It's time to start planning a trip to take in fall's colors in a display that could really pop if the weather continues to cooperate.
It's early yet — the webcam at the 6,643-foot Clingman's Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Friday showed the hazy peaks along the Tennessee-North Carolina border are still are a lush, deep green — but leaf-peeping experts say it's nearly time to make the most of one of Mother Nature's most colorful displays.
Officials at the Tennessee Climate Office at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City said a few leaves are already losing their green hues.
"I've actually noticed a few maples in our area of Northeast Tennessee starting to get some colorful leaves on the tops of the trees," Assistant State Climatologist William Tollefson said in an email. "I don't think we are heading for a full fall color show yet, but there are some signs that it is on the way."
Recipe for fall color
There are two key factors for a good leaf color season, Tollefson said. First, there must be just enough rain over the summer; getting too little or too much can stress the trees.
"I think most of East Tennessee should be good on that ingredient this year, as long as we don't get a flash drought to develop in the next month or so," he said.
"No. 2, cool nights and warm — but not too warm — sunny days in the first few weeks of fall are the perfect combination for the color to really pop," Tollefson said. "We've had a few of these and, hopefully, more coming in the next week."
That's only if the weather cooperates for fans of fall colors, and Tennessee's weather is fickle.
"If we do get a later season heat wave, late September through October, that can slow down and dull the color for the season," Tollefson said. "The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Prediction Center does show most of Tennessee will likely warm to above average for the end of September, and the September-October-November outlook is leaning towards warmer than normal but not with a high level of confidence. So we may still get a good season."
The leaf-peeping season's biggest threat is a tropical storm and heavy winds from a storm system.
"The last thing to think about for a good leaf season is the hope that you don't get a big storm system or wind-maker during the color season that will blow down all the leaves right away once they have turned," he said. "And then a final thought for fall color fans is that the varied elevations of East Tennessee, Western North Carolina and the Cumberland Plateau give us a chance for an extended leaf-peeping season since with relatively short drives you can see color sooner if you go up in elevation and later if you go down in elevation or south along the Tennessee Valley."
According to the U.S. Forest Service, certain fall colors are characteristic of particular species:
— Oaks are red, brown or russet.
— Hickories are a golden bronze.
— Aspen and yellow poplar are golden yellow.
— Dogwood trees are a purplish-red.
— Beech are a light tan.
— Sourwood and black tupelo trees are crimson.
— Maples vary in the fall with red maples becoming a brilliant scarlet, sugar maples an orange-red, black maples are a glowing yellow and striped maples are almost colorless.
Helpful fall color map
The U.S. Forest Service and Georgia Department of Natural Resources refer the fall colors faithful to the nongovernment website SmokyMountains.com, which features a fall foliage map with a time-slider that shows predicted fall foliage change county by county across the U.S.
The first, minimal leaf color changes south of Pennsylvania and east of the Mississippi River are predicted for next week for a small patch of mountainous counties along the Tennessee-Georgia-North Carolina border, according to the online map. No counties on the Tennessee side of the state line are shown with color change, but Fannin County, Georgia, is predicted to have a minimal color shift.
By the week of Sept. 18, some broader color change is predicted in the northeast corner of Tennessee, but most of East Tennessee's mountain counties will remain green until the week of Sept. 25, the map shows. Valley counties north of Chattanooga could have spotty changes in color that will increase in subsequent weeks.
The Chattanooga region in Southeast Tennessee is predicted to see the first changes in the first week of October, while peak color, according to the map, will begin at the lower elevations in mid-October and should continue to grow more vivid heading into November. The map can't predict how vivid colors will be or account for the impact of sudden weather changes.
The Chattanooga region's tourism industry looks to fall's color spectacle for visitation revenue for entities ranging from state and national parks to local companies such as Rock City Gardens atop Lookout Mountain and the Chattanooga Riverboat Co.'s Southern Belle on the Tennessee River.
"We cruise five days a week for the Fall Leaf Cruise all through October and two weeks into November," Joy Reinert, spokesperson and sales manager for the Chattanooga River Boat Co., said in an email. "They are three-hour cruises going into what they call the 'Grand Canyon of the South.' We offer gorgeous views, whether it's colored or not, live music, games and full narration."
Response so far this year has been "amazing," she said. Some cruises through the Tennessee River Gorge have already sold out.
"Typically the colors are better the last week in October," Reinert said.
Autumn brilliance destinations
One of fall's most popular regional color meccas is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where the color change depends a great deal on elevation, according to the National Park Service.
At higher elevations in the Smokies, where the climate is similar to New England's, color displays start as early as mid-September with the turning of yellow birch, American beech, mountain maple, hobblebush and pin cherry, according to park service information. From early to mid-October, fall colors develop above 4,000 feet, so motorists can drive the Clingmans Dome Road, the Blue Ridge Parkway or the Foothills Parkway to reach those early color-spotting sites.
The fall color display in the Smokies usually peaks at middle and lower elevations between mid-October and early November, according to the park service. This is the park's most spectacular display as colorful trees such as the sugar maple, scarlet oak, sweetgum, red maple and the hickories blaze in full color.
Fall Creek Falls and South Cumberland state parks, as well as Savage Gulf and Grundy Forest state natural areas, are all popular higher-altitude destinations, according to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. Prentice Cooper State Forest, on the Hamilton-Marion county line near Chattanooga, is also filled with hardwoods and is just a few minutes from downtown.
In Georgia, there are two state parks — Cloudland Canyon State Park on Lookout Mountain in Georgia and Fort Mountain State Park near Chatsworth — where blazing fall colors draw visitors in the fall, according the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
Georgia's mountainous northeastern counties also pack a brilliant display where the Blue Ridge Mountains continue south out of Tennessee. Natural resources officials' top sites nearest Tennessee include Smithgall Woods and Unicoi state parks near Helen; Black Rock Mountain and Tullulah Gorge state parks near Clayton; Vogel State Park near Blairsville; Moccasin Creek State Park near Lake Burton in Rabun County and James H. Floyd State Park near Summerville.
If you miss the chance to hit the mountains and points north, don't despair, the lower elevations in Hamilton County, according to the prediction map, will be one of the last counties in Southeast Tennessee to go from green to flaming reds, oranges and yellows during the last couple of weeks of October. More southerly portions of Lookout Mountain in Georgia and Alabama will peak in early November.
"The best fall color is usually late October in Northwest Georgia, especially around Cloudland Canyon and Fort Mountain state parks," Georgia Department of Natural Resources State Parks and Historic Sites spokesperson Kim Hatcher said in an email . "Often this extends into early November. Northeast Georgia tends to turn a bit earlier."
Leaf color and climate change
Many factors can disrupt fall color displays, according to Nick Bradford, program director of research and innovation at the National Environmental Education Foundation in Washington, D.C. Scientists believe in the coming years, higher temperatures, increased precipitation, increased cloud cover and higher concentrations of nitrogen due to climate change will act together to mute fall colors. Models predict by 2100, leaf coloring will be delayed an average of 13 days when compared to the present.
Research shows warmer temperatures due to climate change have already delayed leaf coloring and leaf drop in New England, Bradford said in a November 2022 article posted on the foundation's website. Warming temperatures have also been associated with the earlier onset of spring. The combination of an earlier spring and a delayed fall season has increased the active growing season.