Predictions Of Good Fall Color Proving True On Blue Ridge Parkway

(Top) A short drive north on the Parkway from Asheville found some nice fall color this week. (Bottom) Green Knob Overlook offers both long-range views and fine color. Jim Burnett photos.

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

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Cliff faces on the opposite side of the Parkway from overlooks can also have fine scenery. Jim Burnett photo.

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.

Comments

Jim's right, the Parkway and High Country of North Carolina are aflame with fall color and that surely holds for most of the loftier Southern Appalachians. I second Jim's suggestion—the weather looks stellar all the way through next week to the following weekend (27th). If you can spare those vacation days for next week—you will have the Blue Ridge at its most stunning, and come close to having it to yourself!

We can't get up there till the end of Oct-- wonder if there will be any color left??

Hope so, Dick. Last year there was still some nice color in late Oct. at lower elevations in the areas just off the Parkway.

We are planning to take a drive up to Asheville and on the Blue Ridge Parkway tomorrow. Where do you recommend we drive to for the best color? I am from Houston and have never been on the Parkway before.

Ginny -

Perhaps some other readers will offer their ideas. If not, based on my drive earlier this week, I'd make the trip suggested in this article.

Start from Asheville and head north on the Parkway; you should find good color within the first few miles. As you gain elevation around Craggy Gardens (MP 364, about 20 miles north of Asheville) the color will disappear for a few miles, but dont give up! Nice color will reappear when the road drops below about 4500 feet. One of the best spot on our drive on Tuesday was around MP 350. Color was still nice when we left the Parkway at MP 344, so I'd expect it to continue if you drive further north.

You could also head south from Asheville on the Parkway, but if you go more than an hour or so southbound, a lot of the road gets up above 5,000 feet, where I suspect most of the color is about finished for the year. Lower elevations on the road south of Asheville are found for the first few miles near the southern end of the road, where it joins Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Just keep in mind that the maximum speed limit on the Parkway is 45 mph, there will be some traffic this weekend, and you'll want to allow time to stop at pullouts... so it's about the views, not the number of miles covered!

Hope you enjoy your trip:-)

Thanks Jim-- I see the temp up in the mountains is in the lower 40's this morning-- can hardly wait to get out of this hot and humid Florida weather!!!

Update on Friday Oct 19 for the section of the Parkway between Asheville and the end of the drive just north of Cherokee, NC.

We drove this stretch today; there's some nice color for the first few miles south from Asheville, then things are pretty low-key until you get closer to the Waynesville, NC area. The best color today was from about MP 440 to MP 446, which is just north of the point where US Hwy 23 & 74 cross the Parkway between Waynesville and Sylva.

There was also very nice color near MP 455 (Fed Cove Overlook) and in the last few miles before the Parkway ends in Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Cherokee.

Good rule of thumb in this area today: above 5,000 feet there is not much color; the very best areas are generally those between about 2,800 and 4,200 feet above sea level. A general guide to elevation and mile posts is found at this link.

Finally - today was pretty windy, and quite a few leaves were coming down ... but there should still be plenty left for next week!