Leaf looking

How to get the most out of leaf looking

The Western North Carolina mountains are an ideal place to view fall colors and October is a perfect time to get out and appreciate the changing fall foliage.

Those in Banner Elk are in a prime location to check out the changing leaves. Whether they choose to stay on campus and appreciate the nearby colors or take a short drive to another spot, there are plenty of options.

The 2021 fall color forecast projects the second week of October as the peak leaf color period for Banner Elk. Colors are expected to peak during the third week of the month in Boone, Blowing Rock, West Jefferson, and Price Lake. The final week of October is the best time to check out the colors in Wilkesboro, Stone Mountain State Park, and Yadkin Valley Overlook.


The best local viewing spots

Katie Wall, Outdoor Recreation Management program coordinator, said the Hemlock Trail is an ideal spot for students who don’t want to or can't leave campus.

“That can get you up to a little elevation,” she said. “That would be a great spot to see some leaves and different views of campus and views of Banner Elk.”

For those who don’t mind a short drive, Wall suggests the Blue Ridge Parkway.

“You’re going to see all kinds of stuff,” Wall said about driving the Parkway. “There are a lot of good pull-offs. It’s an easy spot.”

Cody Porter, assistant professor of Wildlife Biology, also touted the Parkway but added Elk Knob State Park, Grandfather Mountain, and Roan Mountain to the list of ideal foliage viewing spots.

Students, faculty, and staff will inevitably get plenty of fall views even without planning a viewing trip.

“The students don’t really have to go anywhere,” Wall said. “They can just walk around campus. There are a lot of views you can get on campus just meandering around. That’s pretty huge for us.”


Leaving no trace

Peak leaf season in the High Country also means an increase in visitors to the area.

As visitors traverse local trails, overlooks, and other sites, there is a chance that they’ll leave behind litter or let their dogs wander off-leash and create messes. Wall said the Outdoor Recreation Management program provides students special training in "leave no trace" outdoor ethics.

Wall said with that approach in mind, it’s important to remember to leave nature as untouched as possible, adding that leaf lookers should always be mindful of cleaning up their trash and any messes that their pets leave behind.

“More people means more potential for changing the places that we love,” Wall said. “Just be thoughtful about being out and aware of your surroundings.”


The science behind the beauty

The fall foliage color change comes through a combination of internal and external factors, said Shinjini Goswami, assistant professor of Biology.

“Change in colors is generally triggered by shifts in hormones inside the plant body,” Goswami said. “The outside environmental trigger that initiates such a shift is the warm, summer weather interrupted by a sudden cold spell, which is followed by a warm spell again.”

This season, all those factors are falling into place perfectly.

“That’s exactly what happened in the past three weeks in areas surrounding us, which triggered this change,” Goswami said.

When imagining trees as factories, leaves can be considered seasonal workers. When resources like water, sunlight, and carbon dioxide are regularly available,  the leaves are hard at work. When those resources slow during the cooler months and shorter days, there’s not much for them to do. The tree then sends the leaves off so as not to waste energy. This internal chemical process creates the multi-colored fall foliage that leaf lookers know and love.


Other factors in fall foliage timing

Autumn color in the mountains and foothills lasts for several weeks, so leaf lookers don’t have to worry much about exact dates for optimal viewing. While peak viewing time happens in October, the Blue Ridge and the Great Smoky Mountains have some of the longest autumn color seasons in the country thanks to a multitude of deep peaks.

The elevation is the chief factor for the timing of leaf color change. Chilly, sunny weather speeds up the process, while warm, rainy weather prolongs it.

Take a guided tour of one of the best trails in the area for fall views >>

By Cory SpiersOctober 11, 2021
CommunityCampus Life