The Appalachian Highlands encompass a forested chain of mountains paralleling the Eastern Seaboard between southeastern Canada and northern Georgia and Alabama. Every September and October, as the ridge’s trees display their autumn radiance, leaf peepers flock to these slopes, especially in New England. But in this map we look southward, to the Shenandoah Valley, the Great Smoky Mountains and the region surrounding the Blue Ridge, where nature provides extraordinary experiences under the harvest moon.
The Appalachian Highlands paint a swath of four-season color along the Eastern United States: The Green Mountains of Vermont are named for the spring-to-summer palette (as is the state, from French words for “green” and “mountain”), while New Hampshire’s White Mountains celebrate the range’s winter wear. The Blue Ridge Mountains, including the Great Smokies on the North Carolina–Tennessee border, show off the misty veil created by gases released naturally from leaves in the treetop canopy. But the colors people most want to see, from Penobscot to Chattahoochee, are the reds, oranges, golds and purples of autumn.
The Appalachians began forming about 480 million years ago and probably once stood upwards of 15,000 feet tall. Following millennia of erosion, the mountains now top out at 6,684 feet (at Mount Mitchell, North Carolina) but are nonetheless high enough to re-create a Canadian climate deep in the South. (High elevations in lower latitudes have similar weather to low elevations at high latitudes.) During the most recent ice ages, northern trees such as spruces and firs migrated southward. When the planet warmed again, the high elevations of the Blue Ridge provided the cool climate many such plants need to survive.
The Appalachian Highlands are among the world’s best places for autumn leaf viewing. As winter approaches, with its lower light levels and cooler temperatures, the range’s deciduous trees and shrubs—those that are leafless for part of the year—change their color in spectacular fashion. The slopes are dense with maples spanning the yellow-to-red spectrum, while the golden hues of birch, beech and tamarack add brightening highlights, and hemlocks and other evergreens offer dark contrast. Most deciduous species have broad leaves, but certain needle-bearing trees, such as tamarack, bald cypress and some other conifers, also change color and go bare during the cold months.
Leaves are green because of chlorophyll, the substance that enables plants to photosynthesize, i.e., form carbohydrates (for food) from sunlight and carbon dioxide. As a leaf ages, its chlorophyll stores break down, and other pigments that were there all along, mainly in the yellow-orange-brown range, become prominent. Some foliage turns red or purple as aging leaves compensate for declining levels of phosphate, which is important to the food production process. Very sunny, crisp fall days with cool nights create the best conditions for the fiery Appalachian displays that bring leaf peepers out in droves.
The Blue Ridge Mountains, the stretch of the Appalachians from Pennsylvania to Georgia, vaunt a broader range of tree species than New England’s northern hardwood stands. Here, red and sugar maples, beeches and birches are joined by majestic tulip trees, seven types of hickories, red-berry-clad mountain ash, and brilliantly colorful tupelos, sweet gums, scarlet oaks and hobblebushes, among many others. These forests also support a diverse array of wildlife, including a concentration of American black bears.
Autumn motorists can view this splendor along the high-elevation Skyline Drive, in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, and the Blue Ridge Parkway, which runs from Shenandoah to Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the North Carolina–Tennessee border. A particularly striking stretch of Carolina parkway runs between Mount Mitchell (mile 355.4) and the intersection of Route 74 and Route 23 near Sylva (mile 443.1). Highlights for visitors include a trek up to Mount Mitchell’s summit (if it’s not shrouded in cloud cover), a stop in Asheville (mile 382.6) and a meal at the Pisgah Inn (mile 408.6), overlooking Pisgah National Forest. The Great Smokies, though more crowded during leaf season, usually have great color from Oconaluftee, the parkway’s southern terminus, upslope to Newfound Gap.
“I miss you most of all / my darling / when autumn leaves / start to fall.” Johnny Mercer’s lyrics for the song “Autumn Leaves” aren’t the only lines that relate fall and melancholy. As Ernest Hemingway writes in his memoir A Moveable Feast, “You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees.” But authors Albert Camus (“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower”), Lucy Maud Montgomery (“I'm so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers”) and George Eliot (“Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it”) held the season in more hopeful regard.
Autumn marks the annual agricultural harvest. (Henry David Thoreau welcomed the yield for his own reasons: “I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”) The catalog of autumn songs includes at least two about the harvest moon—the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox, when day and night are of roughly equal length. Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” and the Tin Pan Alley ditty “Shine On, Harvest Moon” celebrate love in autumnal light.
The Southeast hosts many harvest-oriented fairs and festivals replete with farm bounty and livestock displays. The annual Tennessee Fall Homecoming, a food, craft and music hootenanny, returns every October at the Museum of Appalachia. Fall events in Virginia’s vineyards include a festival at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s Alexandria estate. Genteel Beaufort and Charleston, South Carolina, fling open their doors for tours of historic homes and gardens. And good ol’ boys and gals gather at the Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds in Hiawassee for a September HOG (Harley Owners Group) rally followed by an October fall festival with fiddlers, lumberjack competitions and hunting dog demonstrations.
Key West, Florida, holds the region’s biggest Halloween bacchanal. For a tamer Halloween, try Weeki Wachee Springs, near Tampa and Orlando, which has hosted daily “live mermaid” shows for 60 years in a crystal-clear natural pool populated by manatees. In San Antonio, Florida, the October Rattlesnake Festival celebrates the slithery reptile that some remote southern Pentecostal sects still use in rituals. And year-round visitors to Gatorland near Orlando, the Seminole Okalee reservation near Fort Lauderdale, or roadside attractions along the Everglades’ Tamiami Trail can see alligator wrestling like that described in Karen Russell’s popular 2011 novel Swamplandia!
Leaf peepers overlap with another group that appreciates the natural wonders of the eastern highlands: raptor watchers. From early September through November, masses of hawks, plus some eagles and falcons, turn the Blue Ridge Parkway into the Appalachian Mountain flyway as they migrate southward for the winter. As many as 17,000 birds have been counted in one location on a single day. The parkway’s Rockfish Gap, Virginia (at mile 0), is a known hot spot, as is Pennsylvania’s Hawk Mountain.
Over on the coast, more of North America’s 5 billion migrating birds make a stopover at the beaches, marshes and coves from North Carolina’s Outer Banks through Georgia. The Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival, held off the Carolina coast, welcomes the arrival of wading birds, waterfowl and others in late October. Birds enjoy the seacoast for the same reason a lot of people do—seafood. October harvest festivals on the Atlantic and along the Gulf of Mexico include Alabama’s Bayfest (Mobile) and National Shrimp Festival (Gulf Shores); North Carolina’s Seafood Festival (Morehead City) and Swansboro Mullet Festival (celebrating the fish, not the haircut); the Shrimp Festival in Beaufort, South Carolina; and the 50-year-old Florida Seafood Festival in Apalachicola.
Poverty-ravaged District 12 in Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games (2008) is the postapocalypse region that “used to be called Appalachia.” The area’s real-life culture—including moonshiners, squirrel hunters, coal miners, shack dwellers and, lately, crystal meth users—has been portrayed in unsavory detail in such films as Deliverance (1972), Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), Cold Mountain (2003) and Winter’s Bone (2010). Yet in all of these, local string-based music buoys the soul. “High on a Mountain,” written by North Carolina banjoist Ola Belle Reed and sung by Marideth Sisco in Winter’s Bone, matches the region’s scenery for transcendent beauty.
Throughout the warmer months, Appalachia hosts numerous outdoor music festivals, some at campgrounds, where fiddlers and banjo pickers jam into the night. Among them are Tennessee’s Bonnaroo (June), Foothills Fall Festival (October) and National Southern Gospel & Harvest Celebration at Dollywood (October); West Virginia’s Appalachian String Band Festival, a.k.a. Clifftop (July–August); Alabama’s Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention (October); Georgia’s Official State Fiddlers’ Convention (October); and North Carolina’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival (August) and Fiddler’s Grove Festival (May), held since 1924 and still soldiering on despite having announced its end in early 2013.