Recent weather pattern ideal for vibrant fall colors this year, higher elevations nearing peak now


JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Economically, fall is the most successful time in the higher elevations because of the scenery. It brings in hundreds of millions of dollars to the Appalachians. 

“I love fall here in Johnson County, because of the changing of the colors, the mountains, the lake,” long time resident Bob Hensley said. 

Everyone has their own favorite spots to do some leaf-peeping weather in east Tennessee, North Carolina, or Southwest Virginia.

“When you go up the Iron Mountain on 421 as you go toward Bristol before you get to say the valley anywhere you want to stop along the way, fall colors are just beautiful you look down into the valley,” Hensley explained. 

“Driving anywhere on the Blue Ridge Parkway is a good place to go,” Howard Neufeld, Professor of Biology at Appalachian State in Boone said. 

According to Neufeld, several factors work together weather-wise to create the best fall foliage.

“Cool days, and especially cool nights and sunny days. Maybe a little bit of drought. not a lot, but just a little,” Neufeld explained. “Usually if you have drought, it means it’s sunny out. And if you have those combinations of things starting in September, and carrying through into the beginning of October, then you get the brightest colors.”

The best color starts in the higher elevations about 4,000 to 4,500 feet where it’s cooler. The peak likely up there in the next few days (October 5-10) before working its way down.

“About every thousand feet, you go down in elevation, it’s about seven to 10 days later,” Neufeld said. “So if you miss it at one elevation, you can just go to a lower elevation or you can go to an overlook at a higher elevation, look down.”

Neufeld said some parts of the day are better for venturing out than others.

“The fall colors always look better, early in the morning, or even later in the afternoon. Around midday they tend to get washed out,” he said.

Predicting peak fall foliage also piques meteorology student Evan Fisher’s interest. He starts looking at weather patterns in the summer.

“It can be tricky. Obviously, these forecasts are very weather dependent on their approach entirely weather depends so just a small change in our one to two-week pattern can bring big differences,” he said.

Fisher provided high-resolution maps for us showing when the peak week is expected.

In general, fall foliage is expected to peak this year around the third and fourth weeks of October in the immediate Tri-Cities. Again, it will peak this week in the very highest elevations.

Here is an interactive map he made so you can zoom in closer to get a better idea. Use the legend from the maps above to help figure out when the peak time is for specific areas.

“The leaves are running ahead of schedule, ahead of schedule compared to the past three years,” Fisher said.

Given our stretch of cool weather already, both Neufeld and Fisher agree indications point toward picturesque views this year.

“We may have some really striking red colors,” Neufeld said.

“It’s just a wonder, you can see God’s finest blessings anytime you see that, and I really enjoy being here,” Hensley said.

According to Neufeld, here are some tips and recommendations to stay safe while leaf-peeping:

  1. Take the proper COVID precautions when you’re around a lot of people. Don’t congregate with other people at an overlook. Instead spread out. You’ll still have a great view no matter where you are. If you’re hiking on a narrow trail, put your mask on when you pass people.
  2. If you want to avoid crowds, go during the week instead of the weekend or go early in the day. The color saturation of the leaves will even be better early in the day. 
  3. As Robert Frost said, “Take the road less traveled.” Find a nice country road or scenic byway. The Blue Ridge Parkway can get very congested. 

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