Autumn in the Blue Ridge Mountains

“But, California has seasons too, doesn’t it?” Friends commonly pose this question when I express my giddiness at the arrival of autumn. This is my third autumn in North Carolina, and I absolutely adore the season — the crisp mornings, apple cider, and, of course, the leaves as they change colors.

Don’t get me wrong; a great benefit of growing up in San Diego was the pleasant weather year-round. In fact I look forward to enjoying a burrito on the beach during the December holiday. Yet, growing up in a city lucky enough to have seasons I’ve heard described as ‘nice, nice, nice, and a little chilly’ does lead one to wonder what it’s like to live in a region with the quintessential four seasons.

This weekend, with hiking boots, camera and my indefatigable pup ready for adventure, I drove west out of Durham. As I cruised along, slowly gaining elevation, it seemed I was fast-forwarding through time; in just four hours I witnessed the weeks-long progression from the mostly green stands with scattered yellow in Durham to a rich blend of yellow, orange and red in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was in this reach of Southern Appalachia that I sought a display of fall colors so legendary that millions of visitors journey here and web pages are dedicated to predicting the color peak.

Upon arrival in Asheville I met with my friend and gracious host, and we weighed our trail options. The next day we set our course for Pisgah National Forest. I had been here before, but like Goldilocks, visited a little too early for fall colors one year, and tried to plan a visit a little too late the next year. This year the timing was just right!

At 70 degrees with a thin layer of clouds, the weather was perfect for hiking. The steepness of the trail was abated by plenty of switchbacks, on which my pup enjoyed figuring out which direction was correct, then zipping around each corner. Along the lower parts of the trail, the trees dwarfed us, and a light wind tousled the leaves in the canopy and sent some wafting down. My favorite section was a particularly vibrant stand, where the sunlight passed through the fiery colors above, casting golden hues on everything below.

The real reward of the hike, however, awaited us at the very top. It seemed the trail deliberately held us in suspense for it, offering tiny glimpses through the trees at the distant hills. Even once on the ridge line, the trail would not give it away, trees still hid the view, until the very last second. 

Try as I might, my photographs do not do justice to the astounding view from Looking Glass Rock of the fall colors.
Try as I might, my photographs could not do justice to the astounding view of the fall colors from Looking Glass Rock.

The forested trail abruptly ended, and we stepped out onto a huge, clear rock face, with the vast sky above, and mountains engulfed in fall colors as far as the eye can see. For more than 180 degrees around me, I see the sunlight playing on the reds, oranges and yellows, and I notice some patterns on the landscape that are perhaps indicative of the ecology below. 

Here in my second home of North Carolina, the change in seasons is at once a captivating natural phenomenon and a special reminder to celebrate the year before we shake off our old leaves to start afresh come January. The skies may be grayer but it’s a time to be colorful and grateful for what we have enjoyed, whether your harvest is new friendships, positive experiences, or revisiting old familiar ones.

American romantic poet William Cullen Bryant encapsulated this time of year best: “Autumn…the year’s last, loveliest smile.”

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