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In search of fall foliage outside of New England

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A natural for a foliage drive is the Blue Ridge Parkway, built to connect the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee with the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia in such a way that the road itself would be a sort of park. This year the 470-mile long parkway celebrates its 50th anniversary.

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Connected to it is the Skyline Drive, which is completely contained within Shenandoah National Park and follows the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains for 105 miles.

Dennis Carter, chief naturalist of Shenandoah National Park, says that an advantage of Shenandoah and the Blue Ridge Parkway is that they are so ``accessible. You can just drive along the ridge and look for color everywhere,'' he adds. Another is timing: ``Once the color is on its way out in New England, it's starting here. People who live in between and can't see it there, can catch it down here.''

One of the pleasures in leaf-viewing is shuffling through leaves and picking out the most colorful to take home. Shenandoah, like other national parks, has the advantage of many paths where visitors can enjoy the leaves in a leisurely way.

Among the colorful trees the park has to offer are some maples, which turn red and yellow; oaks, which turn red, yellow, and brown; hickories which turn yellow; ash, yellow or purple; black gum, scarlet and purple or scarlet and orange; dogwood, bright red; and Virginia creeper, red.

The foliage season goes from mid-September to early November. ``People are always talking about `peak,' '' says Mr. Carter.``There are periods from mid- to late-October when the maximum number of trees have turned -- that varies quite a bit from year to year depending on weather.''

Finding the most colorful spot in the area is complicated by the fact that the weather is different on either side of the Blue Ridge. The best way to get information on where the best color is to be found is to call a park and ask for the naturalist's office, says Mr. Carter.

``Many people come too early -- say the first week in October -- and at that time there usually isn't much color. Starting the second week on, there's more,'' he continues. ``Another factor is that often there's good color at lower elevations later in October and even into early November. Some of the most spectacular color I have seen is later in the season when it's supposedly all over.''

Another factor to be aware of before rushing the season, he says, is that some of the high ridges are quite rocky and have fewer trees. ``The color tends to fade fast at higher elevations. [Also,] the principal tree is red oak, which is not one of the more colorful trees.''

The Skyline Drive attracts hordes of visitors at foliage time. Martha Steger of the Virginia Division of Tourism suggests tourists take advantage of its 72 scenic overlooks. ``You don't have to be on the road all the time,'' she says. However, some overlooks are more popular than others, and ``when Americans see a line they tend to get in it. If people would be aware of that tendency and not pull off where everyone else does'' they would have a pleasanter experience.

After mid-September, the Parkway has a number (1-704-298-3202) which will give brief recorded foliage reports that are updated daily.

North Carolina shares parts of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway. The parkway is even more mountainous in North Carolina than in Virginia; although the speed limit is 45 m.p.h., [you can] only count on going 25 or 30 miles in an hour, says Ms. Teague.