In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine. When leaves begin their annual transformation from lush shades
In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine.
When leaves begin their annual transformation from lush shades of green to vibrant reds, golds, and yellows, our mountainsides and roadsides put on a resplendent show of color — and nowhere is this transition more stunning than in the mountains. North Carolina invokes beauty year-round, but when the crisp autumn air moves in, it’s the perfect time for locals and travelers to head west and enjoy awe-inspiring panoramic views of our state’s fall foliage.
“It’s a spectacular sensory experience, especially on a cool fall day when the air is crisp,” says Dr. James Costa, professor in the Western Carolina University Department of Biology and Director of the Highlands Biological Station. “From the scent of the forest as the leaves slowly begin to drop to the palette of trees, shrubs, vines, and late-season wildflowers, it’s just unbeatable.”
We talked to Costa and two other experts — Dr. Howard “Howie” Neufeld, professor in the Appalachian State University Department of Biology and “The Fall Color Guy” of the High Country; and Dr. Kathy Mathews, professor of botany in the Western Carolina University Department of Biology — about their tips for planning the perfect leaf-peeping trip, the best spots to view fall foliage, and the autumn experiences they’ll never forget.
|Dr. James Costa
Professor in Western Carolina University’s Department of Biology, and Director of the Highlands Biological Station
|Dr. Howard Neufeld
Professor in Appalachian State University’s Department of Biology, and “The Fall Color Guy”
|Dr. Kathy Mathews
Professor of Botany in Western Carolina University’s Department of Biology
Dr. Howard Neufeld: I’ve always had an interest in the fall leaf colors, even as a kid, because my family used to go on hikes. We would take trips up to the mountains, and I always appreciated the fall colors. I didn’t start doing anything systematically with them until about 2007. At the time, Dan Pattillo, who was a professor at Western Carolina University, was the go-to guy for any questions about fall color. When he was anticipating retiring, he suggested me as a possible replacement. I started putting out short articles for the North Carolina Division of Tourism each week. When I decided that I wanted to write a little more, I put out a webpage called “Fall Color Guy” and started posting things about fall color on my own.
Dr. James Costa: I’m trained as an entomologist, which means I study insects — and the plant world is pretty important to insects. I became interested in plant ecology in a roundabout way as part of my research. And once you really get hooked on plants, especially native plants — from the incredible wildflowers to the tree diversity we have — it leads you to an interest in all the amazing phenomena about plants, including the way that their leaves change color.
Dr. James Costa: I have a warm spot in my heart for the Smokies and Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The whole region, of course, is wonderfully biodiverse, and that diversity of tree and shrub species is what really lends itself to the spectacular color palettes. Because of that great rolling landscape and the elevational gradient, we have a dramatic, beautiful landscape that’s even more beautiful during peak leaf season.
Dr. Kathy Mathews: I particularly like Sylva because the town is situated in the middle of the mountains, so we have a view of the mountains from downtown. I also like driving up to the Blue Ridge Parkway and seeing the views from the overlooks. One of my other favorite places in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is Deep Creek in Bryson City; the Deep Creek Loop trail has three waterfalls you can walk to, and there’s really pretty fall color on that loop.
Dr. Howard Neufeld: Some of the brightest colors are around the Linn Cove Viaduct in the Grandfather Mountain area just south of Blowing Rock. It has just the right combination of trees and soil so that if for some reason you have a bad fall color season, that area generally still has really good color. And it’s at the right elevation where you have the trees that turn the brightest colors. Of course, there are lots of other spots along the parkway if you’re in that 3,000- to 4,500-foot elevation range — that’s when you get the trees that have all the good colors. If you get above 4,500 feet, you get a lot of evergreens, and they don’t have as much color. If you get below — about 2,000 to 1,500 feet — you get a lot of oaks and hickories, which turn sort of yellow, and you don’t have as much of a color variance as the higher elevations. Elk Knob State Park, which is a few miles north of Boone, is one of our newer state parks. If you hike to the top, the views have some really great color. There are also lots of places and overlooks along the parkway where you can have good color if you go further south. And, of course, the Smokies — later in the season, you can get really great color there.
Dr. Howard Neufeld: What I like for a fall color display is when you get bright red colors contrasting with the oranges and yellows. Some of the trees that turn really bright red are red maple, red scarlet oaks, Virginia creeper (which is a vine), sourwood, which is a Southern tree with really deep-red leaves, and dogwoods. And you contrast that with trees that turn yellow, like beech, chestnut oaks, hickories, tulip poplars, and birches. Then you have trees that are kind of in-between, which can be either yellow, orange, or red, like sugar maples, for example. Black cherry, black gum, and black oaks are nice red-orange trees. Then there’s a color most people don’t think of, which is brown: Fraser magnolias have really big leaves that can be a foot long, and they’ll turn yellow briefly — because they’re related to the tulip poplars, which turn bright yellow — but after that, they’ll quickly turn to sort of a chocolate-brown color. It’s a pretty distinctive and common tree here in the southern Appalachians.
If you get off the mountain, (although they’re planted up here, too), you get into the cypress trees, like bald cypress, which grow in the swamps. In the fall they turn a nice rust-red color before they drop their leaves. But I think the two most interesting trees would be sassafras — I’ve seen leaves on a single sassafras tree that are green, yellow, orange, and red all at the same time — and sweetgums. Sweetgums are not native to the mountain up here, but they’re common in the Piedmont and the Foothills. They, too, can have almost every color on a single tree. A lot of people know them because, in the fall, they have these fruits that look like little balls with spikes on them. People will dip them in gold paint or silver paint and hang them on trees as Christmas ornaments.
Dr. Kathy Mathews: The pigments that the leaves produce can be affected by the environment from year to year. Different species produce more fall pigments than others, but in general, the amount of orange and red pigments that are produced appear to be sensitive to rainfall. When there’s less rain throughout the growing season, you tend to get more pigment production in the leaves. So the dryer it is, the brighter the leaves end up being in the fall.
Dr. James Costa: The rich diversity of trees, shrubs, and vines. The color palate is far more varied, with a really beautiful range of tints that you just don’t have in other parts of the country with less diversity. So what we lack in large stands of beautiful species like sugar maples, we more than make up for in the diversity and richness of our forests, coupled with our varied mountainous terrain, which helps create an amazing mosaic of micro-environments due to elevation, slope, and aspect. Together, it results in a spectacular fall color landscape!
Dr. Kathy Mathews: No. 1: the mountains. You can see the color at different elevations starting in late September and going through late November, so it’s a really long season because of the varying elevations. Also, the tree diversity is so great here. We have so many different species of trees that have many different colors in the fall. In addition to maples, we have lots of other great trees like sourwoods, birches, and oaks, and they change different colors at different times. That diversity brings a lot of fall color and variation in the color year.
Dr. James Costa: Doing a hike up at Purchase Knob, which is at the far-eastern edge of the Smokies. I remember turning around and suddenly taking in the deep blue sky and a valley filled with fog and vibrant colors all around me. That’s got to be one of my favorite memories of how the landscape presents itself in a spectacular way.
Dr. Howard Neufeld: The Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation hires photographers to take these really spectacular photos of what’s going on during the fall color season. About a year or so ago in October, I went out with Sick Sickler, a photographer who takes pictures for the foundation, because I wanted to see how professionals take such wonderful photos. We spent an evening on the parkway from late afternoon until the sun set and the moon came up. He took me around and showed me how he sits on the parkway and how he scopes out what a picture will be. I thought that was a lot of fun to see how those pictures are captured.
Kathy Mathews: I’m a kayaker, and I was paddling the Chattooga River one fall. Some of the leaves were starting to change and there was a persimmons tree along the shore with bright red leaves. The fall color really kicks in after the first frost of the season, and that’s also when the persimmons ripen. There was a raft trip in front of us, and the guide stopped the raft, jumped out, and started shaking the tree to get the persimmons. There’s a song about shaking the persimmons down, but I had never seen anyone actually do that — but people do!
Dr. Kathy Mathews: Historically, the peak color at the middle elevations (3,000 to 4,000 feet) is in mid-October, around the third week. So if you want to aim for then, that would be your best bet. But if you have to come earlier, just go to a higher-elevation area. If you have to come later, go to a lower-elevation area. And if you have flexibility, try to avoid rain — that’s just going to make it harder to see! Rain in the fall doesn’t necessarily affect color production since the colors are already set by then, but it affects visibility and it can also cause the trees to start dropping their leaves earlier.
Dr. Howard Neufeld: Go out on the parkway early in the morning because you’ll avoid a lot of traffic, especially on peak weekends. And if you can, come up in the middle of the week because most people come up on the weekends. If you’re here during the week, you can sometimes have very few people on the parkway, which can make for a more enjoyable experience. But if you get out early or late in the afternoon, the sun is at a lower angle, so you’ll get better color saturation if you want to take pictures. I post every week on the “Fall Color Guy” website. [Editor’s note: You can also check Our State’s Fall Color Guide each week to see exactly what colors our experts are seeing at 25 favorite mountain locations.]
A lot of the parkway between Boone and Blowing Rock is in the 3,000- to 4,000-foot range, and there are a lot of overlooks in the area. The colors start changing first at the highest elevation. And the highest part of the parkway is more than 6,000 feet high. But again, there are a lot of evergreens up there and you don’t have the same selection of trees. Each week the colors move further down, so by around the end of September to the beginning of October, you would see colors at about 4,500 feet. If you’re in that 3,000- to 4,000-foot range, it’s generally about October 10 to the 20. And 2,000 to 3,000 feet — around the Asheville area — is usually around the end of October. If you go even further down, to around 1,500 feet, you get to Chimney Rock State Park or Stone Mountain State Park, and they usually peak at the beginning of November. Even if you couldn’t come up when it was peak color in the 3,000- to 4,000-foot range, you could still go to an overlook a week or two later, and when you look down, you’ll see the color below you. So you really have four to six weeks to see fall color. You can get a map of the parkway ahead of time. Just remember to take a camera or cell phone to take pictures!
Plan Your Leaf-Peeping Trip!
Throughout the fall, our three experts — Dr. James Costa, Dr. Kathy Mathews, and Dr. Howard Neufeld — report weekly on the colors they’re seeing at 25 favorite mountain spots in North Carolina for Our State’s Fall Color Guide. Before taking a weekend trip out west, be sure to check on how the leaves are progressing and what you can expect to see. You might just be able to catch the season’s peak color on more than one trip.