An autumn drive through Southern West Virginia reveals a vivid land of color and charisma. Old State Route 3 from Shady Spring to Hinton could be described as a din of screaming splendor.
Sumacs shriek beside the winding two-lane road, their irate leaves flushed wrathful red. Maples bellow yellow and orange chants as they wave limbs at the blaring blue sky.
Oaks chatter, birches babble and willows gab in a clamor of colorful gossip.
Everywhere, hillsides stand in rousing ovations. The arboreal multitudes hail the vivid arrival of autumn in Southern West Virginia.
Every fall season I promise myself that I’ll take a day and just drive along the vibrant lanes to photograph this harmony of hues.
I am amazed that our mountain thoroughfares aren’t bumper-to-bumper with leaf-peeping patrons.
Instead of snarling chaos, the bucolic countryside near White Oak seems cloaked in magic. In tribute to the season, some residents have decorated yards with pumpkin-bodied mannequins.
Others vend gourds, pumpkins, honey, and apple butter from rural roadside stands.
Reticent drivers slow to a petty pace and let the colors do the talking. Occasionally, motorists stop to visitroadside vendors who heap their handpicked fruit in bushel baskets.
And if they’re planning a leaf-looking trip along any of the local mountain highways, they may be in for a pleasant surprise: This year could turn out to be better than many might imagine.
Some Appalachian plant experts predict that autumn color this year will range from above average to simply incredible in some locations.
Thanks to an early rainy season and late dry period, trees in the mountains probably will convert their sugars into eye-popping color if the weather remains favorable.
Tourism officials are anxious to get the word out that West Virginia fall colors should be better than average. The peak week or best time to see the most color likely will occur around the middle of October. But leaf-lookers can still expect to see some showy trees a week or two later.
Currently, the brilliant autumn display seen all over the hills is making Southern West Virginia one of the most beautiful color destinations in the East.
That’s according to the folks at Tamarack, located near Beckley on I-77 at Exit 45.
As the fall leaves turn color, thousands of motorists arrive to share the breathtaking view of nature’s fiery kaleidoscope.
“When people pass through here for the first time in early fall, they are mesmerized by the foliage,” one Tamarack official explained. “They are stunned by the beauty; they don’t want to leave.”
Starting in mid September, counselors at the information desk at Tamarack offer tourists a fall foliage map and a calendar of events so visitors can plan their trips around peak times for brilliant colors and popular local attractions.
The leaves, however, don’t just turn into a blazing panorama overnight.
It takes more than frosty mornings or chilly nights to make a splash of reds, oranges, and yellows across the mountainous landscape.
Autumn’s tint of gold is present even when spring first arrives.
When the leaf buds first burst open in the spring, they contain hints of the yellows, reds and oranges that will shine through in the fall.
In autumn, when the weather turns cooler and the days grow shorter, trees slow their rate of photosynthesis and the chlorophyll in the leaves breaks down.
As the nights become cooler, the trees begin to go dormant, and the sap starts to recede.
With the sap down, the sugars accumulate in the leaves and stimulate the production of red pigments.
The more sun, the more sugar, the more the red colors come through.
The New River Gorge has some of the most spectacular fall color in the east for several reasons.
A primary factor is the high concentration of deciduous hardwood trees that grow on the mountain slopes.
Due to the difference in elevation from the river to the ridge tops, there will be more of a diversity of trees, many of which follow the river all the way into Virginia and North Carolina.
These lowland species include not only the oaks and the associated hardwoods (poplar, basswood, cucumber, and maples), but also the river birches, buckeyes, willows, elms, and many non-timber species, such as boxelders, sassafras, and paulownia (the princess tree, which has significant importance in some Oriental religions).
Each of these plants in turn has its own peculiar autumn hue.
Travel is better on weekends, and the color is brightest in the second and third weeks of October.
Even so, much of the mystery and majesty of Southern West Virginia lies in the shifting faces of the changing seasons.
Late September has its own special fall color as the goldenrod, blue asters, and purple ironweed spring up along country thoroughfares like a crowd watching a parade.
But the brass band in that parade comes with the boisterous arrival of October as autumn leaves turn every shade of yellow, red, and orange in an unparalleled scenic display.
“People who are new to the mountains are stunned as they pass through the area,” explained one 6th grade teacher who has her students engaged in severalcolorful seasonal projects at Shady Spring Middle School. “It’s not uncommon to see people stop along the highway and marvel at the colors of our foliage and wildflowers. It’s one of the most spectacular sights on the planet.”
Autumn always brings a brilliant fall color display to the Southern West Virginia countryside. Sunny days stimulate leaves to produce sugars after the trees have begun to go dormant, according to the DNR in Beckley.
“The great concentration and variety of hardwood trees along the local mountainous regions contribute to a flamboyant color display,” noted wildlife biologist Colon Carpenter. “An autumn tour reveals an intensetrek of color and charm. Locally, it is one of our biggest attractions of the season.”
Top o’ the morning!