Foliage Experts Say Early Autumn Weather Key to Southern Appalachian Leaf Season

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (Sept. 21, 2006) — Leaf peepers hoping to find the perfect time for fall foliage this year might be surprised to learn that experts in the Southern Appalachians don’t always know when the leaves will peak.

“So many factors can effect color development,” explains Dan Pitillo, a retired Western Carolina University Biology Professor with 40 years experience in observing Appalachian tree species.

“Weather patterns during September play a prominent role in determining brilliance and length of this year’s show,” he said. “The color usually develops five to 10 days after the first light frost, so timing of the onset of color will be predicted by this.”

Blue Ridge Parkway Management Assistant Phil Noblitt agrees. “Stress is the main factor,” he adds. “In general, an early fall with cool, but not freezing, nights and sunny days will jumpstart the onset of color, but on the other hand, an unusually warm September and October will tend to delay it.”

“The good news is that the trees seem to be in fine shape,” adds Gary Walker, a biology professor at Appalachian State University. “The mountains have not experienced any major weather patterns earlier this year that would hinder the leaves from producing lively colors.”

Due to the differences in elevations, the mountains of Western North Carolina typically enjoy a lengthy fall color season. Ranging from 2,000 feet in the valleys to 6,684 feet at Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi River, the mountains surrounding Asheville boast a range of microclimates and tree species that create one of the most extended fall foliage seasons in the nation.

“This means it doesn’t happen all at once,” Chimney Rock Park Naturalist Ron Lance explains. “The higher mountains peak about two to three weeks ahead of the lower mountains. So it’s easy to see a display of fall color any time during a five or six week period, just by adjusting the choice of leaf-peeping drives.”

In an effort to assist travelers in crafting their fall getaway, Asheville is streamlining the leaf-peeping process by utilizing one of the fastest-growing trends – a downloadable free audio file that visitors can transfer to their personal MP3 players, cell phones and PDA’s from their home computers before heading out into the Blue Ridge.

Starting mid-September and continuing through November, local acclaimed photographer J. Scott Graham will chronicle his leaf-seeking experiences on www.exploreasheville.com/fall.asp, detailing the progress of the leaf change and providing tips on photographing the Blue Ridge landscape.

Graham has been capturing this region’s autumn beauty for more than 17 years and knows off-the-beaten path locations that the average tourist may not.

In addition, weekly fall color reports will be posted on the site to tip off visitors to the best fall color and scenic drives, using advice gathered from Blue Ridge Parkway, U.S. Forest Service officials and a cadre of leaf spotters throughout the mountains.

Visitors can access useful fall getaway tips by visiting www.exploreasheville.com or calling (800) 921-9698. The site will provide a calendar of events and a place for avid leaf peepers to log on and share their favorite spots in the North Carolina mountains. The information will be available through early November.

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