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Fall colors burst forth along eastern North Dakota, northwest Minnesota scenic byways

The Otter Trail and Sheyenne River Valley scenic byways

Birch tree trunks stand out among green, red, orange and yellow foliage.
A colorful scene erupts in a treeline along the Otter Trail Scenic Byway in early October 2022.
W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum
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FARGO — The trees were calling. At first, just an anticipatory whisper — when do you think the colors will light up? Then rumors — we’re told they’re bright near someplace far away. Then the evening news brought reports, charts that look like approaching weather fronts show where the colors are strong.

Trees with golden leaves stand tall above a dirt road.
Fall colors abound along the Sheyenne River Valley Scenic Byway in early October 2022.
W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum

We live near two National Scenic Byways — the 150-mile Otter Trail Scenic Byway, which forms a loop from Fergus Falls to Vining to Perham then Pelican Rapids and back, as well as the 63-mile Sheyenne River Valley Scenic Byway, which runs from east of Lake Ashtabula to Lisbon, passing the trail to North Dakota’s only waterfall.

I had to go see.

Troy Becker / The Forum

I have driven portions of both routes many times, but I had never made the routes the reason for travel. And I have gone to look at fall colors before but never dedicated a weekend to nothing else. A pleasant weekend driving, I thought, and I was not alone. Other people in cars, on motorcycles, on bicycles, walking, even riding horses dove into the panorama.

A rail bridge passes over changing trees.
A rail bridge passes over changing trees along the Sheyenne River Valley Byway in early October 2022.
W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum

The scientific reasons why trees turn colors in fall are clear. Chlorophyll, the chemical which turns sunlight into carbohydrates for trees, breaks down when the days get shorter and temperatures drop. Other changes develop red anthocyanin pigments. The green goes away, and the yellows and reds and purples and browns appear. Low temperatures, just above freezing, and rainy days make the colors brilliant.


The emotional reasons why fall colors call to our hearts are less easy to explain. Summer is ending and we are only weeks from snow and freezing wind. The celebrations of Halloween and Thanksgiving bring energy and joy, but the comfort of warm days is fading, and nostalgia holds tremendous weight. The colors seem affirming. There is a joy in the brightness. Every person I met, although I had never met them before, shared the beauty and was immediately a friend.

Long, bright red leaves on thin branches
Bright red leaves adorn branches of a sumac plant along the Otter Trail Scenic Byway in early October 2022.
W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum

We used to do this more often. Before web cams and streaming, before the ability to share everything, everywhere, instantly, electronically, we used to go outside to look at the world. Perhaps we should remind ourselves few things are more important.

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