Fall Color Report for Week of October 17, 2021

Today I went up to Carver’s Gap at Roan Mountain, which straddles the NC and TN state line. The Appalachian Trail runs north/south across the top. It was cold today – way below freezing when I got there at around 9 am (and it was already crowded with people!). I found a parking space and decided to check out the Fraser firs on the south side of the gap: quite dense woods, with an understory of Fraser firs about three feet tall, just waiting for the taller trees to die before they take over as the dominants. Then, I headed back to the parking lot and went north up onto the balds, where most people hike.

I’m glad I wore warm clothes – it was in the 20s when I started off, with a stiff wind blowing from west to east. I hiked up to Jane Bald at 5,807 feet, then about a mile farther onto another bald even higher (I must have been above 6,000’ by then). Lots of hoar frost on the plants there. Hoar frost forms when vegetation gets below freezing and water vapor in the air begins to form on the leaves and stems, frozen dew so to speak. Hoar frost gets it name from its appearance, which resembles hair growing on the plants and hoar is an Old English word for old age.

I’ve posted some photos of the hoar frost on the bald. You often see it around the margins of leaves. This is because leaf edges cool quicker and to a greater extent than the main part of the leaf, a result of a smaller “boundary layer” at the edges of the leaf. A boundary layer is a layer of relatively still air that retards the loss of heat from a leaf. The thinner the layer, the faster heat will reradiate to the atmosphere from the leaf, thereby cooling it, sometimes below air temperature, which is why the hoar frost can appear even when the air is above freezing.

The colors up at Roan are peaking now, and quite spectacular I must say, once you enter the Cherokee National Forest coming up from Roan Mountain, TN. Take Rt. 194 south from Banner Elk, turn right onto U.S. 19E toward Elk Park, then go five miles and take a left at the sign for Rt. 143 and head for the state park. Go through the state park all the way to the top (about 8 miles). You can park at the top and then hike the Appalachian Trail, either north or south from there.

The maples, birches, and beeches are in fine form starting from the Cherokee National Forest sign to just below Carver’s Gap. Up on the bald, you’ll find red spruce and Fraser firs (this latter species is the one grown for Christmas trees), rhododendron (which bloom beautifully in midsummer), and blueberries, plus lots of grasses, mosses and ferns.

Balds are an enigma in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, but have been around for thousands of years. The reasons for the absence of trees are still being debated, but if fire is kept out for too long, woody vegetation tends to encroach. Native Americans may have routinely burned the balds to favor grasses to attract the deer they hunted.

I highly recommend hiking at least to Jane Bald (maybe a mile or so), where you can have wonderful views in all directions. To the southeast you can see Mt. Mitchell, the tallest peak in eastern North America at 6,684 feet. To the north, you can see Grandfather Mountain, and on clear days, maybe all the way into Virginia.

As for other locations for fall color, the Blue Ridge Parkway around Grandfather Mountain is peaking this week, including Rough Ridge and the Linn Cove Viaduct. The same can be said for Elk Knob State Park north of Boone. More areas will be coloring up now that it has cooled down and is mostly sunny. Lower elevations will be developing color this week and by next weekend, there should be excellent color along the Parkway in most places. Below Asheville, places like Waterrock Knob are peaking now, and may be past peak by next weekend. However, even if higher elevation sites are past peak, lower elevation sites will be coming into their best color over the next two weeks.

Temperatures are going to begin rising again later this week, which is unfortunate, as we need the cold to bring out our best colors. But I think it will be cool enough in the mountains to spur on the colors. So, this week and next will be ideal to head to the mountains here. Have a safe trip if (when!) you decide to come up.

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