Worth the Wait 

Head for the Smoky Mountains -- or anyplace with fall colors.

Rather than our regularly scheduled rambling reminiscences, this week your humble travel correspondent brings you something useful: an update on this year's fall colors.

In a nutshell, this year's colors are running a week or two behind across the board. If you haven't noticed, the weather in Memphis has been warmer and sunnier than usual, and while that's mighty good news for football fans, it doesn't kick the fall foliage process into full action. The trees are looking for a cold snap, and they're getting it slower and later than usual this fall.

And while we're waiting, how about a little civic boosterism? Did you know that in terms of variety and duration, the southern Appalachians are one of the places in America to see fall colors? New England is known for its bright colors, but those forests tend to have dense stands of one or two tree species, and typically they don't cover much elevation. So you -- along with 57 million camera-toting tourists -- get a few intense colors for a brief period of time, then it snows for seven months.

Not so down here. Take the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, for example: It's 800 square miles of old-growth forest, high meadows, and tall mountains. It typically takes several weeks for the fall colors to go from high-country debut to down-in-the-valleys finish. Then the show spreads south into Georgia as October rolls along into November.

This year, the greatest variety of foliage, in the mid to low elevation, won't hit until early November in the Smokies. There are updates and Web cams at nps.gov/grsm.

Tennessee's Cherokee National Forest was reporting fall colors at less than 10 percent and looking for a peak later than its usual third-week-of-October arrival. Recommended viewing routes include Cherohala Skyway, Forest Road 77, Highway 70 from Greeneville to Asheville, or one of the Forest's lookout towers: Meadow Creek or Rich Mountain.

A luxurious option is a Fall Foliage Cruise being put on by Chattanooga Riverboat on Saturday, October 29th. It's a five-hour cruise through the Tennessee River Gorge, with lunch, a band, and informative commentary. Call 800-766-2784 for more info.

Tennessee's fall colors hotline, by the way, is 800-697-4200.

Just across the Mississippi River in Arkansas are the Ozark and St. Francis National Forests. Like everybody else, they're reporting a slow start to fall -- less than 5 percent on October 20th. The highway known as Scenic 7 is often listed among the top 10 most beautiful drives in the United States. It traverses the Ozark Mountains from Missouri to the Arkansas River, passing through the Grand Canyon of the Ozarks and across the Buffalo National River. Arkansas 309 is a National Forest Scenic Byway that winds from Paris to Havana.

Closest of all to Memphis is the Crowley's Ridge Parkway, designated by the federal government in 1998. It winds through Chalk Bluff Natural Area, five state parks, and the St. Francis National Forest for 198 miles from Missouri to the bridge at Helena, and the closest place to get on it is Forrest City.

So what are you waiting for? Put down your New England in the Fall coffee-table book and hit the road!

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