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Leaf-peepers ready for pilgrimage

The fiery colors of autumn trickle down through the Blue Ridge Mountains like sorghum syrup.

And as October rolls around once again, leaf-peepers make their annual pilgrimage, returning to the mountains to see if nature's annual spectacle might just be better than last year's big show.

In anticipation, we look to the fall foliage experts. One of the best sources for the western North Carolina mountains is the Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau Web site. Beginning in late September, the site posts weekly updates on the changing foliage along with scenic drives for prime fall viewing. Check it out at www.exploreasheville.com/fall.asp.

Leaf-watchers in North Georgia rely on reports from the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest on the Web at www.fs.fed.us/conf/fall/falcolor.htm.

Get the latest on fall color in the Great Smoky Mountains at www.smokiesguide.com/fall_foliage/index.html. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park Web site at www.nps.gov/grsm has links to Web cams that allow you to track the progress of fall color as it sweeps through the Smokies beginning in early October in the higher elevations.

So what kind of show can we expect this fall? Even the experts hedge their bets, especially in a year when weather patterns have been so dramatic.

"It's not the summer weather that governs the fall color display as much as the autumn weather itself," Chimney Rock Park naturalist Ron Lance tells Explore Asheville. "That optimum combination of dry autumn days and cool nights in September and October are more important than wet or dry weather from May to August."

No matter. We'll be taking our chances, heading to the mountains, where peanuts boil in simmering vats at roadside stands and crisp apples are ready for harvest, where orange pumpkins, hay bales and scarecrows in grandpa's tattered overalls dot the landscape.

We're not about to guess where the best fall foliage might be found. But there are three destinations where you won't be disappointed: Lake Toxaway, N.C.; Townsend, Tenn.; and the Blairsville-Young Harris-Hiawassee area in northeast Georgia.

Sure, it's the brilliantly hued leaves that lure us along winding country roads, but the discoveries we make along the way are what makes these autumnal journeys worth the price of a tank of gas.


Paula Crouch Thrasher writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. E-mail: pthrasher@ajc.com