Fall Color Report for Week of September 27, 2021

Since fall leaf color starts first at the higher elevations and then works its way downslope about 1000’ every 7-10 days, I decided to hike to the top of Elk Knob State Park, which is about 10 miles north of Boone with a summit at around 5,500’. I highly recommend this hike – 2 miles on switchbacks to the top, with an easy grade all the way up. At the summit, there are two overlooks, one facing south where you can see Grandfather Mt. as well as Mt. Mitchell and Roan Mt. The other overlook faces north into Ashe County and you can get great views of color from that overlook, as well being able to see the second tallest mountain in Virginia, Whitetop Mt. Mt. Rogers is not too far away either, and on a really clear day, you can see Pilot Mountain. Get there early though. I was the first person there yesterday and when I arrived back at my car around 12:30 pm, the parking lot was overflowing. Fall colors have just started appearing now in the High Country. The forest below the northfacing overlook always has great color, even in bad years, and I was able to notice the beginnings of color on the slopes yesterday. Colors will progress rapidly now and it seems the weather is cooperating – it was 39F the other morning here, with a high only in the low 60s, and with absolutely clear, blue skies. These are the perfect conditions for a good fall color display. The hike up Elk Knob has a number of interesting plants to observe. My favorite is the hobblebush, a native viburnum species, whose leaves turn a reddish-purple, but in a highly stochastic pattern. Sometimes one side of a leaf will be red, while the other is still perfectly green. Sometimes the red/purple develops in what seems like randomly placed splotches all over the surface. Eventually, the leaf turns completely red/purple. Because most of its neighboring plants are still green, these colorful leaves show up dramatically in the forest understory. The best time to see this plant is NOW and for the next two weeks. I have posted pictures of this species, plus others I saw yesterday. Most of the forests in the area are still green at lower elevations. Mountain ash, which only grow above 3,500’ usually, and are common even higher up, are fruiting nicely this year (last year was a bad year for them). These fruits are initially an orange color, but when ripe turn a bright red that contrasts sharply against an azure, cloudless sky. There are some really nice ones adjacent to the north overlook on Elk Knob. Elk Knob has a lot of beech trees and these form dense stands along the trail. Once you get to the top, the weather is so severe that the trees up there are much shorter (only about 6-8’ tall). At lower elevations, there is a mixture of maple, beech, birch that give rise to great color in mid-October. As for other sites in Western NC this week, most are still quite green. But over the next two weekends I expect more and more color to develop. We’re supposed to get another cold front in about a week, and that should spur the colors on. To avoid crowds, get out early, go during the week, and take some back roads instead of just the Parkway. Don’t forget Roan Mountain, on the NC/TN border, about 45 miles from Boone. Great hiking on the Appalachian Trail, and beautiful views of color from the top. Now would be good times to visit the high elevation sites such as Craggy Gardens and Graveyards, as they always color up early. Next week I’ll head toward Asheville to check out the colors down in that neck of the woods.

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