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IN PURSUIT OF AUTUMN'S GLORY

Timing is everything when you head north to enjoy the leaves of fall. Scotty Johnston has been leading fall foliage tours for more than 40 years, becoming so conversant with the whys and wherefores of turning leaves that he has been dubbed the nation's only "folialogist." But his prediction of a beautiful and colorful fall foliage season is based only partly on science.

"I am confident for one reason _ we've never had a bad one," says Johnston, who works for Tauck World Discovery, a tour company with a full slate of foliage tours. "Even what is an average year for us who live (in New England) is eye-boggling, especially to the visitor."

The leaf-peeping season is about to begin in Canada and parts of the northern United States, where trees can start turning rich autumn colors as early as the beginning of September.

Johnston regularly updates his color prediction hot line through the end of autumn; call (800) 214-8209. He does bring some science to bear on his annual predictions. But he says the factors that combine for the best color _ adequate springtime rain, cool, sunny fall days, low wind _ don't make much of a difference from year to year to affect the experience of the average tourist. More important is knowing when and where to go, he says.

Choosing the optimum week or two can be a gamble. Most important to keep in mind is that both latitude and altitude play a role. The northernmost areas with the highest elevations turn first, with the color changes moving southward at the rate of roughly 25 miles per day, he says. Inland areas, with chillier temperatures than those on the coast, also turn earlier.

According to this timetable, the first areas to enjoy fall colors typically are the Canadian and Colorado Rockies, which begin the North American foliage season as early as the first weeks of September, Johnston says.

Next comes eastern Canada, such as Montreal and Quebec, in mid-September. By late September, look to the highest and farthest north portions of New England, in spots such as Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

A week or two later, in early October, the prime spots have moved south to the lower portions of those states and neighbors in Massachusetts and Connecticut. The New England season is pretty much finished by the third week of October _ about the time for peak color in such states as Pennsylvania and West Virginia south through Tennessee and North Carolina. Johnston considers the last good color to appear in Missouri's Ozark Mountains and Arkansas' Ouachitas in late October and early November.

There are exceptions, of course. Nova Scotia, for instance, enjoys its peak color in mid-October _ it turns later than its fellow Canadian sites because no part of the land mass is more than 35 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, which provides a moderating influence on both temperature and color.

But whether you're headed to New England or East Texas, Johnston offers good advice for would-be scenery spotters:

Plan a route judiciously, not trying to cover too much ground in one day. Allow plenty of time, perhaps twice as much as you think you'll need; the best views are often along narrow, two-lane roads likely to be crowded with other tourists. They're what the New Englanders call "shun-pikers," because these folks avoid the busiest highways.

And if you prefer to leave the driving to someone else, or need advice choosing an area, here's some help:

Great Train Escapes offers combination train/bus foliage tours through New England, with stops in Boston, Cape Cod, Mystic, Conn., and more. Eight-day trips in September and October start at about $2,000. (888) 544-7245; http:// www.greattrainescapes.com.

Tauck World Discovery has several fall Tauck World Discovery has several fall foliage itineraries, covering New England, the Canadian Rockies, Midwestern states and Colorado. An 11-day New England tour, stopping in Lake Placid, N.Y., Stowe, Vt., and more, starts at about $2,600; (800) 214-5158; http://www.tauck.com.

Globus Tours offers several fall foliage itineraries, hitting such high spots as the Adirondack and White mountains; an eight-day bus tour starts at about $1,300. Contact a travel agent or visit http://www.globusandcosmos.com.

And if you want to see the colors via bicycle, VBT Bicyling Vacations of Bristol, Vt., has openings on its spins around Penobscot Bay in Maine and along the North Carolina coast near New Bern. The Maine excursion's price is $1,045 and has availability on the Sept. 24 and Oct. 8 departures.

The tour starts at Camden, takes in Castine and Blue Hill and offers a bay cruise and optional kayaking in Camden Harbor.

The North Carolina trek is $1,175 minimum and is open Oct. 8 and 15. This expedition covers New Bern, Ocracoke Island, Cape Hatteras, Beaufort and a catamaran sail to Cape Lookout.

All tours are six days, five nights and include all meals except two lunches, bikes, helmets and backup van. Call (800) 245-3868.

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