Leaf peepers, save your gas money - there's no need to drive to New England. There are plenty of spectacularly colorful leaves to see from now through mid-November right here in southern New Jersey.

All one has to do is drive up or down the Garden State Parkway to see sassafras turning red, orange or yellow; black gums transforming into scarlet red beauties; and hickories exhibiting vibrant yellow leaves that all but glow.

First, let's talk about the science behind the scenery. Maybe you remember from sixth-grade science class, that leaves get their green color from chlorophyll, a pigment that processes sunlight. Chlorophyll moves into trunks and roots as temperatures cool, leaving behind yellow and orange pigments that are always in leaves. Other chemical processes bring about stunning reds, purples and bronzes.

Ever wonder why the leaves on your Japanese red maple seem to turn more red as the fall goes on? On warm autumn days, sugar produced in leaves is trapped by the night's chill, turning them brighter red.

Of course, rain, wind and temperatures - as well as the amount of sugar in leaves - determines just how colorful fall hues will be from one year to the next. Cool, sunny autumn days and chilly (but no frost) nights produce the brightest colors; wet, warm weather means more muted colors. Typically, peak color occurs between the last couple of weeks of October and early November. Visit

for color reports.

OK, now that you know why leaves change color, where are the best places to get a look at them? Southern New Jersey might not have Vermont's mountains to provide awe-inspiring vistas, but drive up Apple Pie Hill in Wharton State Forest - at 205 feet, the highest point in the Pine Barrens - to see the magnificent sight of some 122,000 forested acres.

The Nature Center at Batsto Village, within the state forest at Route 542, eight miles east of Hammonton, is a good place to start. Call 609-567-4559 or visit

Estell Manor Park, part of the Atlantic County Park system, is a must-see on anybody's fall foliage tour.

"If you haven't experienced it, you should definitely come," says Eric Husta, assistant park superintendent. "People who do it once, almost always come back."

The park, 3.5 miles south of Mays Landing on Route 50, has an elevated, fully accessible1.8-mile Swamp Trail Boardwalk through the swamp bordered by red maples and sweetgums, both of which turn pretty colors. Two bump-outs give magnificent view of the South River. The trail starts behind the Nature Center.

Lake Lenape Park West, 6303 Old Harding Highway, Mays Landing, also has some pretty trails. Call 609-645-5960 or go to

.

Belleplain State Forest, Route 550 in Woodbine, has 23,000 acres of mixed hardwood forest - oaks, maples, sassafras and more. The trees reflect prettily in Nummy Lake, a small former cranberry bog perfect for canoeing.

"It's absolutely beautiful here when the leaves change - the yellows, reds and purples," says Kathleen Meyer, who works in visitor services. "Stop at the visitor center and be set up with a map."

Call 609-861-2404 or go to

In Cumberland County, you might spot red fox, barred owls and northern pine snakes as you're enjoying changing tree colors in the Peaslee Wildlife Management Area. This is the state's largest wildlife management area and southernmost true Pine Barrens forest, with pine-oak woods dominating. A seven-mile auto trail loop begins and ends on Hesstown Road. Call 856-785-0455 or go to

Don't wait too long - get out there and enjoy the annual rite of leaf peeping. Before you know it, those gorgeous leaves that provide so much colorful joy for a couple of weeks each year are all over your yard needing to be raked up.

•The 3,500-acre Manumuskin River Preserve along Route 49 near Port Elizabeth offers a unique fall experience, with tidal mudflats, grassy meadows and vistas of yellowing wild rice, backed by sweet gum and red maple. It also promises one of the most secluded natural areas in the state, so you can feel like you are truly one with the leaves. It is owned by The Nature Conservancy. Call 609-861-4134.

•Fortescue, a Delaware Bay community in Cumberland County, is surrounded by the Glades Wildlife Refuge, 5,300 acres of saltmarsh and swamp forest that is part of a conservation project by Natural Lands Trust. The drive to the bay along routes 649 and 553 is equally delightful. Find out more at www.co.cumberland.nj.us.

•Cape May National Wildlife Refuge in Middle Township is brimming with mature trees ringing scrubby old fields. Call 609-463-0994 or check out www.fws.gov/northeast/capemay.

•Ocean County's Double Trouble State Park's self-guided nature trail passes cranberry bogs, which are filled with floating red berries until harvest season ends. Take exit 80, a southbound exit off the Garden State Parkway, and turn left on Double Trouble Road. Call 732-793-0506.

•Whitesbog Village offers 3,000 acres of colorful wetlands growth, cranberry bogs and mature hardwoods around an historic pinelands village. Whitesbog Historic Trust has prepared a self-guided nature walk. The village is encompassed by the 31,879-acre Lebanon State Forest off of Route 72. Call 609-893-4646 or 609-726-1191. ]]>