Trailside Talk: The Last Leaf

Trailside Talk: The Last Leaf

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Autumn’s color palette in and around the Smokies has been, with few exceptions, marvelous this year.

From Big Creek to Fontana, the colors of the season have splashed the mountainsides and valleys with red, gold, and orange set against the emerald of the evergreens. It has been possible to round a bend in the road or on a trail and be confronted by a maple in stunning autumn dress. The sight can make you stop and drink in how something so simple can be so breathtaking.

The same thing happens, on a much smaller scale, of course, in my yard in South Carolina. We have seven maples that are about at their peak of fall color (the change seems to have been late at many places in the Southeast this year), but the king of the yard is the regal ginkgo, which now is in its autumn decline.

Snow capped Smokies
Photo by Emanuel Landry

Obviously not native to these parts, the ginkgo was planted five years ago. It is slow-growing and thus requires a lot of patience, but the rewards, especially in the fall, are spectacular. The green leaves turn to a brilliant yellow and are showy for a few days before wind and/or rain push them to the ground, where they form a shiny carpet for a few more days.

People who drive past my house and see me standing and staring at a tree might wonder what’s going on. They just don’t understand.

The yellow of the ginkgo reminds me of the radiant color presented by aspens in the Rockies. Purely by chance, I happened to be in Rocky Mountain National Park several years ago at the peak of the aspen change. I can remember standing at several overlooks and marveling at the glow from the aspens, spread across the valleys below. It was as if someone had plugged in a blanket of neon lights, and I gave some thought to returning that night to see if they also sparkled after dark.

You will not find an argument here about the best fall color in the national park system. The Smokies make their own case to all who see them in autumn. I’ve been in dozens of parks in the continental United States, and I’ve been fortunate to experience grand autumns in the Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, and West. Trying to rank them would be a fool’s errand, not to mention one that could get me in big trouble with certain advocacy groups.

Smokies LIVE

Let’s just agree that autumn is the best of times in most parks, when, in prime years and in the right locations, the colors and coolness of the season make for the kind of experience that rests at the foundation of what we still celebrate as “America’s best idea.”

Right down to the last leaf.

Mike Hembree is a veteran journalist and the author of 14 books. He has visited 26 national parks and hopes to add many more to that list.

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