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September Heat Could Impact Fall Colors In WNC

Nick Breedlove/Jackson County TDA
Fall foliage in Jackson County on Waterrock Knob.

  Fall is not just a beautiful season in the mountains of Western North Carolina. The foliage is also an economic driver for the region.

Dr. Beverly Collins is a biology professor at Western Carolina University. She predicted a bright and colorful leaf season but the September weather might be changing that forecast.

“We’ve been having a pretty intense heat wave since August,” says Collins.


It’s been about 10 degrees hotter than the historical average for September says Collins, who has been tracking the fall color in the mountains for over 10 years.  She explains the heat and lack of rain impact the time for peak fall foliage to make it later or more brown. 

 “We’ve gone away from the historical weather trends that would have given us really good color or a closer to normal peak color time,” says Collins. 

She says normal rainfall for the rest of September will bring peak color that will just be a bit delayed. 

Until the last 3 to 5 years, Cullowhee and the rest of the region had historically normal temperatures. Now it’s been getting warmer, says Collins. 

“We have been in a warming hole which means that we have not been warming as fast as the rest of the southeast and the rest of the country,” says Collins. 

 Fall foliage begins to turn when the temperatures cool in the evenings. If it stays warm too far into the season, the leaves will turn straight to brown instead of bright reds, oranges and yellows.

USA Today ranked Jackson County in the top ten for fall destinations in the nation. 


“A good leaf season can make or break our October.”

 That’s Nick Breedlove. He’s executive director of the tourism and development authority for Jackson County. 

Last year, October was the 4th best month for tourism in the county. Summer is still the biggest season. 

“I see the first signs of the leaves changing on Main Street. There are some beautiful sugar maples, those turn bright orange,” says Breedlove. 


Last year’s leaves didn’t reach peak color before being blown down by hurricane winds says Breedlove. Growing up in Jackson County he remembers cooler falls and winters. 


However, last year tourism still grew by over 10 percent and they spent about $205 million dollars in the county. 


“I really believe that the leaf colors will be stunning this year. My fingers are crossed,” says Breedlove. 


In Jackson County the elevation ranges from 2,000 feet in Sylva to over 6,000 on the top peak in the county on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Leaves change at different times for each elevation. 


Breedlove recommends visiting the mountains from October through November to see the fall colors that the mountains are famous for. 


Lilly Knoepp serves as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina. She is a native of Franklin, NC who returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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