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Colorful climbs: several eastern national offer the best vantage points to view fall foliage.

WHEN AUTUMN closes in on the Appalachian Trail, color is everywhere. Besides passing through New England foliage country, the 2,155-mile footpath winds southward into the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky mountain ranges. At this time of year, brilliant hues and other views are awe-inspiring for travelers on the trail and its adjacent national parks.

Appalachian Trail

Wherever the Appalachian Trail takes autumn hikers along its 654.2 miles in New England, it is sure to provide an unforgettable sight. Color first appears in the cooler climes of Maine and northern New Hampshire in September. By the third or fourth week, White Mountains foliage is usually in full color and northern Vermont is also ablaze. When Columbus Day arrives, southern New England is generally at peak.

Like other parts of the trail, the White Mountains section travels through the variety of trees and elevations that makes foliage viewing spectacular. It includes the Franconia Ridge and the Presidential Range, which boasts Mount Washington, at 6,288 feet the highest peak in the Northeast.

The Appalachian Mountain Club maintains no-frills lodging along 56 miles of this segment, with huts available every six to eight miles at elevations varying up to 4,500 feet. But the trail is accessible from numerous roadside trailheads, and shorter, less strenuous hikes can be planned. For details and reservations, call 603-466-2727.

Other areas of the Appalachian Trail offer lesser-known perspectives. For colorful valley views, hikers can trek to Holts Ledge, just north of Hanover, New Hampshire, or farther north to Smarts Mountain (3,240 feet), where climbing a refurbished fire tower yields an extraordinary panorama. Northeast of Woodstock, Vermont, a hike through an upland field to Dana Hill provides fall-shaded images of traditional countryside.

In Maine, hikers to Saddleback Mountain's barren 4,116-foot summit may gaze on surrounding lakes and mountains in the western region. To the north, in Baxter State Park, brown grasses, scrubby trees, and low, colored bushes lead to the top of Mount Katahdin (5,267 feet), the trail's northern terminus.

The Appalachian Trail Conference (304-535-6331) manages the trail under an agreement with the National Park Service and can supply information and relevant publications. For details about hiking in Vermont, where the Appalachian-Trail follows the historic Long Trail for 103.6 miles, call the Green Mountain Club at 802-244-7037. In Maine, write to the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, P.O. Box 283, Augusta, ME 04330.

Three New England states have hotlines with updates of where color is most brilliant. For Maine, call 888-MAINE-45; New Hampshire, 800-258-3608; and Vermont, 802-828-3239.

For information on in-season lodging, camping, and activities, for Maine, call 800-533-9595; New Hampshire, 800-FUNINNH; and Vermont, 800-VERMONT. New Hampshire also helps travelers find lodging at the height of the season; call 603-271-2666.

Shenandoah

Foliage seekers following the autumn chill South would be advised to steer their expeditions to the 300 square miles of forest found in Shenandoah National Park.

Straddling a portion of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains in the easternmost Appalachians, the narrow parkland rises from the western Shenandoah Valley to more than 4,000 feet. In the valley is the Shenandoah River and to the east are the roiling Piedmont foothills.

Motoring along the 105-mile Skyline Drive is an efficient way to appreciate the park and vistas made more outstanding as 100 or more species of deciduous trees burst into color from late September through October, peaking between October 5 and 25. Motorists may also see autumn wildflowers, white-tailed deer, and other wildlife. The two-lane, two-way drive follows the Blue Ridge for the length of the park, from U.S. Route 340 south of Front Royal, Virginia, in the north to Rockfish Gap south of Waynesboro in the south.

The drive's 75 overlooks include: Range View (milepost 17.1 from Front Royal, 2,800 feet), with its stunning perspective of the Massanutten and Allegheny mountains; South River (milepost 67.2, 3,000 feet), where early risers may watch the sun emerging over mountain forests; and Big Meadows (milepost $1), an unusual mountaintop meadow that has become a 130-acre habitat for more than 270 species of plants and diverse wildlife.

The road also provides access to many hiking areas. (The Appalachian Trail runs roughly parallel for about 100 miles.) Near milepost 41.7 is Skyland Stables, where horses may be rented. Guided horse tours depart daily from May through October.

The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (703-242-0315) maintains trail cabins, shelters, and huts. Only one of four campgrounds, Big Meadows (800-365-CAMP), requires reservations. Group camping at another park location is reserved at 540-298-9625. For information on concession-operated lodging, call 800-999-4714.

For guidance on camping, lodging, and activities in Shenandoah Valley communities, call the Shenandoah Valley Travel Association at 540-740-3132. The Virginia government (800-934-9184) helps reserve rooms in bed and breakfasts and country inns throughout the state. For a state guide to other lodgings, attractions, and events, call 800-847-4882.

Blue Ridge Parkway

At the southern boundary of the Shenandoah park, Skyline Drive meets the Blue Ridge Parkway, another opportunity for leisurely driving through the Appalachian chain.

Winding for 469 miles and deep into North Carolina, the parkway follows the Blue Ridge for 355 miles and then, skirting the southern end of the Black Mountains, through the Craggies, the Pisgahs, and the Balsams. In two-to-three days' driving time, it ends at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Along the way are seemingly endless views of mountains, meadows, split rail fences, old farmsteads, and historic buildings. Motorists can stretch their legs at 250 overlooks or at picnic areas. More than 100 hiking trails are accessible from overlook or recreation locations. (The Appalachian Trail parallels the parkway for 103 miles.)

The roadway is typically drenched in brilliant color from mid-October through early November. For some local flavor, travelers may stop at Humpback Rocks, Virginia (milepost 5 to 9.3), where weaving and apple butter-making are demonstrated at a historic mountain farm. Fall weekends also bring mountain music and apple butter- and sorghum molasses-making to Mabry Mill, Virginia (milepost 176.1), an early 20th-century gristmill and blacksmith shop. Peaks of Otter recreation area (milepost 84 to 87), also in Virginia, is another favorite stop, offering hiking, fishing, and a shuttle bus up Sharp Top Mountain.

On the North Carolina segment of the parkway, a slight detour at milepost 355.4 (via Route 128 north of Asheville) leads to the highest point east of the Mississippi River. At 6,684 feet, Mount Mitchell offers incredible views of color-washed lower elevations. The parkway south of Asheville to Great Smoky Mountains National Park is known for its range of elevations. From about 2,500 feet, it gradually rises to 6,047 feet at the parkway's highest point, Richland Balsam Gap, milepost 431, and then descends to just over 2,000 feet, all through the undeveloped beauty of national forest.

For a parkway brochure, including map and campground information, call the park at 828-298-0398. The Blue Ridge Parkway Directory, published by an area business group, lists off-parkway restaurants, lodging, and camping locations. Autumn reservations are advised for in-park lodges at Peaks of Otter Lodge, 800-542-5927; Bluff's Lodge, 336-3724-499; and Pisgah Inn, 828-235-8228.

Great Smoky Mountains

October attracts more visitors--in some years close to a million--to Great Smoky Mountains park than any other month, testimony to the grandeur of the autumn color performance in its 500,000 acres of forest.

One of the largest wilderness areas in the East, the park covers the boundary between North Carolina and Tennessee along Appalachian highlands named for the blue haze hovering around its peaks. Besides its mountain crests, the park offers deep ravines, streams, creeks, and waterfalls. Its range of elevations and moist, moderate climate cultivate rich vegetation, including 120 types of deciduous trees, and abundant animal life. There are 150 hiking trails, and the Appalachian Trail crosses parkland for about 68 miles.

Autumn first appears here in September. Higher elevations break into full color during the first two weeks of October, while in middle-to-lower elevations, peak comes later in the month. Some trees remain bright into early November. If one color dominates, it's the gold-yellow of the tulip poplar, the Tennessee state tree.

An autumn auto tour must include Newfound Gap Road, which crosses the park, connecting Cherokee, North Carolina, with Gafunburg, Tennessee. Over these 33 miles, colorful mountains are viewable from every direction as the route ascends about 3,000 feet. The road crosses Newfound Gap, 5,048 feet, and leads to a seven-mile road to the highest peak in the Smokies, Clingmans Dome, 6,643 feet, reached via a half-mile hike from a parking area.

Foothills Parkway, just west of the park in Tennessee, provides pretty views looking up into the mountains from its eastern section. The western end climbs a ridge to about 3,000 feet and makes a stunning drive at sunset.

Within the 270 miles of park roadway are gravel roads that lead to lesser-known locations. One highlight is Cataloochee in the park's eastern section, a secluded valley with open fields and meadows as well as historic buildings.

Tent and RV camp sites are plentiful, but its one lodge on Mount Le Conte (423-429-5704) often is booked a year in advance. Camping reservations are taken through October at Elkmont, Smokemont, and Cades Cove sites; call 800-365-2267. Seven other campgrounds operate first-come, first-served, with a seven-day stay limit in the fall. Group sites are reserved by calling 423-436-1266 in Tennessee or 704-497-1930 in North Carolina.

The main park number (423-436-1200) directs travelers to tourism bureaus with listings of out-of-park accommodations.

RELATED ARTICLE: Viewing Tips

Foliage season is short and draws huge numbers of people to prime areas. To avoid the heaviest traffic, schedule visits on weekdays and early or late in the season rather than at peak. To ensure overnight accommodations, make reservations early.

Arriving early in the day can lower chances of being head up at park entrance points or elsewhere and give you more time to design an itinerary or foliage walk.

If you encounter heavy crowds, consider getting off main roads or hiking into the woods, Park visitor centers have trail maps and details on guided walks.

BESS ZARAFONITIS STROH lives in Gales Ferry, Connecticut, and last wrote for National Parks about Kentucky cave shrimp.
COPYRIGHT 1998 National Parks Conservation Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Stroh, Bess Zarafonitis
Publication:National Parks
Date:Sep 1, 1998
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