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Fall Color Peak Map estimates timeline for when leaves will begin to change

By Kristin Fox

September is here bringing with it the crisp, cool days of fall and the beginnings of the colorful splendor of the fall foliage. Due to the extreme variations in elevation, the Great Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina are host to one of the longest and most colorful fall leaf seasons.

Predicting when the fall colors will be at their peak is always a topic of discussion at this time of the year. Beginning in the highest elevations of Western North Carolina, the fall colors may begin to appear as early as late September and continue to present themselves in the lower elevations into early November.  

To help make this fall season’s predictions, visitors and locals can use the recently released 2022 Fall Color Peak Map released by the Appalachian State University Department of Biology. The map conceived by Howard Neufeld and Michael Denslow, who also is responsible for creating the map graphic, gives an estimation of the timing of fall color peaks for the various regions of North Carolina. 

This year’s map has added two new features, towns and scenic roads, to the mountain section of the fall color map to help people with travel plans while visiting the North Carolina mountains during the fall season.

The Appalachian State map differs from most other such fall foliage maps because it combines the effects of both elevation and latitude on fall color, whereas most other maps simply use elevation alone. Since there really is not a simple formula for predicting fall color, the map is only an approximation of when the leaves will be at their peak.

According to Neufeld and Denslow, they constructed the map assuming the fall color would start earlier at higher elevations and then figured that for each 1,000′ increase in elevation, peak fall colors would occur about one week earlier, with the exception of those areas near the coast, where the elevation was divided into 500′ sections.

For the latitude effect, the team used data from published papers suggesting that each degree of latitude north is equivalent to going up in elevation by about 200 m (656′). This means that if you were to compare 3,000′ down in Murphy with 3,000′ in northern Ashe County (which are about 2.5 degrees apart), it would be as if you were really at 4,640′ in Ashe County, at least fall color peak-wise. 

In other words, the same elevation in the north is cooler than the same elevation in the south, which causes the vegetation to differ. The resultant cooler temperatures mean that peak fall colors will come earlier to those same elevations in the north than in the south.

The Fall Color Peak Map can be viewed at https://biology.appstate.edu/fall-colors/fall-color-map-north-carolina.

Leaf color varies from year to year, from elevation to elevation and even by the direction the mountainside is facing, all affecting the leaves changing their colors.  In addition, to make it more challenging to predict the peak, the depth of the color is determined by other complex factors including the type of plant, amount of rainfall and temperature. 

The leaves of the mountains will remain green as long as they are producing chlorophyll, the pigment needed to convert sunlight into glucose. As the days get shorter during October, most of the mountain foliage will change its color, as the leaves’ chlorophyll production slows to a standstill, producing beautiful fall colors. 

Fall Color Time and Points of Interest in elevations:

September 25 – October 2:  Beginning this month, the mountains will begin to see the first bursts of color in the mountains in the higher elevations of over 6,000 feet. Located off the Blue Ridge Parkway, Graveyard Fields and Rough Ridge are two areas in this elevation range that will begin to exhibit the early colors of fall. 

October 2-9:  The first week in October will be the peak time for areas above 5,000 feet including the higher elevations of the Blue Ridge Parkway between Asheville and Cherokee and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The mountains surrounding Waynesville and Cashiers will peak including Whiteside Mountain with the Shadow of the Bear. Other areas to visit include Clingmans Dome, Grandfather Mountain, Mount Mitchell and Waterrock Knob.

October 9-16:  October’s second week is predicted to be the peak time for elevations from 4,000 to 5,000 feet. This elevation includes all Blue Ridge Parkway locations and the majority of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as well as Highlands, Boone and Blowing Rock areas. A ride through the gorge along US Route 64 from Franklin to Highlands offers a beautiful ride to enjoy the colors and waterfalls along the way.

October 16-23:  The peak time for the lower elevations from 3,000 to 4,000 is expected during the third week of October. Places included in these lower elevations include Pisgah National Forest including Sliding Rock, Looking Glass Falls, Dill Falls and Wildcat Falls. Other areas included in this elevation are Linville Gorge, Nantahala Gorge and Cataloochee Valley. A trip to the smaller towns of Cashiers, Andrews and Maggie Valley would be the perfect destination to enjoy the fall foliage. This would also be a great time to visit the popular hiking area located in the Joyce Kilmer National Forest near Robbinsville.

October 23-30:  The final week of October is predicted to be the peak time for elevations from 2,000 to 3,000 feet. Points of interests included in this elevation include Asheville, Brevard, Waynesville, Cherokee, and Bryson City as well as Dupont State Forest, Biltmore Estate and Cades Cove.

October 30-November 6: The end of the 2022 leaf season will reach its peak in the remaining elevations including Chimney Rock, Lake Lure and the lower elevation mountains. Lake Chatuge in Haysville or a trip on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad will offer a final chance to enjoy the autumn hues of fall.

This fall, many travelers will visit the mountains of Western North Carolina to see the beautiful fall foliage and colors. While predicting the peak of the fall season can difficult due to several variables, the good news is that mother nature’s schedule will change very little and will follow her normal schedule, once again giving us the stunning fall colors that can be enjoyed in all the elevations of the mountains.  

Leaves begin changing color at higher elevations, and the color change works its way down in elevation.   This is something you’ll want to factor in, when on the Parkway, as you’ll generally be viewing elevations below you.

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