Leaf lovers, get ready: Great Smoky Mountains National Park expects ‘fabulous fall color’ this season
By Joel Davis | (email@example.com)
Interest in the expected leaf color season in the Smokies remains evergreen. So do the questions of when, where and why concerning the change.
According to Park officials, all colors develop above 4,000 feet from early to mid-October. The typical peak of fall leaf color at the lower elevations, Cades Cove and Townsend, is between the third week of October and the first week of November. It is the weather during mid-October that determines the intensity of fall color season.
Through that time period you’re going to see fabulous fall color, depending on what elevation you’re at,” said Park spokeswoman Dana Soehn. “We’re staring to get the right conditions. We’re all hopeful for a beautiful display of color this year.
“We generally shy away from predicting peak season and that’s due to so many variations in weather,” she added.
Wayne Clatterbuck, professor of forestry at the University of Tennessee, said it is too early to predict the intensity of the fall colors.
“We’re in a dry period right now, and that’s usually pretty good,” he said. “We’ve had plenty of rain, but usually we want it to be dry and have some cool nights. That tends to perpetuate the colors better. We don’t want it to get into the 30s, but the 50s or high 40s.”
Waning daylight as fall approaches is the signal for the trees to begin their autumn transformation, Clatterbuck said.
“The shorter day length helps trigger that leaf reaction,” he said. “Generally, if it’s too wet or too warm, we don’t get as much vibrant leaf color. We’re looking for cool nights and dry weather. We’ve got the dry weather now, it’s just predicting what the weather is doing in October.”
The biological mechanism for the change is a pigment called phytochrome, which is a photoreceptor that plants use to detect light.
“As the days get shorter, the trees know the growing season has ended, and that phytochrome will start triggering changes within the chlorophyll of the leaves,” Clatterbuck said.
Season starts later
During the past decades, leaf season has begun happening later in the year. “We’re having warmer temperatures and that change is not occurring as rapidly as in the past,” he said.
The color change is occurring at least a week-to-10 days later than it was 15 years go, Clatterbuck said.
Dave Samuhel, senior metrologist with http://Accuweather.com , said that chances are a wetter fall will have an impact on leaf colors in East Tennessee.
“It’s looking like you’re going to end up a little rainier than normal,” he said. “For example, the normal rainfall in Knoxville is just shy of 10 inches from September to November. Last year, we were about 1.5 inches above normal. I think we’ll expect something similar to that this year.”
Although it’s not time for the full show locally, visitors can still find a colorful view in the Smokies, Soehn said. “It’s a bit early in September, but there are a few tree species at higher elevations that are beginning to turn,” she said.
“Really, what’s impressive right now are our fall wildflowers. At the higher elevations, you can find bee balm, which is scarlet red, mixed in with yellow sunflowers and white snakeroot and pink turtleheads. It’s an impressive display right now, especially along Clingmans Dome Road. “Goldenrod and ironweed in the meadows are in full bloom so you get that bright yellow and the royal purple.”
Jeff Muir, Blount Partnership communications director, said fall leaf season brings many visitors to the area.
“The changing of the leaves is always a special time around the Blount County area with Cades Cove and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park right in our back yard,” he said. “The wet summer weather should increase chances of seeing brilliant fall colors.
“The fall colors are always a major attraction for not only the tourists, but the locals as well. We get a lot calls and pay close attention to the National Park Service when they predict the peak weeks for viewing to get the word out. Normally the peak season at this elevation runs between mid-October and early November.
“Some of the best viewing points for early October include Clingmans Dome Road, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Foothills Parkway. Obviously, Cades Cove and Newfound Gap Road need to be traveled in October. I’d also check out Look Rock Tower.”
Large numbers of sightseers generally descend upon the Smokies during the last three weeks of October. Cades Cove and Newfound Gap Road generally experience the longest traffic delays during this time, according to the Park website.