On a sunny September day, I stood on the balcony of my room and looked out over the patchwork quilt of tree-studded mountains. Amidst a vast sea of green, I saw small pops of color. Scattered mustard-yellow and pumpkin-orange leaves shyly peeped out at various intervals, while right in the middle of the patchwork a vibrant clump of red defiantly spoke of what was to come.
I arrived in Appalachia before prime fall foliage season, but I could imagine what those who stand on this same balcony in coming weeks will find: a colorful kaleidoscope of maples, oaks, birch and sourwoods juxtaposed against hemlocks and pines that remain green all year.
Pine Mountain State Resort Park – about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Lexington, and the first state resort park created in Kentucky (1924) – is one of the best places in the state to experience Mother Nature at her autumn best. According to the late E. Lucy Braun, a prominent botanist, ecologist and expert on the forests of the Eastern United States, this is the most diverse mixed mesophytic forest in the world.
Pine Mountain’s naturalist Keith Bowling explained what that means during our one-and-a-half-mile hike on the park’s Clear Creek Trail.
“The variety of Kentucky’s and particularly this region’s geology and forest cover means we have both northern and southern species of trees which allows for a particularly colorful zone,” says Bowling.
So, just when will be the best time to see this colorful spectacle? Without a crystal ball, I consulted the next best thing – WKYT chief meteorologist Chris Bailey, who suggests getting those binoculars and heading for Pine Mountain or any of Kentucky’s other state parks sometime around the middle of October.
“Meteorologically speaking, this year is a stark contrast to last year, says Bailey.
“Last year we had the wettest September on record with 10 and a half inches of rain in the area,” he says. This year, the Lexington area has had a few sprinkles at the airport and eastern Kentucky hasn’t had much more - maybe a quarter of an inch, before this week’s rains.
“Add to that, the fact that September was the hottest September on record for the entire state, and it’s resulted in a lot of stress on the trees and leaves,” he says.
Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean the display will be any less dazzling, especially at Pine Mountain State Resort Park, where you can see it in all its abundance – both from your room’s balcony, or on one of the park’s 17 trails.
Clear Creek, the trail I chose, follows the route that was once a spur of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, servicing the mountain mining communities. In addition to the foliage, you’ll see the eponymous creek which runs parallel to the trail, railroad trestle bridges and woodlands where you might spot wild turkey, deer, black bear and some 13 different species of bats.
Other scenic trails include Hemlock Garden, leading to a wooded ravine containing 300-year-old hemlock trees; Honeymoon Falls, at 25 feet in height, the largest waterfall in the park, and Chained Rock where on a clear day you can get a panoramic view of Pineville, Hwy. 251 (formerly the Wilderness Road) and Cumberland Mountain, 12 miles south.
“You will definitely see some beautiful foliage here,” says Bowling, who agrees with Bailey that prime time for viewing will be around the middle of October.
“We’ll definitely get the color,” Bowling repeats. “The question is, due to the extreme dryness of this summer’s weather how long it will stay.”
So, plan now for a trip to Pine Mountain State Resort Park or one of the other state resort parks (Bowling also recommends Natural Bridge, Jenny Wiley and Carter Caves, the latter in particular for the beautiful drive to get there, as being especially colorful) to see the annual fall fashion show.