods foliage. It’s already quite breathtaking in spots. 

Then there’s the view at the top. You can use it to survey New Haven and Hamden for other pockets of popping colors, finding places worth hiking to, including any on the eastern side of West Rock Park, about 3.5 miles away as the crow flies.

Or as the leaf drifts.

Written by Cara Rosner. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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