Best Fall Foliage: Vermont or … Arizona?

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It’s a leaf-peeping smackdown. A magazine promoting tourism in Arizona (yes, Arizona) is boasting that its foliage season is better than Vermont‘s.

Regional travel magazines are designed to promote the destinations they cover, so they shouldn’t be expected to be the most objective sources of information out there. On occasion, these publications are known to resort to inflated language and exaggerate a bit to pump up excitement and interest in the local attractions and scenery.

Even so, Arizona Highways magazine seemed to have crossed a line with its new “Autumn in Arizona” issue, which features the words “Why It’s Better Here Than It Is in Vermont” on the cover. Bragging is acceptable, even expected, by such publications. But slighting another state’s world-famous natural wonders?

In Vermont, which is nearly as famous for its easygoing, mild-mannered locals as it is for spectacular fall foliage season, such an insult could not go unnoticed. Vermonters are accustomed to some bickering with their “Live Free or Die” neighbors in New Hampshire. But Arizona? The folks at Vermont Life magazine responded by creating a mock cover with the words “Gorges in Vermont & Why Queechee Gorge Is Grander Than the Grand Canyon.”

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Despite the very public spat, which managed to get the attention of the Associated Press, no one is particularly outraged. Arizona Highways editor Robert Stieve described the kerfuffle as “a tongue-in-cheek, all-in-good-fun autumn smack down,” and immediately backed down from what seemed to be claims of Arizona’s fall foliage supremacy.

“We position Vermont as the gold standard when it comes to fall leaves,” he wrote in response to the Vermont Life cover. “The comparison we make in the magazine isn’t about quality of fall color, but rather the length of our respective fall seasons. Because of geography, we’re blessed in Arizona with an autumn that runs from early September on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to early December in the southern parts of our state.”

This isn’t the first time that the topic of foliage bragging rights has been met with a little controversy. In 2010, Yankee Magazine declared that the best foliage town in New England wasn’t in Vermont, or even in New Hampshire, but in northwestern Connecticut, with top honors going to Kent. “The heart of the New England leaf-peeping experience lies in the details: the farmstands and covered bridges, the waterfalls and antiques stores that provide the eye candy, framed by the colors of our most glorious season,” Michael Blanding, author of the article, explained. “All of these things Kent has in abundance, in a perfect blend of uncommon natural beauty and culture that might shame cities 10 times its size (just shy of 3,000 people in the 2000 census).”

Regardless, it’s pretty clear that Vermont feels that it’s the state with the best foliage, hands down. And Vermont businesses have good reason to want to protect that reputation: Tourists spend roughly $400 million in the state during the few weeks each year when the leaves turn colors. The state employs an official “Foliage Forecaster,” Michael Snyder—who also happens to be the commissioner of Vermont’s department of forest, parks, and recreation. For the 2013 foliage season, the state will post weekly “Seeing is BeLeafing” videos showing the latest colors of foliage, and also list recommended driving routes and events.

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“As Vermont is 76 percent forested and home to more than 50 state parks, leaf peepers can view expansive foliage across more than 300,000 acres of state-owned forests complemented by farm valleys, towns and waterways,” the state’s tourism department states. Take that Arizona.