This year, biologists and naturalists in Western North Carolina and the Asheville area are in agreement that seasonal weather patterns and early climate indicators...

This year, biologists and naturalists in Western North Carolina and the Asheville area are in agreement that seasonal weather patterns and early climate indicators may trigger the most colorful leaf season in years.

“A long spell of dry weather during the spring and summer could provide some of the most brilliant colors seen in several years for leaf-lookers headed to the mountains of Western North Carolina this autumn,” reports Katherine Mathews, Western Carolina University’s assistant professor of biology specializing in plant systematics.


“While there were periods of low rainfall with some higher than normal temperatures, the mountains around Asheville have had plenty of rain toward the end of the summer. With cooler, clear weather moving in this September, fall seems to be setting up nicely,” comments Parker Andes, director of horticulture at Biltmore in Asheville.

A family enjoys fall color in the Asheville, North Carolina area amidst the highest peaks east of the Mississippi River. Photo Courtesy of the Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau

“A few weeks ago the weather transitioned to clear, sunny days – the ideal combination for a really beautiful fall,” says Dr. Howie Neufeld, professor of plant physiology at Appalachian State University. “When people remember a good color season, it is usually because they got those brilliant reds contrasting against the rest of the fall color spectrum. The bi-product of photosynthesis is sugar, and sugar triggers red pigment production. So, these bright sunny days we’re seeing will build up that intense red pigment in the leaves. We’re on course for a colorful fall season.”

Extreme elevation variations and biologically diverse microclimates combine to give the Southern Appalachian Mountains one of the longest and most colorful leaf seasons in the country, according to the Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“New England’s color comes primarily from birch, beech and maple-a beautiful, bright autumn display with big blotches of color. But, the South has more than 100 species of deciduous trees. The combination of topography and color diversity here can make our fall colors spectacular,” says Dr. Neufeld. “Out West you see more evergreens and yellow, but you don’t get a lot of that vibrant red that makes up the eastern fall patchwork. I’ve lived in the Northeast and the West, and I think North Carolina has some of the best fall color in the country.”

The fall foliage in the Asheville, North Carolina area can be viewed from a hot-air balloon ride. Photo Courtesy of the Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau

“The mountains of Western North Carolina have the most forest diversity of anywhere in the country, which gives us a uniquely broad range of fall color and a longer season. From the yellows of cucumber magnolias around Balsam Mountain to the burgundy of black gums along the Davidson River, there is a rainbow of colors to be seen here. And, because of the different altitudes, microclimates and mild weather, visitors can always find good color and lots of activities throughout the region,” remarks Andes.

One expert says the best fall viewing in Western North Carolina should begin at the end of September.

“We’re already starting to see signs of color at the highest elevations here at the end of September. Our American ash trees are beginning to tinge with purple and the bright red berries on the mountain ashe are putting on a good show. Leaf peepers should look for high elevation habitats to color-up first, such as heath balds on mountain ridges,” says Jesse Pope, chief naturalist at Grandfather Mountain.

“I’m very optimistic about the intensity of color we could see this year. However, the duration and timing of fall greatly depends on these last couple of weeks in September,” adds Pope. “Rapid changes in temperature could start the color action early, and we want to avoid wind events that would stress and prematurely down the leaves.”

A motorcyclist enjoys a scenic fall drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville, North Carolina. Photo Courtesy of the Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau

To help visitors locate where the autumn color in Western North Carolina is peaking from week to week, the Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau is working with park officials, attractions and biologists around the region to compile weekly fall color reports for the mountains of Western North Carolina at www.FallintheMountains.com.

Asheville’s fall color experts will also be tweeting up-to-the-minute color updates, travel tips and deals at @FallColorHunter on Twitter.

Located along the Blue Ridge Parkway – which is celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2010 – and just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Asheville area is steeped in natural history. With elevations that range from 1,500 feet in the valleys to 6,684 feet at Mount Mitchell (the highest peak east of the Mississippi River), the Blue Ridge Mountains are a fall leaf kaleidoscope from late September through early November.