First Trax

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Each autumn, the mountains and valleys of Haywood County are set ablaze, as a sea of green transforms into a patchwork of fiery color. Leaf-looking, as it has been called, has for a long time drawn visitors here every fall—and with good reason: There’s no better place to observe and enjoy this annual display of nature’s beauty. And, based on some early predictions by experts, this year will be no exception.

Photo of Cold Mountain (Yes the same one of movie fame!) Photo taken by Randi Evans for SkiSoutheast.com in Haywood County>

Surrounded by protected wilderness areas like the Blue Ridge Parkway, Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Pisgah National Forest, Haywood County offers leaf-lookers endless panoramas of this natural, magical and awe-inspiring phenomenon. With 13 peaks surpassing 6,000 feet in elevation (more than any county east of the Mississippi River, making it one of the highest—with a mean elevation of 3,600 feet—east of the Rockies), the views of the changing leaves are spectacular—and seemingly endless. The scenery from the valleys is equally breathtaking. Simply put, everywhere you turn and wherever you look, the vista might just make you think you walked into a painting.


If there’s a silver lining to be found in the lack of rain clouds during an extended period of dry weather across the mountains of Western North Carolina this spring and summer, it may come in the form of above-average leaf color this fall.

That’s the word from Katherine Mathews, Western Carolina University’s fearless fall foliage forecaster and an assistant professor of biology specializing in plant systematics. Typically, drier weather during the spring and early summer results in a colorful fall leaf season beginning in October, said Mathews.

“This should be a pretty good year for leaf color change,” she said. “Although there was enough rainfall this spring to keep the trees healthy, we are still in drought conditions in the western part of the state, which, surprisingly, is good for fall color. Fortunately, the summer temperatures have not been as consistently hot as we had last year, so we should not experience the early leaf drop we had last fall. It all adds up to a nice, long progression of fall color.”

Historically, below-average rainfall during the spring and early summer means plant growth is stunted by a lack of sufficient water, Mathews said.

The final factor in the equation is climate during the first weeks of autumn, she said. “If the temperatures in September and October cooperate and cool down, contributing to the breakdown of chlorophyll, we should expect to see some brilliant fall colors this year,” Mathews said.

Chlorophyll is the chemical that gives leaves their green color in spring and summer. As chlorophyll breaks down, yellow pigments —always present in the leaves, but masked by the green of chlorophyll—are revealed, and new red pigments are produced.

Mathews also said leaf-lookers should not worry about any negative impact on fall color from the emergence of periodic cicadas in some spots across the mountains earlier this year.

The annual color show will begin first in the higher elevations of the northwestern sections of North Carolina, typically in early October, and progress southward and down slopes through mid-October and early November. Yellow birches, red sourwoods, red and yellow maples, yellow pin cherries and yellow poplars will be the first colors to show, Mathews said.

They will be followed by the yellow and red of oaks and sweet gums, yellow of hickories, yellow and brown of beeches, and a variety of other color shades in the vines, shrubs and smaller trees beneath the forest canopy. Peak fall color should arrive five to 10 days after the first frost at any particular location, Mathews said.

“Last year, there was not much of a peak, although we did see some brilliant color. This year, the trees should be on a more typical color schedule, peaking in mid-October in the mountains,” she said. “And a sharp cooling of temperatures in September and October would really cause the colors to burst, as this stimulates the production of anthocyanin, or red pigments.”


Leaf-looking has evolved into activity in and of itself. But here are some suggestions of ways and place to make your autumn getaway to Haywood County worth every penny:

• The Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway provide leaf-lookers with an array of overlooks, vistas and, of course, photo opportunities.

• With hundreds of miles of hiking trails crisscrossing Haywood County, the opportunities to explore this natural paradise on foot are numerous, to say the least. Walk through tall forests bursting with colors to a clearing that offers panoramic views. And, best of all, there are options for every level of hiker, from easy to difficult, from short to steep.

Maggie Valley Golf Club in the fall>

• Haywood County is home to six beautiful golf courses, which are only become even more beautiful during fall. Enjoy the cooler temperatures and colorful surroundings by bringing along the clubs. Often, the courses will offer rounds at reduced rates.

• Scenic drives abound here. From the Blue Ridge Parkway to lesser-known country roads, touring the area by car or motorcycle is a popular way for leaf-lookers to enjoy the landscape.

For more information about fall foliage, please call us at 800.334.9036 or e-mail us [email protected] . Be sure to check back regularly for updates about the current status of local fall color.  Also visit the Haywood County Tourism and Development Association website at www.SmokeyMountains.net

Story provided by The Haywood County TDA
Photos by various photographers and submitted to SkiSoutheast.com for use.

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