Top 5 Trees You’ll Likely See During a Fall Visit to Cherokee | Cherokee, NC

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Top 5 Trees You’ll Likely See During a Fall Visit to Cherokee

[Photo above by bekkitony via Instagram]

As we move into the crisp months of autumn, deciduous foliage in Cherokee begins to show splendid displays of color. Many factors affect the timing and brilliance of fall foliage. Naturalist and botanist Dan Pittillo, a retired professor of biology who taught at Western Carolina University for 40 years, was the fall leaf predictor from the 1990s through 2004. He provided insight to local and regional media outlets and continues to offer predictions as requested.

During his decades of experience, Dan developed a specific set of conditions that can help him guess when we can expect the most brilliant colors (e.g. drier year with bright sunny days, cool nights, and no heavy rains in the early fall point toward an earlier color change). We asked him for thoughts on this year’s autumn for the Jackson County portion of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Qualla Boundary.

Dan predicts that trees, shrubs, and vines will be brighter this year than in 2015 based on many points, including droughty spring and early summer; reduced cell growth in tree twigs and rings; and adequate moisture to maintain foliage through summer.

As colors vary depending on elevation, traveling by car, rather than simply by foot, is the best way to see all the reds, yellows, and oranges of fall, as you can cover a bigger range of elevations in a shorter amount of time. Check out Waterrock Knob (with altitude of 6,293’) and Yellowface (6,293’) in the Plott Range of the southern Appalachian Mountains.

Mike LaVoie, a biologist for the EBCI Fisheries and Wildlife Management team, suggests the Mile High area off the Blue Ridge Parkway as a unique spot with open views (milepost 458.2 on the Blue Ridge Parkway to Heintooga Ridge Road). Dan adds that the Mile High area offers the northern hardwood and red oak forest and a spruce-fir forest near the picnic area. He says that driving the one-way Straight Fork Road into Cherokee would offer a wonderful leaf peeping experience.

Below are some trees you’ll likely see on a visit to Cherokee. High elevations are defined by anything above 4,500 feet, mid-elevations are 2,000–4,500 feet, and lower elevations are 1,700–2,000 feet.

1. Red and Sugar Maple for reds, oranges, and yellows (high to mid elevations, late September)​
[Photo by Jim Dollar]

2. Yellow Poplar (high to mid elevations, late September)

[Photo by D'Arcy Norman]

3. Yellow and Sweet Birch (high elevations, late September through early October)​
[Photo by Danna]

4. Sourwood for brilliant red (mid to low elevations, early October)

[Photo by Martin LaBar]

5. Scarlet Oak for red (low elevations at end of season into November)​

[Photo by JPC]

Be sure to keep your eyes open for other wonderful elements of nature. Low bush berries offer brilliant reds and vines (grapes, Virginia Creeper, and even poison ivy) are also colorful. Dan says, “Wildlife is more likely to appear when one sits quietly. Sometimes a bear or bobcat will cross the road on the trip down the Straight Fork road or even Parkway at dawn or dusk.”

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