A series documenting the start of the Autumn season of 2023 in collaboration with Explore Asheville
A photo of Courthouse Falls located in Pisgah National Forest from Autumn of 2022
Week 1 - October 1 through October 4
When I received the email from Explore Asheville about documenting the foliage change as part of their Fall Color Hunter series, I was ecstatic. This program was something I've wanted to be part of since I first found out about it a couple of years ago. So, when the possibility of a government shutdown meant a gigantic wrench would be thrown into the plans, the specter of anxious disappointment settled in. I nervously watched the news until it confirmed Saturday night that a short-term deal had been struck, and my original itinerary was to proceed as planned.
I brewed my coffee and ate my oatmeal Monday morning as the clock struck 4. I double-checked my bag, jumped in the car, and headed to Graveyard Fields. Weather reports indicated a clear sky, which worried me a bit from a photography standpoint because cloud interest is what can make sunrise and sunset epic, and as the day progresses, there's no natural filter to moderate the harsh noon light on the landscape. Nevertheless, I was confident that conditions, whatever they were, would yield opportunities for an incredible day of photography, and I was absolutely correct.
I started at East Fork Overlook, a half mile from Graveyard Fields, for sunrise. I had company in the form of another photographer, and after a short introduction, he realized he recognized me from some of my work and that we shared mutual friends. We said our goodbyes and good luck, and after witnessing a beautiful sunrise, I was off to Graveyard Fields. At Graveyard Fields, I trekked the Upper Falls trail, passing open mountain fields of wildflowers, crossing a few small streams, and traversing a covered forest to finally make it to Upper Falls.
It was a beautiful day, albeit warm for the time of year. As morning crossed noon, more clouds made their way into the mountains, and people followed. I gave friendly advice to a couple of children about the importance of listening to their father and safety on trails. I was also stopped by the cutest little girl, maybe two or three years old. Her parents were very accommodating as she excitedly asked about my camera and exuberantly explained how she also enjoys taking photos in kiddie-speak. She also invited me to their home for pie. One day, little one.
After a day of editing my photos from Graveyard Fields, on Tuesday evening, I made my to Craggy Pinnacle for sunset. I was joined by one of my best friends, the ever-talented Gus Cutty. We made our way through the forest, stopping along the trail to capture one of the more intriguing tree formations found in that area. After a short hike, the forest gave way to the 360º views the pinnacle provides.
Clouds danced in the sky. The air was cool. And the light was lighting. As golden hour progressed, the yellows and golds transformed into hues of deep blues, fiery reds, and some saturated purples. A small crowd was present, and we all basked in the wondrous transition from day to dusk and finally night.
Week 2 - October 15 through October 18
Lake Logan and NC-215
Exploration and observation are at the heart of documenting the natural landscape. It takes a soul filled with wonder and passion to look beyond the obvious into the depths of beauty that may go unnoticed. If moments are but a fleeting whisper, the camera is an echo. History preserved. Time frozen. Physics defied.
My second week as a Fall Color Hunter was filled with these thoughts. Typical seasonal trends haven't been applicable this autumn, so adjustments to my itinerary were necessary. My eyes needed to be open. Discovery, and not destination, was my goal. With this mindset, I traveled NC-215 and U.S.-276, capturing whatever piqued my interest.
Starting on NC-215, I first stopped at Lake Logan. There was a dazzling display of color, some of which nestled snuggly between veils of still green pines. The sun shone upon the valley, and fishermen took to the lake, the simple nature of their approach—canoe, paddles, rods, and bait—matching the tranquil scene.
My next stop along NC-215 was Sunburst Falls, a magnificent waterfall that towers over and spills under the road. There, onlookers were treated to not only the majesty and power of Sunburst Falls but to another fisherman traversing the waterfall, sliding from the top down to its first base before returning to his car. We spoke momentarily, and he told me what he did is called rock sliding, a routine maneuver fishermen do when they encounter a waterfall such as this one.
After my conversation with the daring fisherman, I made my way to the lower portion of Sunburst Falls, where I engaged in another conversation, this time with an artist native to the area. He explained how different Sunburst Falls looks now compared to only a few years ago. Due to the remnants of Tropical Storm Fred, a tropical depression by the time it reached Western North Carolina, the massive amounts of rain caused the waterfall to swell and move enormous boulders, forever reshaping Sunburst Falls.
After driving NC-215, I made my way to U.S.-276, the Scenic Bypass that connects Brevard to the Blue Ridge Parkway and Waynesville and is home to many beautiful and well-known waterfalls. But I wasn't there for the usual scenery that has been picked through with a fine-tooth comb. I am a Fall Color Hunter, and hunt I shall do.
Driving south from the Parkway on 276, I noticed scenery that might be interesting. Knowing that creeks carve their paths along the bypass, I decided to keep the theme of water going for a little longer. What I did not expect was the splendorous display of waterfalls I was witness to. Not one, but two waterfalls, cloaked by lush and vibrant autumnal colors, hidden from prying eyes, research was needed to find out they're named Tranquility Falls. Sensory overload almost took hold. Neither rushing water nor cars could silence my audible exuberance. It was a moment I'd remember as a photographer for a long time and a reinforcement of my goals with this assignment for the week. Eyes open, and discovery, not destination.
Alas, it was my last day as a Fall Color Hunter, and after all, there was a destination: Devil's Courthouse. Ominous in name, it is considered one of the best locations to bask in the sunset. Sitting along the Blue Ridge Parkway at 5,720 feet, reports called for snow at these elevations. Nevertheless, there was supposed to be a break in the storm and cloud coverage in time for sunset, and any good photographer knows two things: the light after a storm is almost always breathtaking, and you miss 100% of the shots you don't take. What was forecasted as a partly cloudy sunset turned out to be a completely cloudy snow flurry, and my mission of discovery returned.
Undeterred by the increasing cloud coverage as I climbed in elevation along the Parkway, I stopped before reaching Devil's Courthouse Tunnel to photograph the mountains as plumes of clouds enveloped their peaks. I then hiked from the parking lot of the overlook at Devil's Courthouse to the top of the mountain. Albeit short, it was a steep and arduous climb through a paved forest filled with fog that added an ethereal quality to the landscape. Once atop the peak of Devil's Courthouse, the snow increased, and cloud coverage made it impossible to capture the sunset. I did, however, photograph the snowy mountaintop, trees swaying in the gusts of wind, snow whipping in my face, and the glow of blue creating an otherworldly experience. It wasn't what I set out to capture. It was more. It was the unexpected. It was a whisper that at Devil's Courthouse, only I heard.
The Final Analysis
Being able to experience the beginning of autumn, as leaves transition from green to vibrant yellows and oranges, is a remarkable time of year. When seeking these fleeting moments, it's vital to plan accordingly and understand the progression of foliage change that takes place throughout the Western Carolina mountains. While higher elevations experience the color change first, some areas like Graveyard Fields, which sits at 5,000 feet, show colors earlier than other areas at the elevation due to the type of vegetation inhabiting that particular area.
In my second week of the Fall Color Hunter series, I took the approach of discovering locations instead of staying on the narrow path of my itinerary. Given the destinations of lower elevations like Mount Pisgah and considering the slow pace of color change occurring this year, I called audibles. I took to NC-215 and U.S.-276, stopping at Lake Logan, Sunburst Falls, the hidden Tranquility Falls, and Devil's Courthouse. There were vibrant and magnificent colors to behold and surprises in the form of snow flurries atop Devil's Courthouse. Nevertheless, the assignment was a success and one I'll forever be grateful to have been part of.
Some tips to consider when venturing out into a landscape that could be unforgiving are to be prepared with proper supplies and the appropriate gear, to plan, to use a map, and to check weather reports. I rely on a few weather sites, but the one I trust the most is mountain-forecast.com. This site gives accurate reports directly from specific mountains throughout the world. It's fun enjoying nature, but when you're safe and prepared, you can enjoy it over and over again.