Fall Color Report

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Fall Color Peak Map

Map Conceived by Dr. Howard Neufeld and Michael Denslow
Map Constructed by Michael Denslow

Fall Color Report


For the 8th 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.

Friday October 4 Grandfather Mountain’s 2019 Fall Color – Fall color spreads along the slopes of Grandfather Mountain, near the Linn Cove Viaduct. Colors are also coming in toward Grandfather Mountain's higher elevations, meaning this weekend could prove progressively colorful for leaf-lookers on Grandfather. For more fall color photos, visit Grandfather Mountain's 2019 Fall Color Gallery at www.grandfather.com. Photo by Skip Sickler | Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation

Fall Color Report

Thursday October 3 Grandfather Mountain’s 2019 Fall Color – One of Grandfather Mountain’s resident elk takes a leisurely stroll near the boulders and colorful red maples that adorn his environmental habitat. Photo by Victoria Darlington | Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation

Mountain ash and its vibrant berries burst into color at Grandfather Mountain’s Half Moon Overlook. Unseasonably warm weather and lack of rain have delayed significant color development, but an incoming cold front could prove beneficial to the color change. To see more fall color photos, visit Grandfather Mountain's 2019 Fall Color Gallery at www.grandfather.com. Photo by Skip Sickler | Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation

Fall Color Report
Fall Color Report

Fall Color Report
Fall Color Report

Wednesday October 2 Grandfather Mountain’s 2019 Fall Color – The rising sun casts its morning glow, as fall color spreads along the slopes of Grandfather Mountain. Pictured here is the curve near Rough Ridge parking area on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Colors continue to develop at higher elevations in the Western North Carolina High Country, particularly atop Grandfather Mountain. Photo by Skip Sickler | Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation

Fall Color Report

October 1, 2019 – This post kicks off Grandfather Mountain’s 2019 Fall Color Gallery, featuring regular updates to showcase the phenomenon of fall color change in the Western North Carolina High Country.

For a surefire glimpse of the autumnal brilliance, leaf-lookers can partake in Grandfather’s Fall Color Ramble, a series of guided walks through the mountain’s most colorful locations. These easygoing rambles, led by members of the park’s naturalist staff, give guests an opportunity to learn more about color change and explore the species of plants and trees native to Grandfather Mountain. The walks will be offered daily, Oct. 1 to 11, at 1 p.m. and are included with admission. Since the starting location will vary day to day, those planning to participate should inquire at the park’s entrance gate upon arrival.

The Fall Color Ramble culminates with a celebration of fall color on Saturday, Oct. 12, featuring nature programs for all ages, including leaf-printing for children and guided hikes for guests of all ages and abilities.

Photo by Skip Sickler | Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation

Fall Color Report
Fall color complements the sunrise at Grandfather Mountain’s Mile High Swinging Bridge. So far, the color change is quite evident in the High Country’s higher elevations — in this case, a mile high — with bursts of red, orange and gold serving as contrast to the evergreens and fading shades of summer.

Fall Color Report
Fall Color Report

Fall Color Report for the Week of September 29th, 2019

I went to Elk Knob State Park this morning to check out the colors there. Because this park rises up to 5,520’ elevation, there can be dramatic differences in the degree of fall color display since elevation exerts such a strong influence on the timing of peak color. I was surprised to see substantial color development beginning this weekend – isolated maples were showing up against a mostly green background, along with birches and beech and tulip poplars. We are definitely in the beginning stages of fall color development. And we’re on time, something I attribute to the cool mornings we’ve been having, even though our afternoons are unusually warm.

Witch’s Hobble (Viburnum lantanoides) is in full color development, at about the 1 mile mark on the trail. See the picture album I will put up after this posting for pictures of this and other species from my hike today. This species has large leaves that turn orange then purple, in splotches on the leaves, before becoming entirely dark purple. It is one of my favorite fall leaf color plants.

One of the most common herbs is Filmy Angelica (Angelica triquinata), a member of the parsnip family. This species is common along the lower 2/3 of the trail and at this time of year is beginning to senesce (meaning the leaves are dying off for the winter). It does so by first losing the chlorophyll in the leaf blade, but retaining it in the veins, giving it a distinctive pale color against the other green plants. I suspect the veins remain green longer than the blade so the plant can continue to withdraw nutrients from its leaves, and sending them to its underground rhizome, where they can be remobilized next year when the plant sends up new shoots. That saves the plant some energy and enables it to get a head start in the spring.

At about the 1.5 mile mark you will find some beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana) spindly, ghostly looking plants, about 6” to 12” tall. These plants lack chlorophyll and cannot carry out any photosynthesis on their own. They are parasites on the roots of beech trees, which is how they get sugars to grow.

As you get to the top, the heights of the trees begin to drop until at the summit, the beeches are only about 6-8’ tall. Beech leaves first turn a deep gold color before transforming over to a nice brown. Their short stature is due to the harsh weather that can occur at these upper elevations. Beeches form clones and send up new shoots from their roots, so many of the trees you see are really all part of one, large clonal organism.

You can also find shrubs with inch long sharp spines (anyone know what those are?) and beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta), whose leaves turn a nice golden yellow. Mt. Ash (Sorbus aucuparia) occurs at the northwest lookout, and usually has bright red fruits at this time of the year, but for the last two years, these individual trees have not produced any and I’m not sure why.

There are a number of maples on Elk Knob, and the understory striped maple (Acer pennsylvanicum) is turning yellow now. They are common along the first half mile of the trail and quite distinctive due to their large leaves. Further up you will come across mountain maple (A. spicatum), whose leaves turn an orange color. Red maples (A. rubrum), as their name denotes, have red leaves in the fall. Sugar maples occur throughout the Park and their leaves can be a range of colors, from yellow to orange and even red at times. Red and sugar maples are important fall color trees because their leaves contrast so nicely with the yellows and oranges of other species.

When you get to the one-mile point, there is a nice bench to rest on and you will have great views facing northwest. At the top, the best fall color viewing is from the north viewpoint. The forests spread out before you are the most colorful in Watauga County aside from the ridges east of Grandfather Mt on the Blue Ridge Parkway. If you go to the south viewpoint, you can look back toward Boone and Avery County. Grandfather Mt is easy to pick out as is the annoying apartment building in Banner Elk.

The best time for pictures is either early in the morning or near dusk. The park is open 8 am to 8 pm, although later on it will get dark way before closing time. So, if you’re in to seeing some great fall colors, and want to avoid the large crowds on the Parkway, head north out of Boone about 12 miles and you’ll be at Elk Knob State Park. Happy leaf hunting!

Fall Color Report
Fall Color Report

September 22 Fall Color Guy Update Yesterday, Saturday, Sep 21, I went to Grandfather Mt as part of a social outing for the PIedmont Chapter of the American Chemical Society and also to scout out the fall leaf colors.

Colors are starting to appear at the highest elevations. Out of scale of 1-10, I'd say the colors are between 1 and 2 now, but they are definitely visible to the eye.

Mt. Ash (Sorbus aucuparia) fruits are on full display – a brilliant red-orange color that is spectacular when viewed against an azure sky. Last year was a bad year this species, with few if any fruits, but they have rebounded this year. They will be on peak display for the next two weeks or so before falling off. You can find them at or above 4,000′ elevation all along the Parkway and in open areas. The foliage of this species turns a dull yellow, and is not much to look at. But the fruits – super!

Yellow buckeyes (Aesculus octandra) are losing their leaves now, which is normal for them. They are early to bud in the spring and early to drop in the fall. But don't look for any great color – they yellow up, turn blackish brown, and fall off.

Tulip poplars and birches continue to yellow and drop their leaves due to drought. Nearly five weeks now without significant rainfall. But it takes a long time for other species to show signs of drought, so I don't think this will have a major impact on colors this year.

Some maples are beginning to color up at the tips of their branches, as are dogwoods and sourwoods. Sassafras on rock outcrops are in full color, which is early for them, and most likely a drought effect.

So, the colors are starting. We're having warm days, but cool mornings (it was in the 40s here the other morning and low 50s this morning). I think cool nights and mornings are important for color development, even if we have warm afternoon temperatures, so although it's supposed to be warm for the next few weeks, I think we'll still get decent colors this fall.

That does it for this week. After this posting I'll put up an album of pictures from my trip yesterday. If you are deciding to come to Grandfather Mt., one of the, if not THE most visited state park in NC, be aware that crowds are already building up. Come during the week instead of on the weekend and avoid long lines. If you can only come up on the weekends, then get to the mountain early, otherwise you will be sitting in a long line of cars waiting to get in ( and the wait can range from 30 mins to 2 hrs!!). But do come. Grandfather is one of the most beautiful mountains in the United States.

September 16 Fall Color Guy Update – Temperatures are supposed to drop 20F here in Boone by Wed, with highs in the mid 60s. Should last for about 3-4 days before rising to the mid 70s for the next week or more.

Importantly, we also have a chance of rain too, which we desperately need. So, some good weather news for once!

The pics of the trees, which I took yesterday, show a tulip poplar dropping nearly all of its leaves due to drought. This is the most dramatic leaf drop for this species that I have seen in many years.

In the meantime I took these photos today of the mountains above Boone. You can see some color starting at the higher elevations. Again, I think much of this is drought-caused.

Fall Color Report
Fall Color Report
Fall Color Report
Fall Color Report

Fall Color Report
Fall Color Report

September 15 Fall Color Guy Update – Forests are still green, but if you look closely at the summit of Grandfather Mountain, you can just see the beginnings of some yellowing at those high elevations. A lot of the color change I saw today is being caused more by drought than by cool temperatures. We haven't had significant rain now in about 4-5 weeks.

In particular, tulip poplars are dropping their leaves now – they turn yellow and then fall off. Same for birches. And sassafras has turned colors at least a month ahead of when it usually does, at least up at Beacon Heights.

Tuesday August 20, 2019 – In getting a preview for the 2019 season, Dr. Neufeld tells WataugaOnline.com, “This year has had moderate temperatures and adequate rainfall. We are not in a drought situation. I am waiting to hear back from the NC Climate Office with more official weather data. But as of now, the longterm NOAA predictions is for slightly above normal temperatures and either above or below normal precipitation.

The higher temperatures would mean that colors might be delayed from their longterm averages by a few days. The lack of drought means that the trees should hold on to their leaves well into the fall. If we did get a drought now, it wouldn't develop fast enough to really impact leaf colors and could even improve them somewhat, since colors (especially red) are brighter when the trees are slightly droughted and also a drought means sunny skies mostly, which favors more red coloration in the trees.

So, at this early stage, I'm hopeful for a good fall color season. Last year was not a good year, and I hope that was an outlier year, so maybe we will be back to a good fall leaf color season!”

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)”.


  1. Hello. What weekend will be best for Alleghany Co? I’m planning an October trip and wondering which is best, October 14 or October 21? Thanks.

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