When, where to find fall color

Editor’s note: This is a piece we run annually around this time. It has been tweaked, updated and massaged.

When it comes to fall color, outdoors types take the changing of the leaves pretty seriously.

How seriously?

Virginia has a fall foliage hotline — 800.424.5683 — that you can call for the latest breaking fall color news. Operators standing by; in our book, that’s quite serious. And, curiously, quite practical.

fall hikes
Grayson Highlands/Mount Rogers

Fall color can break out overnight. Generally, the chromatic change begins at the highest elevations and cascades downhill. In North Carolina, that means you might head first to Mount Mitchell (6,684 feet) or Clingman’s Dome (41 feet shorter, at 6,643 feet), and in Virginia, to Mount Rogers (5,729 feet) or its neighbor, Whitetop Mountain (5,518 feet). More northerly locations, with generally cooler temperatures, can also see earlier color. The various microclimates that exist in the rugged Southern Appalachians can also affect when fall color will appear.

The main factor to track, though, is the weather, because without the right weather, good color isn’t happening no matter how high you are. On that front, things are looking pretty good for a colorful autumn in the mid-Atlantic.

And the prospects for fall color in the mountains?

“Our warm, wet weather this summer and fall, along with tropical storms moving through the area, could put a little damper on fall color this year,” says Western Carolina University Professor of Biology Professor Beverly Collins. “Although the National Weather Service predicts near-normal temperatures and a wetter than average September, the 90-day period through November is predicted to be warmer than average.”

On the plus side, she predicts the fall color season may extend later into the year than usual. ” …our color season may run from late September well into November from high to low elevations and north to south in Western North Carolina – unless a late storm knocks the leaves off the trees, of course.”

Typically, warm, dry days and cool nights — with minimal rain — bodes well for bright colors. And that was the case the beginning of September.  Here’s how, depending upon where you live:


As we mentioned, Virginia has its fall foliage hotline. Then, beginning Thursday you can set your leaf peeper cam to one of several webcams in Shenandoah National Park to get realtime views of the action. The park will also keep you abreast of color developments on its various social media outlets, which you can find here.

The Virginia Department of Forestry is also on top of things, with a weekly fall foliage report that’s now underway. Its fall foliage home page points you to great places to catch fall color, descriptions of which leaves turn which colors, why they turn color in the first place — just about everything you need to know. Find it here.

The Virginia Department of Forestry adds that, typically, the color changes in the mountains from Oct. 10-20, in central Virginia Oct. 15-25 and in eastern Virginia Oct. 20-31.

North Carolina

In North Carolina, ExploreAsheville.com   keeps tabs on the latest color displays, which can help you determine where your color-seeking hikes should be focused. They also have an interactive fall color map that shows you in four-day increments where you should be able to find the best color (and also spots where there’s “minimal change,” “partial change” and “some color left”). It also suggests particularly good viewing locations and when to hit them.

Another key player in North Carolina: RomanticAsheville.com.  They advise getting the latest reports from their Facebook and Instagram accounts. Find it all here.

For general tracking purposes, between now and mid-October, expect the best color around 6,000 feet and above, dropping to the 5,000-foot level between the 16th and 20th, to 4,000 feet between the 21st and 25th, to 3,000 feet by the end of October, then popping at the 3,000- to 4,000-foot level into the first week of November before migrating into the Piedmont.

When the time comes to find fall color — when the hotline says it’s go time — we’ve got a 10 favorite places of our own you should check out; find them here.

Here’s hoping you have a color-filled fall!

Join us on a color-filledl trip

Here are two places we’re headed this fall that have the potential for great color. Click on the link for more information:

GetBackpacking! Appalachian Trail: Carvers Gap to US 19E, Oct. 15-17. 3-day, 2-night backpack trip on an iconic 14-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina and Tennessee. Learn more here.

GetHiking! Fall Weekend Escape: the AT at Hot Springs, Nov. 12-14. A 6-mile hike Saturday on the AT from Garenflo Gap into Hot Springs, a 7-mile hike Sunday from Tanyard Gap into Hot Springs. Learn more here.


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