Fall Color Report for the Week of October 14, 2023
Today started off in mist and drizzle, although it was relatively warm. We almost canceled our trip because of the dreary conditions, but seeing light off to the northeast where we were headed spurred us on and that turned out to be the right decision, as the day consistently got better weather wise and by the afternoon we had partly cloudy skies with occasional bright sun.
Today’s fall foliage reporters became a trio that included myself, of course, plus my wife Claudia, and my companion for the last two weeks, Eduardo de Campos. Having the three of us tromp through the forests looking at fall colors and taking photos was a most pleasant way to spend an autumn Saturday!
For photos, check out Fall Color Guy on Facebook. There, I have posted photos from other photographers, and myself from the trip to Jefferson State Natural Area and Doughton Park.
We headed out US 421 east from Boone to Deep Gap so we could get on the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP), intending to go to Jeffress Park and Cascades Falls, but the BRP is closed in that section due to road construction, so we weren’t able to reach the park. Instead, we headed up US 221 to West Jefferson and then to the top of Jefferson State Natural Area, which is just a 1-mile drive from the highway. There are several overlooks along the way up and you could, if you wanted, hike up to the top, but we chose to drive all the way up to the picnic area at the summit.
Once there, you can take an easy 1-mile loop trail to Luther Rock (halfway out) where you’ll have great views to the northeast and southeast. Mt. Jefferson is nearly 5,000’ high at the top, so it is definitely cooler up there and the colors are more vivid at that high elevation right now. This place is definitely going to peak over the next week or so, and it’s currently colorful enough now to plan a trip there.
Jefferson State Natural Area has trees one routinely associates with the mid-Atlantic states like MD or PA, and include black, red, and white oaks (Quercus velutina, Q. rubra, and Q. alba), American chestnut (Castanea dentata), lots of red, sugar, and striped maples (Acer rubrum, A. saccharum, and A. pensylvanicum), plus beech (Fagus grandifolia) and cucumber and Fraser magnolias (Magnolia acuminate and M. fraseri). This is because of the high elevation of this mountain, and probably also the type of soil too. A few ash (Fraxinus sp.) are scattered here and there, along with the vine Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia macrophylla). Right now, the maples are the most colorful up there, while the American chestnuts are morphing past peak, but still with plenty of yellow and brown leaves. Cucumber magnolia and beech are mostly still green, as many of the oaks, but they will color up over the next two weeks.
When you get to Luther Rock, you have great views off to the NE and SE. Then, you can take a loop trail which runs just below the crestline back to your car. This is a very easy hike and there are also plenty of picnic tables to have a nice outing there. Colors were much more advanced than I expected, so the coming week and next should be great for foliage color here.
After our hike, we decided to get some lunch in West Jefferson. We selected “The Tavern” restaurant, based on a recommendation from a friend, and were surprised to learn that today was its last day in business. New owners are taking over and renaming it the Red Dog, and it will become a bar and grill, as we understand. Nonetheless, we all had a great meal there, after which we headed toward Doughton Park in Allegheny County, north of Ashe County.
Because the BRP is undergoing considerable road construction, long stretches of it are closed to traffic. We headed out of town on Rts 18/88 South for about 20 miles or so, through very pretty countryside, before getting on the BRP about 7 miles south of Doughton Park. In this area, the only section open goes from where the BRP intersects Rt. 18, north to the Brinegar Cabin, where it closes again. If you are coming up from eastern NC on US 421, get off the highway in Wilkesboro and take Rt. 18 N. About 30 -45 minutes later or so, you’ll reach the BRP and can head north toward Doughton Park.
Doughton Park is several thousand acres in size and has plenty of trails and overlooks. We stopped at the Bluff Mt. trailhead and hiked up to the overlook, which took us about 20 minutes of easy hiking. The elevational increase is about 400’ and in the steep parts near the top the NPS has installed wooden stairs. Once at the top you have excellent views to the southeast and southwest.
There is also a dense stand of witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) adjacent to the rock outcrop (to the north). This shrub has leaves that turn a dull yellow with brown streaks, and it flowers in October, which is quite unusual. A cold-tolerant moth may pollinate the shrub, but so might flies and bees. The question of who pollinates this late flowering shrub is still ripe for study (https://grownativemass.org/Great-Resources/Gems-from-our-eNews/The-Pollination-Puzzle-of-American-Witch-Hazel). See also this article (https://bygl.osu.edu/node/1751).
When we finished our viewing, we headed over to the Wildcat Overlook, about a mile from the Bluff Overlook (you could walk from one location to the other, but we chose to go in our car). The Wildcat Overlook offers one of the most spectacular views of anywhere on the BRP. If you look down the nearly 1000’ drop off, you can see a wood cabin in the valley below (see photo I took of it, using 30X mag on my Pixel 7 phone!). This is the Caudill Cabin. For years, I thought it was the Brinegar Cabin, but was corrected by the person in the store at the visitor’s center, which is located right on the BRP. The Brinegar Cabin is 2.5 miles past the visitor’s center going north, and is as far as you can go before the road closes again due to construction.
The Brinegar’s lived in a two-room cabin in the area about 100 years ago. Their descendants, and those of the Caudill’s, often get together on the BRP for reunions, according to the park personnel we spoke with today. Given the isolation of both cabins: e.g., 5.5 miles on a dirt road to any sort of human influence for the Caudill cabin, and perhaps a similar trek for the Brinegars to wherever they needed to go. You can drive right to the Brinegar’s cabin. If you want to visit the Caudill cabin, be prepared for a 5.5 mile hike to the cabin, and then 5.5 miles back (11 miles roundtrip!).
As it was now getting late, we headed back to West Jefferson, but instead of taking US 221 to US 421 back to Boone, we got off US 221 just south of West Jefferson onto Rt. 194 and headed from Ashe into Watauga County. This road, a scenic drive, goes through some very rural countryside with great views of fall foliage (which is looking very good right now and will be even better later this week into next weekend). I highly recommend this road as you can see some nice fall colors as you drive back to Boone.
Next week we are planning a trip to the summit of Elk Knob State Park just north of Boone. There is an easy 2 mile hike up with views in all directions at the top, which is over 5,000’ in elevation. The forests to the north of the Park always have great fall color, even in bad years, so we are hoping for colorful views next weekend.
Colors should develop rapidly this week, as temperatures are going to drop 20-30 degrees by Monday (there is even a prediction of snow flurries on Monday). It’s quite windy outside my home as I type this in the early evening, and I’m hoping it doesn’t take down too many leaves. Those that are still green will be fine, but for leaves on trees that have colored up this week, it could blow them off. Since we still have a lot of green trees, I think we’ll have great color into this week and next.
Here’s hoping you have a good rest of the weekend!