Fall foliage infuses northeast Iowa with welcome tourism boost

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“Leaf lookers,” as they are affectionately called by businesses catering to autumn tourists, have not been deterred by the continuing economic malaise that has crimped other discretionary spending.

“We’re looking forward to another good fall foliage season,” said Darla Kelchen, executive director of the Clayton County Development Group, which promotes tourism in the northeast Iowa county that may well be the Iowa mecca for leaf lookers.

Though it is impossible to track leaf lookers’ precise economic impact, Kelchen said purveyors of food, lodging and other tourism-associated businesses reported year-to-year gains during the fall of 2010, when ideal weekend weather put the region’s hardwood forests in their most favorable light.

“Leaf season probably encompasses the biggest weekends of the year for local restaurants, bars, convenience stores, gift shops, motels, campgrounds and bed-and-breakfasts,” said McGregor City Administrator Lynette Sander.

Sander said the troubled economy has forced people to take shorter trips, which makes fall foliage tours more attractive than ever.

Dave Nading, proprietor of a Strawberry Point orchard and convenience store, said he has noticed, judging by license plates, “that most leaf lookers are fairly local.”

“October is normally our biggest gas month. We’ll see if that holds up this year with higher gas prices. Leaf season means a lot to us,” he said.

Connie Halvorson, who with her husband, Roger, operates the Eagles Landing Bed and Breakfast and Winery in Marquette, said October is their busiest month of the year. “The leaf lookers are good for all our businesses,” she said.

Weekend weather during October holds the key to successful fall foliage tourism, said Paula Rasmussen, co-proprietor with her husband, Paul, of an 85-site campground at Spook Cave, a few miles west of McGregor.

“If it’s nice, people come out of nowhere. If it’s cold and rainy, it’s dead,” she said.

Clayton County, like the adjacent counties of Fayette, Allamakee, Winneshiek and Dubuque, has a high percentage of its surface covered with hardwood forests.

The early reds and yellows of sumac, basswood, maple and ash, just now emerging, will soon be joined by the later-arriving golds and maroons of hickory and oak, said Department of Natural Resources forester Bruce Blair.

Though leaf looking this week will be worthwhile, the full palette in northeast Iowa is at its most brilliant around Oct. 10 and generally persists until a hard frost fells the leaves, he said.

It’s not just the region’s abundance and diversity of hardwood trees, but perhaps more importantly, its wrinkled topography that makes it stand out, Blair said.

“When you drive past a flatland timber, you see the edge of a forest. When you drive past a bluffland timber, you get a better angle. You see every tree in the forest,” Blair said.

If you really want to see all of every tree, view the forest from a motorcycle, as an increasing number of leaf lookers do, said Lisa Bernhard, director of Guttenberg Development and Tourism. The hum of a pack of motorcycles is a welcome sound, she said.

The welcoming attitude of northeast Iowa merchants and residents is a big part of the attraction, said frequent northeast Iowa leaf looker Sonny Schrock of Central City, who likes to “scuff around in the small towns” on the Great River Road along Iowa’s eastern border. “They let you know they want you there,” he said.

Other popular foliage viewing areas in Eastern Iowa include the Grant Wood landscapes of Jones County and the woodlands of Van Buren County in southeast Iowa, said Jessica O’Riley, communications manager for the Iowa Division of Tourism.


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