Blog for Zip line Attraction in the Smoky Mountains

Located in Pigeon Forge, TN and near Gatlinburg and Sevierville.


The Science of Fall Colors

By Ross Bodhi Ogle
Posted on October 12, 2021

In last week's post, we talked about the arrival of the fall colors in the Great Smoky Mountains. We made some estimates as to when the colors might peak in which parts of the region, and we even touched on a little about the weather conditions that are ideal for creating the brightest and most vivid color shades in the area foliage.

This time around, we're going to continue our discussion of fall colors with a more in-depth explanation of some of the science involved with this annual metamorphosis. We'll also give you some tips about which species of trees to keep an eye out for and what color shades they'll reveal as we go deeper into the fall season.

It all has to do with temperatures and the chemicals and pigments found in leaves. Most of us know that leaves get their green color from a chemical called chlorophyll, which is useful in helping them take in and process sunlight. That sunlight drives the photosynthesis process, which is essentially how trees eat.

But leaves also have orange, yellow and red pigments called carotenoids (which also make pumpkins and carrots orange), xanthophylls and anthocyanins, respectively. We don't see those colors in summer, because the chlorophyll is so active. But when the days get shorter and cooler in the fall, chlorophyll production declines, which reveals the underlying pigments like red, yellow and orange.

We talked a little about weather influences on color changes in our previous post, because this has a lot to do with the process. If there's a drought or an early frost, the leaves could die and drop from their host trees before the transformation has had time to take effect. The bottom line: Bad weather equals bad leaf viewing.

Ideally, we would have sunny days and cooling nights beginning in August. This allows the trees to manufacture sugars, and sugars stimulate the leaves to make the chemicals that provide their bright non-green colors.

Unfortunately, we've had some warmish weather that has slowed the progress of the colors. But we're soon expecting daytime highs in the 60s and lows in the 40s, so the next week or so should be ideal for fall foliage viewing, especially if you're traveling 3,000 to 4,000 feet above sea level.

To reach those elevations, we recommend taking a scenic drive in Great Smoky Mountains National Park-routes like Clingmans Dome Road, Little River Road or Laurel Creek Road. You could also try Cherokee Orchard Road in Gatlinburg and take a scenic hike to Rainbow Falls. Also, don't forget about the stretch of Blue Ridge Parkway from the U.S. 441 junction to Maggie Valley, NC.

If you're visiting the Smokies in mid-October, here's a rundown of some of the trees that are undergoing changes and the colors to keep an eye out for.

Oaks – red, brown or russet

Hickories – golden bronze

Dogwood – purple-red

Birch – bright yellow

Poplar – golden yellow

Sugar maple – orange-red

Black maple – glowing yellow

Red maple – bright scarlet

Here at Smoky Mountain Ziplines, we're seeing some colors starting to pop among the abundant greenery on our property. The entire canopy tour is lush with mature hardwoods, so we recommend doing some zip lining in Pigeon Forge, TN, some time in the next two to three weeks. There's really not a better time of year to zipline. Our seven ziplines total nearly 5,000 feet in length and offer a front-row seat in the Smoky Mountain treetops during nature's annual color spectacle.


This content posted by Smoky Mountain Ziplines. Visit our home page, for more information on zipline adventures in the Smoky Mountains.

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