Predictions on how colorful the fall foliage will be for any given year are always a bit of a dice roll, but the forecasts for the current season in eastern national parks were generally promising. So...how accurate were those educated guesses? I took a drive on a short section of the Blue Ridge Parkway this week to find out.
One foliage forecaster with plenty of experience is Dr. Howard S. Neufeld at Appalachian State University. His prediction, reported in the Traveler back in early September: "A good fall color year is on the way."
Based on my drive on a short section of the Blue Ridge Parkway earlier this, he was right on the mark.
My drive was admittedly a limited sample, but if you're a fall foliage fan, a drive on the Parkway in the vicinity of Asheville, North Carolina, during the next few days will have plenty to offer. If you're new to the Parkway, it will help to know that landmarks are keyed to mileposts (MP) beginning at Mile 0 at the northern end of the drive in Virginia, and ending near Mile 469, where the road terminates in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
My short but colorful excursion began on the east side of Asheville, where the access ramp from US 74A joins the Parkway just south of the Folk Art Center (MP 382). The Center is a good place to pick up a map and other park information'and the last chance to use the "facilities" for a while. If you'd like to check out more extensive exhibits and a fine park film, the park headquarters is just two miles south, at MP 384.
Great Color Not Far From Asheville, North Carolina
Great fall color began within the first five miles northbound from the Folk Art Center, where the road climbs to an elevation of about 3,000 feet. Although yellows predominate all along the drive, there was a nice sprinkling of red and orange leaves as well.
The first 15 minutes of the drive also brought a pair of surprises, beginning with a brief "bear jam," a short traffic tie-up caused by a young black bear crossing the road near Bull Gap (MP 375). The good news: nobody abandoned a vehicle for a closer look, and the bruin quickly disappeared into the woods. We stopped again briefly for a photo near MP 373, and had another bonus: a flock of about seven or eight wild turkeys wandered out of the woods just a few feet ahead.
Elevation Is One Key To Finding The Best Color
One clue for finding the best fall color along the Parkway is the elevation, and in this section of the Parkway, it ranges from about 2,100 feet near Asheville (MP 382) to 5,676 feet at MP 358.5. We found the current sweet spot for the best color to run between about 3,000 and 4,500 feet. You'll find a summary of mileposts, landmarks and elevations at this link.
That means as you continue north from Asheville, the foliage show is over for the year in the higher elevations around Craggy Gardens and Mount Mitchell. Even so, the small visitor center at Craggy Gardens (MP 364.5) is worth a quick stop. It's the last drinking water and rest rooms for many a mile as you head north. That facility is scheduled to be open daily (10-4) through November 4, and then on weekends only through November 18, weather permitting
About three miles north of the Craggy Gardens Visitor Center, the Glassmine Falls overlook (MP 361.2) provides one of the few spots along the Parkway where you can see a waterfall'albeit from a considerable distance'from the side of the road. The flow of the falls varies considerably during the year, and at times it's down to a trickle or less. It's running nicely now, thanks to recent rains.
Plan Ahead for Meals
If your drive will overlap with a mealtime, it's a good idea to pack a picnic, and there are plenty of fine spots to enjoy your lunch with a view. If you want to have a sit-down meal, your only option near this part of the Parkway is the restaurant at Mount Mitchell State Park, a short detour off the Parkway at MP 355.4. That facility will close for the season at the end of October, and during fall color season, expect a wait for a table.
Mount Mitchell (6,684 feet above sea level) is the highest point in the country east of the Mississippi, and a short hike to a viewing platform offers fine views on clear days. However, if your main interest is in fall foliage, you're too late for this year at these higher elevations.
Fine Fall Foliage Plus Long-Range Views
You will find an outstanding place for both a long-range view and some nice fall color just a few miles north of Mount Mitchell, at the Green Knob Overlook (MP 350.4). It's worth a stop.
Plenty of fine scenery beckons elsewhere along the Parkway, but if your time for a brief sample from Asheville is limited, you can either retrace your drive back to town, or take an alternate route, beginning at Buck Creek Gap (MP 344). You can leave the Parkway at this point via NC Highway 80; it's about 18 miles down (literally) through the small town of Marion to Interstate 40 and then back to Asheville.
Although some rain is predicted for Thursday, the weather forecast for the North Carolina portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway for Friday through next Wednesday is outstanding: cool and mostly sunny. The next week should be prime time for fall foliage'at the right elevation'but if you have some flexibility in your schedule, I'd suggest you plan your trip for a weekday and avoid what's likely to be a busy time on Saturday and Sunday.