Fall starting to light up the Piedmont

The understory (dogwood) is turning at Hemlock Bluffs, the canopy not yet.

Sunday, Marcy and I headed over to Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve in Cary after roadside flashes of sourwood red and dogwood peach suggested the fall color show was just getting underway. Roadside trees — stressed by the heat of automotive exhaust — are often the first to show their chromatic hand. When they start to go, we grab the camera and head for woods.

It’s not simply the color that makes fall hiking special. The sun, starting to favor the southern hemisphere with its direct sunlight, is sending us sideways rays that light the forest at increasingly intriguing angles. Angles that cast long shadows and highlight features we overlook in the overhead light of summer. And, of course, there’s also the cooler, drier weather: show of hands for who would rather hike in 70 degree temperatures with 10 percent humidity than then 90-90 days of summer.

After a cloudy, rainy start to this week, the weekend looks ideal for a hike: daytime highs right around 70, overnight lows in the mid- to upper-40s. Cool temperatures, sunny skies and emerging fall color.

Take a hike this weekend. Here are a few places to go.

Triangle

  • Light slices through the woods at illuminating angles come fall.

    Eno River State Park, Durham and Orange counties. The Buckquarter Creek/Holdens Mill 4.2-mile loop should have good streamside color, good ridgeline color.

  • Falls Lake / Mountains-to-Sea Trail, Durham, Wake counties. Your best bet for fall solitude, especially hiking west from NC 50. Good color as well as the trail spends considerable time in hardwood forest and along the lake.
  • Umstead State Park, Raleigh. Crowded: Company Mill Trail. A little less so: Sycamore Trail. Closed: Sal’s Branch Trail.

Fayetteville / Sanford

  • Raven Rock State Park. From the new visitors center, 90 percent of visitors head east toward namesake Raven Rock. Head west for peace and color along the 5.6-mile Campbell Creek Trail.

Triad

  • Hanging Rock State Park, Danbury. The pilgrimage to Hanging Rock is as crowded as that to Mecca. For equal views minus the masses, take the 4.2-mile Moores Wall Trail.
  • Piedmont Environmental Center, High Point. With 376 acres, a forest of mature
    Shadows on the forest floor also tell the story of fall.

    hardwoods, 11 miles of trail and a big lake, this may be your best bet for catching color in the Piedmont, period.

  • Pilot Mountain State Park, Pilot Mountain. The least crowded trail is down low; trouble is, you want the stellar views from up high. Good venue for the agoraphobic.

Charlotte

  • Crowders Mountain State Park, Kings Mountain. “Expect parking delays on nice fall weekends,” warns the Web site. Your best bet: Try the Boulders Access, the parks recently opened back door.
  • Mecklenburg County Nature Preserves, Mecklenburg County. Charlotte is blessed with a baker’s dozen nature preserves that offer an array of colorful experiences come fall.
The sun spotlights a fallen sweetgum leaf.

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