NC’s fall leaf forecast is out. Here’s when and where to see the hills change colors

The North Carolina hills are about to be alive with color, and forecasters have released their projections for when the shades of red, yellow and orange will be their most intense.

If you plan a trip to the mountains, know that tens of thousands of people come to the region each fall in pursuit of “peak” color, which also means peak traffic, especially along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Arriving a few days before or after the projected peak for a particular elevation — and going on a Tuesday instead of a Saturday — allows you to see essentially nature’s same masterpiece, but it’s easier to find parking spots at the overlooks and there will be fewer strangers in the margins of your photos.

Why does color peak at different times each year?

Maples, beech, birch and other deciduous trees in the N.C. mountains show their colors from late September through early November every year, with the peak of color happening first at the highest elevations and cascading to lower elevations over the next several weeks.

Blue Ridge Parkway biologists say colors peak at slightly different times from year to year because of complex environmental factors and the trees’ genetics. Colors are best in years when autumn days are cool and sunny, and night temperatures stay above freezing.

The most colorful autumns usually follow summers when the mountains have had ideal rainfall — enough but not too much.

Unusually cold temperatures in early fall usually result in a subdued color palate, biologists say.

When is the best time to go this fall?

Here’s a breakdown of peak color forecasts by elevation for this year, offered by the N.C. High Country Host, based in Blowing Rock:

  • Last Week of September: 6,000-foot elevation (Mount Mitchell, Grandfather Mountain)

  • First week of October: 5,000-foot elevation (Beech Mountain, Elk Knob, Rough Ridge Trail on the Blue Ridge Parkway)

  • Second week of October: 4,000-foot elevation (Banner Elk, Mount Jefferson, Howard’s Knob, Hanging Rock, Jumpingoff Rocks Trail on the Blue Ridge Parkway)

  • Third week of October: 3,000-foot elevation (Boone, Blowing Rock, West Jefferson, Price Lake on the Blue Ridge Parkway)

  • 4th Week of October: 2,000-foot elevation (Wilkesboro, Stone Mountain State Park, Yadkin Valley Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway)

The best places to see the most color

A drive along any of the 252 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway through North Carolina will be dazzling. From the overlooks, drivers often can see a carpet of color stretching out over thousands of feet in elevation. (There are some ongoing closures on the parkway for maintenance and repairs that require detours, described here, but those can be fun.)

To see the peak in late September:

Visit Mount Mitchell State Park and hike to the observation deck. The highest peak in the Eastern U.S. can be shrouded in fog even when the surrounding area is under blue skies, but the drive to and from the park offers a rich display in late September. Check current conditions at Mount Mitchell through the N.C. High Peaks Trail Association’s weather station.

Go to Grandfather Mountain – the private attraction, adjacent to the state park – and visit the mile-high swinging bridge for a panoramic view of the changing leaves on the mountaintops.

In the first half of October:

When leaves are peaking in the 4,000- and 5,000-foot range, have a picnic and take a hike at Mount Jefferson State Natural Area, about a half-hour north of Boone and about 10 minutes from the town of West Jefferson.

Visit Howard’s Knob, a small Watauga County park overlooking the town of Boone, which also has picnic tables and walking paths. It’s a 10-minute drive from downtown. Note that it closes for the year on Oct. 20.

In the second half of October:

Leaves will be gorgeous around Julian Price Memorial Park on the Blue Ridge Parkway, with its scenic lake and friendly hiking trails, as well as the adjacent Moses Cone Memorial Park, where the textile magnate’s 20-room mountain home is once again open to the public. Inside the manor is a gift shop of the Southern Highland Craft Guild.

See the leaves, catch a craft or music festival

Autumn is festival season in the mountains, with events that coincide with some of the best fall color, including:

Cherokee Heritage Festival in Hayesville

Art in the Park, Blowing Rock

Prohibition Hot Rod & Moonshine Festival, and Carolina in the Fall Music and Food Festival, both in Wilkesboro

New River Festival, Todd

Wooly Worm Festival, Banner Elk

Autumn at Oz and the Mile-High Kite Festival, both in Beech Mountain

Antlers & Acorns, Boone

Valle Country Faire, Valle Crucis

West Jefferson Antiques Fair, West Jefferson

Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands, Asheville

If you can’t get to the mountains this fall…

Or if you want to see how the colors are looking in the area where you plan to travel, the Blue Ridge Parkway has a list of web cam links that will give you a glimpse.