Plan fall color trips now

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 1, 2011

With September, the attention of Carolinians turns to the stunning reds, yellows and oranges of fall foliage in the western mountains.
The peak of the fall color season is forecast to start in the higher elevations of the North Carolina mountains during the second week of October. South Carolina’s peak usually is a few weeks behind its neighbor.
Hotel and bed-and-breakfast rates rise in mountain communities during the foliage season, and there is no shortage of local motels, national chains and bed-and-breakfasts that offer package deals. Book now, because the color season historically is one of the busiest for the region.
Yet a tough economy doesn’t mean you have to miss nature’s show. You can cover a lot of ground in two days – on the Blue Ridge Parkway, for instance – broken up by a restful over-night hotel stay.
Or plan a trip to the foothills. For most vacationers, the foothills are closer, which saves gasoline. Color peaks are later in the fall than at higher elevations but are no less visually spectacular. And importantly, hotel rates can be much cheaper.
Budget tighter than that? In both Carolinas, some northern and western Piedmont counties put on a brilliant autumn show, which can be enjoyed on a Sunday-afternoon drive. Look for rural areas with predominantly deciduous trees, such as oaks, maples, poplars and birches.
Both states have websites that provide information about the progress of the fall color show and about travel accommodations. The sites are www.discoversouthcarolina.com and www.visitnc.com.
Kathy Mathews, a biologist at Western Carolina University, said this year’s leaf show should be particularly vibrant, thanks to low rainfall this spring. Mathews makes foliage forecast each year.
Heavy spring rains generally are a bad sign for fall color, Mathews recently told the university’s student newspaper. But “records indicate that rainfall was slightly below normal for March, average for April and May, and slightly below normal for June and July, as gardeners struggled to keep their crops watered,” she said. “These conditions actually are promising for good development of leaf color in September and October.”
A drop in hot temperatures in mid-August is another good sign of vibrant leaf color, Mathews added.
In North Carolina, home to some of the highest mountain peaks on the East Coast, leaf changes often begin in late September. The colors creep down the mountains – and across the foothills – through mid- to late November. Foothill communities include Reidsville, Winston-Salem, Hickory and Salisbury. But leaf-watchers monitor areas as far east as William B. Umstead State Park in Raleigh and Weymouth Woods-Sandhills Nature Preserve in Southern Pines.
In Upstate South Carolina, the mountain foliage display typically peaks later in the fall due to the and even later, the color changes march eastward across the state, beginning in the foothills. Noted South Carolina destinations are the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Highway and the Cheraw, Sesquicentennial Poinsett and Caesars Head state parks.
There are other ways to enjoy the foliage on a budget.
• Pack a lunch. Better yet, pack supper.
• Skip pricey stops by filling the family cooler with snacks, water and soft drinks.
• Book a hotel that provides free breakfast.
• Plan. Getting lost wastes gasoline.

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