Fall Color Peak Map
For the 11th year in a row WataugaOnline.com is teaming up with Dr. Howard Neufeld, Professor of Plant Eco-physiology at Appalachian State University, better known as The Fall Color Guy to provide information as the colors start changing. For reports from previous years click here.
Dr. Neufeld shared some thoughts just before previous fall seasons that are still relevant for this or any fall season:
As for wet weather, there have been some publications on the impacts of weather on fall color (especially timing, not so much quality). Precipitation has only minor effects on timing in the fall. Temperature is more important. So, at this point, I don't see anything to make me think that fall colors will be adversely affected, either in timing or quality.
What happens in mid- to late August and in September, temperature-wise, will be more important, especially for quality (notably the intensity of the red colors)”.
People think fall colors are good when they last a long time, and have plenty of brilliant reds interspersed with the oranges and yellows. So, the quality will depend on how much “redness” we have this fall.
Trees tend to make more red colors (anthocyanins) in the fall when it's cool and sunny, and if we have a slight but not severe drought.
Sunny days means more photosynthesis, and more sugars produced in the leaves, and sugars induce anthocyanin production.
A slight drought impairs uptake of nitrogen (we think) and some experiments suggest that plants low on N make more anthocyanins.
Usually, fall colors peak around Oct 11-14 in the Boone area; sooner by a few days up to a week at higher elevations, later at lower ones. Nice colors can stick around for a week or more, although the peak usually comes and goes in just a few days, weather permitting (no high winds for example)”.
Fall Color Report for the Week of September 25, 2022
Today I went on a fall color excursion to Craggy Gardens and Mt. Mitchell accompanied by two of my students, Hannah Lilly, and Leigha Henson. Trees are coloring up nicely above 4,500’, although green is still dominant. However, there are individual trees in full color, adjacent to others that are just starting, which themselves are adjacent to yet others that are mostly green. In another week, if the weather remains cool, colors should be fine at these high elevations.
We had an exciting encounter with a bald eagle just before we got to Linville Falls – it was feeding on some animal in the road and as we drove by it flew off next to our car before taking off above the trees. Then, not five minutes later, we came upon a flock of turkeys along the road. Later in our trip, we had to slow down to let two turkeys cross the road. Why they crossed the road I don’t know, but maybe they talked to some chickens about it (joke, joke!).
Some trees are completely leafless now, such as buckeyes, which you can identify by the fruits still on the branches. A lot of the mountain ash are beginning to lose their leaves, and unfortunately, many of them didn’t set fruit this year. But there are a number with their bright red berries at the summit of the Craggy Gardens trail, which starts half a mile north of the visitor center on the Parkway.
There are a number of wildflowers in flower now, and these include asters and some unknown yellow composites, plus saxifrage. Viburnum leaves are coloring up and there are at least two species up at Craggy Gardens. Other shrubs include Rhododendron catawbiense and blueberries, plus a few unknowns. Birches are starting to turn yellow, but beech are still mostly green.
I highly recommend the hike up to the top of Craggy – it’s not a hard trail, nor is it very long. The bunker-style overlooks afford a 360-degree view. Toward the northwest you can see I-26 snaking its way out of Asheville. Note that the restrooms all along the Parkway are closed and you’ll have to use the porta-potties, which depending on the time of day, and day of the week, may or may not be usable, depending on your tolerance for varying degrees of sanitation. Be prepared!
From Craggy we went north on the Parkway for the relatively short drive to Mt. Mitchell State Park, the oldest state park in the state, established in 1916. Mitchell is named after the UNC-Chapel Hill professor Elisha Mitchell, who devoted a large amount of his time trying to prove that Mt. Mitchell was the highest peak in the eastern United States, which it is, at 6,684’ elevation.
Sadly, while on a trip in June of 1857, he fell off some rocks at a waterfall and died, at age 64. After an initial burial in Asheville, his remains were moved to the summit of the mountain that bears his name, and you can see his burial tomb if you hike the short, paved trail to the top. There is a nice elevated viewing platform on the summit, from which you have a 360-degree view. We were able to easily see Grandfather Mountain, Table Rock and Hawksbill today.
There isn’t much color at the top of Mt. Mitchell, because you are in the spruce-fir forest that dominants there and those species are evergreen. However, there are some birches and other deciduous woody plants that provide a little color.
But the main attraction of Mt. Mitchell, besides being the tallest eastern peak, is the beauty of those high elevation forests. There are numerous trails you can take, some of which can be quite strenuous and long, but just past the education building on the paved path to the summit is a short and easy loop trail that takes you through a dense, dark, Fraser fir forest. I highly recommend it because it gives you a real feel for these unique forests.
They are glacial relicts and those with Fraser fir only occur on 7 of the highest peaks in the Southern Appalachians, making them one of the most endangered ecosystems in the United States. And there are some unique animals in these forests, including hawks, bobcats, coyotes, and of course bears. There is even a small tarantula, the spruce-fir spider, that occurs nowhere else in the entire world! This trail only takes about 20 minutes and is mostly level, so try it out.
Before leaving Mt. Mitchell, we got a snack and drink at the food stand there. Then we headed north on the Parkway and got on Rt. 80 north toward Spruce Pine/Burnsville. This takes you downslope into the Toe Valley by the Toe River. There are some nice views off to the left of the Blacks, the mountain range that extends northeast from Mt. Mitchell. In a few weeks when colors start to change at lower elevations, this would be a good road from which to view them from a distance.
That’s about it for this week. If temperatures keep within normal ranges for this time of year, I think we’ll have peak fall colors close to historical times (see my chart that I posted several weeks ago, or my newly updated map). As we got near to Boone in late afternoon, it began raining and that means we won’t be in any drought situation in the near future, which bodes well for good fall color. I am keeping an eye though on hurricanes in the Gulf and Atlantic. So far, none are headed our way. But more and more are forming each day and I’ll have to keep watching where they might go.
Next week I will be in Maryland for my niece’s wedding so I won’t be able to do a fall color outing, but I’ll take a look at the colors as I head north on I-81 into Virginia.
Have a great week!
Updated note – Just a note that next weekend could be wet and dreary up here in the Southern Appalachians due to Hurricane Ian. It's current path has it moving north after it hits Florida.
But because it's coming somewhat before leaf colors peak, I don't think it will have a huge impact on later fall colors. Some leaves will come down, but if the winds aren't too high, we should be ok.
Captured this morning (Thursday September 22, 2022) in Banner Elk. Photos: Scott Green
Fall Color Report for the Week of September 18, 2022
One thing you can never do when forecasting anything is to become complacent. If you do, you will miss things. Today, I hiked up to the summit of Elk Knob State Park, just north of Boone, and I’m glad I did, because otherwise, I would have missed the beginnings of fall colors here in the High Country! The peak at Elk Knob is 5,520’ and offers panoramic views of the mountains in Watauga and surrounding counties as well as into southwestern Virginia. I highly recommend this hike, which is 2 miles to the top, and because there are switchbacks, the grade is fairly shallow and it is not that rigorous a hike. You could easily get to the top in 1 hr.
However, what disappointed me today was seeing how many hikers have been trying to cut short the switchbacks, just to save a few feet of extra walking. This is extremely destructive to the trail system, and can be dangerous, because if you head downslope off trail the result can be a twisted ankle or worse, since the slopes are so steep. Furthermore, such behavior exacerbates erosion, damages the plants, and just plain ruins the experience for everyone else. The Park has had to put up plastic fencing to discourage people from doing this. So, for your safety and the enjoyment of everyone else, please stay on the trails.
Fall colors have started showing now in the High Country, particularly above 4,500’ elevation. You can view the photos attached to this report to see the evidence of that. It’s just starting, and I would say that in the forest below the Elk Knob NW overlook, color is about 10-15% progressed. In a few more weeks, this particular forest will show off some of the best color in the High Country. I think the trees showing color now are sugar maples, a few red maples, and perhaps some buckeyes. Being way up on the peak I could not discern the individual trees below me, but based on my observations from other locations, I think I’m right.
Along the Elk Knob trail there are a number of native wildflowers, including goldenrods, asters, and gentians, and sporadic instances of other tree species beginning to turn color. Much of the mountain is dominated by beech, and some of those at the upper elevations are yellowing, while mountain maples (Acer spicatum) in the understory are just starting to yellow. There are larger maples on Elk Knob (maybe sugar, A. saccharum) and they too are turning color, usually orange-yellow.
Of particular note are the viburnums, known locally as hobblebush. This understory shrub is peaking in color right now, and this will continue into next week too. The unusual feature of this shrub is the haphazard pattern of leaf coloring – individual leaves have splotches of color, or in some cases, one half of the leaf will be colored, and the other completely green. The leaves eventually turn a deep burgundy red over time, but for now, they are putting on quite the show. You will encounter these about half way up the trail around the 1 mile marker. There is also a bench at the 1 mile overlook (which faces NW) and they are common there.
In much of the remaining area in the NW part of NC, the forests are still mainly green, especially below 4,000’, although with the cool weather we’ve had this past week, maples, buckeyes, and dogwoods are coloring up nicely. We’re supposed to have a mini-heat wave later this week, but then that will dissipate and we’ll be back to cooler weather again. That bodes well for color development, since these patterns of lower temperatures and clear skies bring out the colors. If temperatures continue to follow the cooler pattern, we’re looking for peak colors to be on time this year. See my chart which I posted a few weeks ago which outlines when colors peak at different elevations.
This Thursday, September 22, marks the Autumnal equinox. On this date day and night lengths are approximately equal, and afterwards days become shorter than nights until we get to the winter solstice, on December 21st, when they begin to get longer again. The Autumnal equinox also marks the beginning of the fall season.
Next week I’ll try to head down to Mt. Mitchell and Craggy Gardens. Since those areas are also at high elevations, colors should be showing up there also. I’ve heard reports that colors are well on their way in Graveyards, which is south of Asheville on the Parkway.
Finally, we had a heck of a weekend here in Boone. First, yesterday (Sat) ESPN hosted their football show Gameday from 9 am to noon on the campus of Appalachian State University, and there were thousands of students there. Then later that same day we played Troy State in football. Coming a week after knocking off #6 ranked Texas A&M, there were fears that we might have a letdown, which turned out to be true, as we trailed Troy 28-24, with just 55 seconds left in the 4th quarter. But then App got a safety on Troy for 2 points, and the ball back. With App on its own 42-yard line and time running out, our quarterback heaved a Hail Mary pass which came down among half a dozen players somewhere around the 7 yard line, and lo and behold it bounced into an Appstate receiver’s hands and he ran it in for a touchdown and we won 32-28. Talk about a crazy time here!
I’ve posted photos from my hike today and you can go there to find out more about the plants I saw today. Have a great week.
Fall Color Report for the Week of September 11, 2022
Greetings from the High Country! The students up here are all in “high” spirits after watching the Appalachian State University football team defeat the #6th ranked program in the country yesterday, Texas A&M University. Students piled out of their apartments and dorms and congregated on King Street in the middle of town (which is also US 421!) to celebrate. This was our second win over a top 10 team: last time was when we beat Michigan 34-32 in what Sports Illustrated said was the greatest upset of all time in college football history. Although I have problems with the business side of university athletics, they do provide pride and a sense of community when they achieve milestones like this. If only they paid professors what coaches get!
But I digress…a lot! Back to fall leaf color. It’s still too early for much color, but here and there one can see hints of what is to come. Tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipfera) leaves are just now starting to turn yellow. And for the last 10 days, yellow buckeyes (Aesculus flava, formerly octandra) have been running yellow, then turn brown, and falling off. Trees in this genus also include A. pavia (red buckeye), and A. sylvatica (Georgia buckeye) and bottlebrush buckeye (A. parviflora), which are native, understory trees in the Piedmont and coastal plain, but do not occur in the mountains. All the species in this genus tend to leaf out early in the spring, often before any other tree, and then in late summer they lose their leaves before most other species. The understory species, in particular, tend to take advantage of the high light conditions in early spring to do most of their photosynthesis, much like spring vernal flowers do. I once co-authored a scientific paper on Georgia buckeye on this very topic. Anyway, the point here is that the early leaf coloring and drop is normal for this group of trees.
Flowering dogwoods continue to increase their color intensity and both red and sugar maples are showing hints of coloring up now. Of course, urban trees are well into their coloration and I’ve included in this report photos of trees on the Appstate campus to illustrate this effect.
We had nearly 5” of rain last week, and with just a few more weeks to go until peak fall color, drought is not going to be an issue this year. Given that, the biggest determinant of when the peak colors will occur is going to be the prevailing temperatures, both day and night. We have had some cool nights this past week, down to the low 50s, but it would better if we could get into the mid-40s. That would spur the colors on. But the long-range NOAA forecast is for above normal temperatures. If only slightly above normal, then colors may be delayed just a few days, but if significantly above normal (like temperatures in 80s here), then they could be delayed a week or even longer (as happened in 2018 and 2019). The good news is that NOAA predicts below average precipitation, and that means more sunny skies, and that, in turn, contributes to more intense red colors.
While you’re waiting for the trees to change color, there is plenty to see closer to the ground. Goldenrods (Solidago sp.) are now blooming and they form dense colonies in old fields and along roadside and trails. For those worried about allergies, know that goldenrods do NOT cause allergies. Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia), a completely different species, does. But not goldenrods, so you can enjoy them without concern. If you see tall plants with deeply purple flowers, they are probably New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis), and one of my favorite late season bloomers. Evening primroses (most likely Oenothera biennis) are also blooming now, with their prominent buttery yellow flowers. And one of my favorite late blooming species, due to its gigantic flower displays and height (up to 10’ tall) is Joe-Pye Weed (most likely Eutrochium purpureum, formerly known as Eupatorium purpureum).
Next week, weather permitting, I’ll try to head out to Elk Knob State Park, which is above 5,000’ elevation to see how the trees are doing at higher locations. In the meantime, I’ll keep a watch on other high elevation locations such as Mt. Mitchell, Graveyards, and Craggie Gardens, which are all along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Finally, I also publish these reports on the Appstate Biology webpage, which you can navigate to if you want to review past postings in previous years, or want to read some of the scientific essays I wrote about fall color. The link to that site is posted here: https://biology.appstate.edu/fall-colors and if you scroll about you can find links to other fall color resources and a map showing when colors will change all along the mountain chain in western NC.
Fall Color Report for the Week of September 2, 2022
Today I took a short trip up to Grandfather Mountain to check out the trees and their new Nature Museum, which opened in July. The museum, known as the Wilson Center for Nature Discovery, is a modern, interactive complex that both children and adults will like, and it has displays that show off the unique aspects of Grandfather Mountain, including its geology, weather and climate, and of course, its fascinating biodiversity. There is also a large classroom where students and the public can enjoy learning about the mountain and nature.
There isn’t a lot to report concerning fall colors because the surrounding forests are still quite green. There is the occasional red or yellow leaf here and there, but we won’t really see much until near the end of this month. The native rhododendron, Rhododendron maximum, is losing its older leaves now, so you’ll notice a lot of yellow leaves on them. This is natural and nothing to worry about. Goldenrods are blooming now and adding a nice yellow accent to the landscape, and up near the swinging bridge, you can find some late blooming Liatris also.
It was in 1952 that Hugh Morton, the owner of Grandfather Mountain, put up what became known as the Mile High Swinging Bridge. Today there were celebrations in honor of its 70th anniversary. It’s one of the most popular attractions at the park. The Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation has also updated their garden plantings around the Museum which has visually improved the area. Behind the grill area there is a wildflower garden designed to attract pollinators, so if you go there, be sure to check this out.
When I crossed the swinging bridge, I encountered several rangers and volunteers on the far side, where they were assisting people with nature interpretation, as well as participating in the raptor flyby counts. Each fall, volunteers and employees count the number of hawks and eagles that are migrating south for the winter, since this particular area is one of the major fly by routes in the eastern United States. Three of the people I met, I’m proud to say, were recent Appalachian State University graduates: Amelia and Jacob, up on the peak, and Page, who was working in the Museum. Martina, who was also at the top, was volunteering from North Carolina State University. What a great opportunity for these current and former students who get to work in such a beautiful place.
If you don’t know, Hugh Morton, the former owner of Grandfather Mountain, served in WWII, and was a combat photographer. Many of the photos posted about the Museum and grill were taken by him. After he passed away, the family sold most of the land to become Grandfather Mountain State Park, while the area surrounding the bridge was kept by the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation whose proceeds go to protecting the mountain. Grandfather Mountain is a UN Southern Appalachian Biosphere Reserve, due to its unique biodiversity and you can read all about it at the link provided below.
That’s about it for this week. Remember, if you want to visit Grandfather Mountain (https://grandfather.com/), you need to make reservations ahead of time. As we get closer to peak color, you may want to consider visiting during the week instead of on the weekend, which will help you avoid the crowds. And going early in the day will likewise do the same, plus when you are there early in the day, the sun is at a low angle in the sky, and the fall colors will be more saturated, enabling you to take better pictures.
Fall Color Report for Week of August 28th, 2022
Welcome back Fall Color Enthusiasts! This begins my 15th year following the fall color season in the mountains of western North Carolina, and it’s been a great experience watching the trees turn each year and interacting with all of you. I hope my reports have helped you over the years to plan great trips to the mountains to see the beauty of the High Country and that this year will be no different.
So, what do we expect for this upcoming fall color season? Believe it or not, it is still too early to make accurate predictions, but I can say this: we have had a moderate to warm summer (July was hot and dry, but August started off cool and wet, but has recently transitioned to the “dog” days with high temperatures and low rainfall). We’ve had adequate rainfall, so we are not in a drought situation at this time. And for some reason, and this is only anecdotal, the trees look particularly lush and full of leaves this year. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but others have remarked on this also. It may have been the result of good spring weather, or it may simply be that we’re all delusional. But there are plenty of good-looking trees out there right now, and that bodes well for the fall color display to occur later on.
The month of September is the most crucial for determining the timing, and to some extent, the quality of our fall color display. I will be watching the weather closely to see how it progresses through the month. NOAA predicts that we will have above normal temperatures over most of the US, but in the southeast, it is a tossup – that is, it could equally be warmer, on average, or even cooler, which is NOAA speak for “it is difficult to predict exactly what’s going to happen”. Regarding precipitation, September looks to have above normal precipitation. It is supposed to be an active hurricane season too, but so far it has been quiet. There are at least four disturbances now though, and weather forecasters are keeping track of them. You can find these predictions at the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center (Click HERE to view).
Going into October, the longer-range forecast is for above normal temperatures in almost all the lower 48 states. Precipitation is expected to be below normal for the southern Appalachians, which bodes well for our fall color display. Colors are better if the period leading up to the peak display is sunny. Cooler temperatures, combined with sunny days are best, but if you can’t have cool, sunny will do.
These weather predictions suggest that the timing of fall colors may be slightly delayed this year. In a normal year, we would expect the following timings for peak fall color displays, which strongly depend on elevation, with leaves turning first at high elevations and then colors work their way downward each week. Note also that peak color may vary a few days on either end. Here is a listing of the average times for peak color displays, separated into elevational ranges:
• Above 4,500’: late September into first week of October
• 4,500’ down to 3,000’: around Oct 10th to Oct 20th
• 3,000’ down to 2,000’: Oct 20th – Oct 31st
• 2,000’ down to 1,000’: Oct 31st to Nov 14th
• Below 1,000’: Nov 14th to end of November
With that expectation of warming, I’d say colors may be delayed a few days to a week, depending on just how above normal the temperatures are in late September and early October. I’ll get better at setting dates as we closer to peak color times. In fact, I should be able to perfectly predict the day it peaks, on the day it peaks (wink, wink!).
I have attached some pictures of trees in and around the Boone, NC area from this week. Most are urban street trees. Red maples and a few urban sugar maples are coloring up already, as they do every year, and native flowering dogwoods are well on their way now also. But the hillsides and forests are still lush and green, and should start showing color in three weeks or so. I will be going out regularly starting the first of September to report on the progression of color in the mountains.
That’s about it for this week. I’ll heading out in mid-September to some higher elevation sites along the Parkway around the Asheville area, as these areas turn earlier than other places. Watch for it and have a great rest of your week!