Local leaves draw tourists to Purple Valley

The Berkshires’ reputation for its stunning fall foliage attracts many tourists to the area. - Christian Ruhl / Photo Assistant
The Berkshires’ reputation for its stunning fall foliage attracts many tourists to the area. – Christian Ruhl / Photo Assistant

Nobody who has hiked to the top of Stony Ledge can deny that the Purple Valley contains breathtaking views. The bright fall colors on the trees of the surrounding peaks and valleys turn into a sea of reds, oranges and yellow. Even Mountain Day maple glaze donuts have nothing on the view. No town does fall like Williamstown.

This might sound like an empty “our college is better than yours” statement but an entire tourism industry that affirms our seasonal superiority has sprung locally. Every fall, tourists come from all over – from New England, from further away in the country and even from across international waters – to ogle, you guessed it, our leaves.

The editors at iBerkshires are very much aware of the allure of local foliage and do their best to advertise and capitalize on it. A media-titled “Leaf Chief” puts out “Foliage Reports” periodically during the fall season, with each one chronicling the state of the leaves around the area.

When asked why these “leaf peepers” are attracted specifically to the Berkshires, Professor of Biology Joan Edwards listed a couple of reasons. “The big plant that we have that is really showy is the sugar maple, and we have a lot of sugar maples,” she said. “[These] maples look like they have colors dripping from the edges of the trees … There are sugar maples all through the eastern United States, but we have a nice mix of sugar maples to red maples, which are bright red … We also have aspens, where the whole crown turns yellow, and it looks like a ball of yellow fire.”

Traveling hundreds of miles to see the red and orange bits of crunch that we tread on every day on the way to class might seem silly to us, but that just goes to show how spoiled we are by the splendor of our natural surroundings. We take fall – and more specifically, the splendor of fall in the Berkshires – for granted. “In Europe, you don’t get the bright reds and oranges [that we do here],” Edwards said. “Our maples are multicolored … Each plant has a specific signature color that it turns, so [the forest] turns into a mosaic of colors.” Edwards identified Williamstown’s abundance of “undisturbed forest” as further differentiating us from other naturally beautiful places. This density of forest plus the elevation turns into “walls of color.”

“The question just goes to the human response to anything that is beautiful and natural,” Scott Lewis, director of the Williams Outing Club, said  “Why do people love sunrises and sunsets? It stirs something deep within us and makes one happy to be alive at that very moment – to witness something so inspiring.”

“This cycle in the Northern Temperate Zone is exciting and unique,” the anonymous iBerkshires Leaf Chief said. “No coniferous forest, tropical forest or subtropical forest displays anything approaching our leaf fall.”

Tourists have discovered different ways by which to scope out the fire-colored foliage. We have all seen the occasional small busload of tourists disembark on Spring Street. They stay in the middle of the crosswalk, snap shots of the hill slopes and admire how “quaint” our town is.

“If you drive, especially down Route 7, [you’ll see all] these cars that have pulled up,” Edwards said. “And they pull up just to take a picture.” She also said that because of our many sloping mountain and hillsides, “if you miss peak color at high elevation, you can catch it at a lower elevation; an elevational gradient develops [down the mountain]. So you can catch the color for longer periods of time.”

The beauty of the Berkshire fall season is put into perspective by its temporality.

“The drama is heightened by the sure knowledge that our descendants will not be able to see the display, in this place, due to a warming climate,” warns our foliage authority, the iBerkshire Leaf Chief. “Our iconic trees, especially the sugar maples, require cold winters. Over time, the species here will diminish.”

While days like Mountain Day give us a chance to stop and contemplate the natural beauty of the Berkshires, we must confess that we rarely notice the specificities of, in Edwards’ poetic words, the “colors dripping from the edges” of the sugar maple in front of Bronfman or the “ball of yellow fire” that tops the Aspen by the nearest dining hall. While the tourist’s motivations might be foreign, however, and we might not consider Williamstown just as “quaint” as they seem to, perhaps we ought to take a page from their book – that is, to stop, and in Lewis’ words, “eat outside and look up from phones and papers … and realize how fortunate we are to live and study in the beautiful Berkshires!”