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.
To see the captions for the photos for this week, go to Fall Color Guy on Facebook and scroll through the pictures.