Today I went on a fall color excursion to Craggy Gardens and Mt. Mitchell accompanied by two of my students, Hannah Lilly, and Leigha Henson. Trees are coloring up nicely above 4,500’, although green is still dominant. However, there are individual trees in full color, adjacent to others that are just starting, which themselves are adjacent to yet others that are mostly green. In another week, if the weather remains cool, colors should be fine at these high elevations.
We had an exciting encounter with a bald eagle just before we got to Linville Falls – it was feeding on some animal in the road and as we drove by it flew off next to our car before taking off above the trees. Then, not five minutes later, we came upon a flock of turkeys along the road. Later in our trip, we had to slow down to let two turkeys cross the road. Why they crossed the road I don’t know, but maybe they talked to some chickens about it (joke, joke!).
Some trees are completely leafless now, such as buckeyes, which you can identify by the fruits still on the branches. A lot of the mountain ash are beginning to lose their leaves, and unfortunately, many of them didn’t set fruit this year. But there are a number with their bright red berries at the summit of the Craggy Gardens trail, which starts half a mile north of the visitor center on the Parkway.
There are a number of wildflowers in flower now, and these include asters and some unknown yellow composites, plus saxifrage. Viburnum leaves are coloring up and there are at least two species up at Craggy Gardens. Other shrubs include Rhododendron catawbiense and blueberries, plus a few unknowns. Birches are starting to turn yellow, but beech are still mostly green.
I highly recommend the hike up to the top of Craggy – it’s not a hard trail, nor is it very long. The bunker-style overlooks afford a 360-degree view. Toward the northwest you can see I-26 snaking its way out of Asheville. Note that the restrooms all along the Parkway are closed and you’ll have to use the porta-potties, which depending on the time of day, and day of the week, may or may not be usable, depending on your tolerance for varying degrees of sanitation. Be prepared!
From Craggy we went north on the Parkway for the relatively short drive to Mt. Mitchell State Park, the oldest state park in the state, established in 1916. Mitchell is named after the UNC-Chapel Hill professor Elisha Mitchell, who devoted a large amount of his time trying to prove that Mt. Mitchell was the highest peak in the eastern United States, which it is, at 6,684’ elevation.
Sadly, while on a trip in June of 1857, he fell off some rocks at a waterfall and died, at age 64. After an initial burial in Asheville, his remains were moved to the summit of the mountain that bears his name, and you can see his burial tomb if you hike the short, paved trail to the top. There is a nice elevated viewing platform on the summit, from which you have a 360-degree view. We were able to easily see Grandfather Mountain, Table Rock and Hawksbill today.
There isn’t much color at the top of Mt. Mitchell, because you are in the spruce-fir forest that dominants there and those species are evergreen. However, there are some birches and other deciduous woody plants that provide a little color.
But the main attraction of Mt. Mitchell, besides being the tallest eastern peak, is the beauty of those high elevation forests. There are numerous trails you can take, some of which can be quite strenuous and long, but just past the education building on the paved path to the summit is a short and easy loop trail that takes you through a dense, dark, Fraser fir forest. I highly recommend it because it gives you a real feel for these unique forests.
They are glacial relicts and those with Fraser fir only occur on 7 of the highest peaks in the Southern Appalachians, making them one of the most endangered ecosystems in the United States. And there are some unique animals in these forests, including hawks, bobcats, coyotes, and of course bears. There is even a small tarantula, the spruce-fir spider, that occurs nowhere else in the entire world! This trail only takes about 20 minutes and is mostly level, so try it out.
Before leaving Mt. Mitchell, we got a snack and drink at the food stand there. Then we headed north on the Parkway and got on Rt. 80 north toward Spruce Pine/Burnsville. This takes you downslope into the Toe Valley by the Toe River. There are some nice views off to the left of the Blacks, the mountain range that extends northeast from Mt. Mitchell. In a few weeks when colors start to change at lower elevations, this would be a good road from which to view them from a distance.
That’s about it for this week. If temperatures keep within normal ranges for this time of year, I think we’ll have peak fall colors close to historical times (see my chart that I posted several weeks ago, or my newly updated map). As we got near to Boone in late afternoon, it began raining and that means we won’t be in any drought situation in the near future, which bodes well for good fall color. I am keeping an eye though on hurricanes in the Gulf and Atlantic. So far, none are headed our way. But more and more are forming each day and I’ll have to keep watching where they might go.
Next week I will be in Maryland for my niece’s wedding, so I won’t be able to do a fall color outing, but I’ll take a look at the colors as I head north on I-81 into Virginia.
Have a great week!