When Is the First Day of Fall?

New England autumn leaves
Bill Swindaman / Getty Images

The first day of fall is eagerly anticipated in certain foliage-heavy areas of the U.S. It marks the start of the leaf-peeping season, pumpkin-spiced everything, Halloween spirit, and anticipation for Thanksgiving. The fall crops provide heaps of hearty squashes, leafy greens, and crisp apples with which to experiment in the kitchen, and the return of sweater weather warrants the resurgence of cozy knits, boots, and scarves.

The season officially kicks off with the autumn equinox, the date with (roughly) equal daytime and nighttime hours. In the Northern Hemisphere, this normally happens in late September.

Autumn Equinox Dates

  • Tuesday, September 22, 2020
  • Wednesday, September 22, 2021
  • Thursday, September 22, 2022
  • Saturday, September 23, 2023

But Is It Really Fall?

Just because the calendar says it's the first day of fall doesn't necessarily mean you will suddenly see colorful leaves or feel temperatures cooling. There are many natural factors that influence the progression of the fall foliage season—the previous season's drought conditions, the amount of sunlight, rainy or windy weather, for example—which means each U.S. region may hit its peak at different times, sometimes late in the season. Thus, the first day of fall is likely too early to see strong color anywhere but the northernmost regions of New England.

How to Celebrate Fall

The U.S. has a plethora of fall traditions, from pumpkin carving to turkey eating to holiday shopping. How you celebrate will depend largely on the region and the time of the season.

  • Leaf peeping: Chasing fall color is, of course, one of the most beloved traditions of the season. By mid-October, New England is usually ablaze with fiery red, gold, and orange. Popular destinations early in the season include Stowe, Vermont; Bar Harbor, Maine; and the nearby Catskill Mountains in New York. Toward the end of October and early November, the Pacific Northwest lights up. The Tennessee–North Carolina Smoky Mountains—a destination for leaf chasers in itself—provide a real-time map that shows which areas of the country are in their prime.
  • Harvest festivals: Fall is perhaps the season most favorable to culinary festivals. Across the country, cities celebrate their autumn bounties, from the lobster-centered Harvest on the Harbor in Maine to the Wine and Chile Festival in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Arkansas has a Cornbread Festival, California's Wine Country holds its BottleRock Napa wine and music festival, and the Wellfleet OysterFest takes over Cape Cod.
  • Oktoberfests: As much as fall is a time for eating, it's also a season for drinking. Following the Bavarian tradition of Oktoberfest, cities throughout the U.S. hold beer festivals of their own. Some of the biggest include Zinzinnati Oktoberfest in Cincinnati, Ohio; Linde Oktoberfest in Tulsa, Oklahoma; Fredericksburg Oktoberfest in Texas; and Snowbird Oktoberfest in Salt Lake City, Utah.
  • Football: Football—high school, college, or pro—is a quintessential American pastime in the fall. The NFL season typically kicks off mid-September and gets increasingly serious as the season carries on. Watching football is a popular activity almost any night of the week, but especially on Thanksgiving.
  • Halloween: Though it didn't originate in the U.S., Americans take their Halloween celebrations seriously. The weeks leading up to October 31 see haunted houses, costume parties, parades, and elaborate displays of jack-o'-lanterns throughout the country. Highlights include the Village Halloween Parade in New York City, the West Hollywood Halloween Carnival in Los Angeles, and Day of the Dead celebrations in the Southwest.
  • Thanksgiving: This food-focused holiday is one of the most important gatherings of the year. The morning begins with skyscraper-sized balloons and theatre troupes marching down Sixth Avenue in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade (a near century-old staple). Then, feasts of roast turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie commence.
  • Holiday lights: Thanksgiving marks the start of holiday celebrations throughout the U.S. One of the most famous displays is the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in New York City. The enormous evergreen is typically erected in early December and illuminated shortly thereafter in a celebrity-studded, televised lighting ceremony.
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