A word of advice: Don't believe all those armchair leaf prognosticators who predict a less than colorful fall in Maryland's mountains -- and elsewhere in the state.
"It's anybody's educated guess what it's going to look like this fall," said Bernie Zlomek, Allegany County project manager for the Maryland Forest Service. "There are so many variables involved."
Yes, the dry summer has had an effect on some trees, shriveling leaves and causing them to fall early. But colors are beginning to emerge in the Western Maryland mountains, and Mr. Zlomek predicts "splendid colors in both Allegany and Garrett counties."
That's because the changing of colors is a process of nature, he says, and there's no predicting how spectacular fall displays will The colors are dependent on warm, sunny days and cool nights.
"This fall should be pretty good," said Ray Bosmans, a regional extension specialist with the University of Maryland. "I think we will have normal coloration. The weather now seems to be about the same as it was last year. Cool nights really set the colors off."
Leaves change color as autumn progresses, sap-flow slows and chlorophyll, the chemical that gives leaves their green color, disappears. Warm sunny days and cool nights help trap some of the sugar in leaves that results in brilliant colors.
"Let me make an educated guess," Mr. Zlomek said. "It's going to be the prettiest fall you've ever seen."
Colors are expected to peak in Garrett and Allegany counties during the first two weeks of next month -- in time for Oakland's Autumn Glory Festival Oct. 12-15, an annual event that celebrates fall colors and attracts about 50,000 people.
Activities include a parade, banjo and fiddling contests, a storytelling festival, country, bagpipe and gospel concerts, antiques and arts and crafts.
State and county tourism representatives advise that colors will peak around mid-October in Frederick and Washington counties and by the end of the month in Southern Maryland and on the Eastern Shore.
The best way to keep tabs on fall colors is to call the state's Fall Foliage Hot Line -- 1-800-LEAVES-1 -- a toll-free service that provides weekly updates on color changes and fall-related events.
Tourism officials estimate that more than 40 percent of the travelers to Maryland come during fall.
"We're told it's the best time to visit Maryland," said Andrea Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development.
In the Western Maryland mountains, tourism officials are betting on brilliant colors to lure visitors westward along Interstate 68 to visit state parks and Deep Creek Lake and to ride a steam engine that chugs its way up the mountain from Cumberland to Frostburg.
"Historically, October is the biggest month of the year for us," said Natalie Chabot, manager of the Allegany County Visitors' Bureau in Cumberland.
"We've been known as an area people travel to see fall foliage. People are anticipating the leaves will be turning earlier and are ready, willing and able to plan their trips earlier."
Margie Pein, a spokeswoman for the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, expects about 12,000 people to ride the tourist excursion next month as colors peak along its mountainous, 16-mile run from Cumberland to Frostburg.
Two excursions will be offered daily, except Mondays, next month.
"I think we're right on schedule with the leaves. I think the last bit of rain [last weekend] really helped," she said. "There won't be a bad day to ride the train weatherwise because we have new equipment -- heated cars. We've also cleared six vistas along the trip for better views."