What time will the leaves change? That’s a common question we begin to hear as soon as September rolls around. And every year it’s a little bit science and a little bit mystery. So much goes in to what Mother Nature creates each year. Rain. Heat. How soon it turns cooler.
The leaves begin to turn first at the higher elevations and then work their way south. We are rely on the “Fall Color Guy’s” updates each year as well as local observances as well. Come back to this page throughout the Fall season to get the latest updates.
We hope you are planning to visit, but if you are….be sure to book your stay early. You can check our Places to Stay page as well as research Airbnb online for places to stay in Bakersville, Little Switzerland and Spruce Pine.
Fall Color Report for Week of October 17, 2021: (From Fall Color Guy)
Today I went up to Carver’s Gap at Roan Mountain, which straddles the NC and TN state line. The Appalachian Trail runs north/south across the top. It was cold today – way below freezing when I got there at around 9 am (and it was already crowded with people!). I found a parking space and decided to check out the Fraser firs on the south side of the gap: quite dense woods, with an understory of Fraser firs about three feet tall, just waiting for the taller trees to die before they take over as the dominants. Then, I headed back to the parking lot and went north up onto the balds, where most people hike.
I’m glad I wore warm clothes – it was in the 20s when I started off, with a stiff wind blowing from west to east. I hiked up to Jane Bald at 5,807 feet, then about a mile farther onto another bald even higher (I must have been above 6,000’ by then). Lots of hoar frost on the plants there. Hoar frost forms when vegetation gets below freezing and water vapor in the air begins to form on the leaves and stems, frozen dew so to speak. Hoar frost gets it name from its appearance, which resembles hair growing on the plants and hoar is an Old English word for old age.
I’ve posted some photos of the hoar frost on the bald. You often see it around the margins of leaves. This is because leaf edges cool quicker and to a greater extent than the main part of the leaf, a result of a smaller “boundary layer” at the edges of the leaf. A boundary layer is a layer of relatively still air that retards the loss of heat from a leaf. The thinner the layer, the faster heat will reradiate to the atmosphere from the leaf, thereby cooling it, sometimes below air temperature, which is why the hoar frost can appear even when the air is above freezing.
The colors up at Roan are peaking now, and quite spectacular I must say, once you enter the Cherokee National Forest coming up from Roan Mountain, TN. Take Rt. 194 south from Banner Elk, turn right onto U.S. 19E toward Elk Park, then go five miles and take a left at the sign for Rt. 143 and head for the state park. Go through the state park all the way to the top (about 8 miles). You can park at the top and then hike the Appalachian Trail, either north or south from there.
The maples, birches, and beeches are in fine form starting from the Cherokee National Forest sign to just below Carver’s Gap. Up on the bald, you’ll find red spruce and Fraser firs (this latter species is the one grown for Christmas trees), rhododendron (which bloom beautifully in midsummer), and blueberries, plus lots of grasses, mosses and ferns.
Balds are an enigma in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, but have been around for thousands of years. The reasons for the absence of trees are still being debated, but if fire is kept out for too long, woody vegetation tends to encroach. Native Americans may have routinely burned the balds to favor grasses to attract the deer they hunted.
I highly recommend hiking at least to Jane Bald (maybe a mile or so), where you can have wonderful views in all directions. To the southeast you can see Mt. Mitchell, the tallest peak in eastern North America at 6,684 feet. To the north, you can see Grandfather Mountain, and on clear days, maybe all the way into Virginia.
As for other locations for fall color, the Blue Ridge Parkway around Grandfather Mountain is peaking this week, including Rough Ridge and the Linn Cove Viaduct. The same can be said for Elk Knob State Park north of Boone. More areas will be coloring up now that it has cooled down and is mostly sunny. Lower elevations will be developing color this week and by next weekend, there should be excellent color along the Parkway in most places. Below Asheville, places like Waterrock Knob are peaking now, and may be past peak by next weekend. However, even if higher elevation sites are past peak, lower elevation sites will be coming into their best color over the next two weeks.
Temperatures are going to begin rising again later this week, which is unfortunate, as we need the cold to bring out our best colors. But I think it will be cool enough in the mountains to spur on the colors. So, this week and next will be ideal to head to the mountains here. Have a safe trip if (when!) you decide to come up.
Fall Color Report for Week of October 4, 2021: (Excerpt from the Fall Color Guy) Today, there was just a hint of color on some hillsides, but for the most part, the forests are still quite green. I don’t think peak color will hit this area for another 10-14 days. There are isolated trees with great color, but they are scattered and far and few between. There are nice wildflowers in bloom or seed, including asters, goldenrods, clematis, milkweeds, and witch hazel, a shrub that strangely blooms in the fall.
I saw lots and lots of monarchs flying around on my hike today. More than in past years. They preferred the asters and I saw this at several stops on my drive today. These insects may be headed for the endangered species list because their native habitat and food plants here in the U.S. are being depleted, and in their overwintering grounds, in just one forest in Mexico, the threat of logging could wipe out large numbers of the main migrating population. We need to do more to preserve this iconic species on the landscape. Planting native wildflowers in your gardens is one way, and avoiding overuse of pesticides is another. You do want your children to see this majestic butterfly when they grow up, right?
Local notes for week of October 4: The leaves are starting to turn in Little Switzerland and Spruce Pine with more color as you head north towards Bakersville and Roan Mountain.
Fall Color Report for Week of September 27, 2021: Fall colors have just started appearing now in the High Country. The forest below the northfacing overlook always has great color, even in bad years, and I was able to notice the beginnings of color on the slopes yesterday. Colors will progress rapidly now and it seems the weather is cooperating – it was 39F the other morning here, with a high only in the low 60s, and with absolutely clear, blue skies. These are the perfect conditions for a good fall color display. The hike up Elk Knob has a number of interesting plants to observe. My favorite is the hobblebush, a native viburnum species, whose leaves turn a reddish-purple, but in a highly stochastic pattern. Sometimes one side of a leaf will be red, while the other is still perfectly green. Sometimes the red/purple develops in what seems like randomly placed splotches all over the surface. Eventually, the leaf turns completely red/purple. Because most of its neighboring plants are still green, these colorful leaves show up dramatically in the forest understory. The best time to see this plant is NOW and for the next two weeks. I have posted pictures of this species, plus others I saw yesterday. Most of the forests in the area are still green at lower elevations. Mountain ash, which only grow above 3,500’ usually, and are common even higher up, are fruiting nicely this year (last year was a bad year for them). These fruits are initially an orange color, but when ripe turn a bright red that contrasts sharply against an azure, cloudless sky. There are some really nice ones adjacent to the north overlook on Elk Knob. Elk Knob has a lot of beech trees and these form dense stands along the trail. Once you get to the top, the weather is so severe that the trees up there are much shorter (only about 6-8’ tall). At lower elevations, there is a mixture of maple, beech, birch that give rise to great color in mid-October.
As for other sites in Western NC this week, most are still quite green. But over the next two weekends I expect more and more color to develop. We’re supposed to get another cold front in about a week, and that should spur the colors on. To avoid crowds, get out early, go during the week, and take some back roads instead of just the Parkway. Don’t forget Roan Mountain, on the NC/TN border, about 45 miles from Boone. Great hiking on the Appalachian Trail, and beautiful views of color from the top. Now would be good times to visit the high elevation sites such as Craggy Gardens and Graveyards, as they always color up early. Next week I’ll head toward Asheville to check out the colors down in that neck of the woods.
9/29/2021 Fall Foliage Report and Updates: Grandfather Mountain is already showing quite a lot of color thanks to the recent cold front. Rough Ridge is also starting to develop a lot of colors. Most areas below 5000′ are still mostly green. Peak color in the highest elevations could see peak color as early as next week. Peak colors for the mid-elevations are predicted in another 10-14 days. Peak colors in the Boone area should peak in about 10 days.
Areas that typically show color first in North Carolina are Mount Mitchell, Grandfather Mountain, Waterrock Knob, Black Balsam, and Roan Mountain. In general, the mid-elevations (3000′-4000′) is predicted to peak between October 11- 25, 2021. This year is supposed to be a great fall foliage season, even better than 2020. Color development is right on time with a typical timeline.