Appalachian Trail: First Signs of Fall

Dawn over the James River Valley

Fall is coming! The days are getting shorter, the leaves redder, the acorns more treacherous, the bears fatter, the turtles braver and the bees and the butterflies lazier. How do I know? By walking through the woods this morning on the Appalachian Trail.

My morning commute now begins in darkness. On his way into town, my boyfriend drops me off where the AT crosses the road and I hike seven miles back home, then get to work. If I book it the first mile uphill, I can make it to the overlook where the powerlines cross the AT just in time for sunrise.

Power Tower Sunrise

My legs and lungs are ready for Appalachian hiking: I make it to the overlook with minutes to spare. With first light come the gnats, swarming around my face and buzzing my ears. Cooler weather is coming, but we haven’t had a good bug-killing frost yet. I carry bug spray, but rarely use it. Instead, I raise one hand to the sky, and most of the bugs fly up, seeking my highest point, a trick I learned as a child in summer camp. Hand to the sky, I watch the sunrise, imagining I can feel the rays on my palm, imagining I can feel the world turn under my feet. Rule of the Road #7: See as many sunrises and sunsets as possible. Check.

After seeing the sun well into the sky, I head up the ridge, zigzagging up the shoulder of Bluff Mountain on a set of switchbacks. I’ve hiked this commute enough times now that I know most of the turns and all of the trees. I stop and take a few photos for my All Seasons series. The leaves are still green, but the forest is definitely redder; so this is what they mean by seeing the forest for the trees.

The Reddening Woods

These woods will soon be red; oak trees are everywhere. Acorns thunk down all around me; I should be wearing a helmet! Acorns roll underfoot like ball bearings. I skid several times but keep my feet. It’s not my head or my feet I should really be worried about: bears love acorns and they’re trying to fatten up for winter. Soon enough, I’ll cross paths with a bruin.

Relatively fresh bear scat on the trail. It was full of acorns.

Acorns Underfoot

In my decade of daily hiking, I’ve crossed paths with about a dozen black bears and every single one of them has either completely ignored me or immediately run the other way. Not one has ever threatened me or shown any sign of interest or aggression. Even so, as I walk, every few minutes I clap my hands together. The crack will put anything large enough to be hunted on the move, away from me. I wouldn’t want to ruin my immaculate bruin track record.

Reddening Woods II

About three miles in, the trail tops out on the shoulder of Bluff Mountain. Home is four (mostly) downhill miles from here, down in the valley. I eat breakfast on a cliff ledge and take my bearings. Navigating in the Appalachians is a challenge. I can’t get lost following the Appalachian trail blazes, at least not easily, but I still like to keep track of where I am in these mountains.

I stand and trace my route through the reddening carpet of trees below: I’ve just hiked up the backside of this shoulder, which continues north uphill to the summit of Bluff Mountain. This morning, I’m heading south, back home, down off the shoulder, down the mountain on switchbacks to a creek drainage, to a forest road, which will lead me back across the powerlines and then home. Everyday I get to know these mountains a little better. Soon, I’ll know this big backyard as well as anybody ever has. Then I’ll really be Home.

James River Overlook D.O.G.

Happy Bowie. Ten years old and still hiking!

Breakfast spot on my morning commute.

Flying down the mountain – long live my good knees – I cross paths with one of my all-time favorite forest denizens: a box turtle. My second in as many weeks. This one is braver, on a mission to find a spot to bed down for winter. He doesn’t duck in his shell, not even when I pick him up to move him off the trail. He hisses at me. And then the dogs. They’re not all that interested anyway.

Crossing Paths: Box Turtle on the Appalachian Trail

When he was a boy, my dad had a hunting dog who loved turtles. The dog would bring the turtles home, unharmed, from far and wide and keep them in the yard. Every now and then one would crawl some distance away and the dog would track it down and bring it back into the fold. Every summer they had upwards of a dozen turtles in the yard.

Feisty turtle!

Two last encounters on my way home: a pair of honeybees that sat so long and still on a late summer flower that I thought they might be dead. Eventually, they lifted off and headed noisily, laboriously on to the next bud. Later, a butterfly landed on Bowie and hitched a ride on him down the trail. Even the insects know fall is coming…

Last of the Honeybees

Bowie & His Butterfly

Stay tuned for more fall photos and a post on hiking safely in hunting season. Time to break out the blaze orange, especially for dogs who look like black bears!

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently based in western Colorado. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, skiing, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at
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13 Responses to Appalachian Trail: First Signs of Fall

  1. Alice says:

    The sunrises are lovely! How wonderful to have the trail and its beauty this fall.

  2. RoSy says:

    Love the turtle pic!

  3. Scott says:

    We have bear, but have not seen one as yet. I actually would like to see them and hope for the lack of conflict. Good pictures.

  4. Bella Remy Photography says:

    Such a fantastic hike! Wish I could have been there with you.

  5. Joni says:

    Thanks for the safety tip about clapping every few minutes. Starting tomorrow I am beginning to build up my hiking (I only walk slowly with my mom now b/c she had a stroke). I’m looking forward to it. I want to build up my stamina before my house sells and I buy a Class C (I’ve pretty much decided on that). I need to go back and read thru your blog for all the tips you’ve left behind (kinda like the poop the bear left…LOL).
    Take care,

  6. Love your photos of the fall there. Here in NM the aspen on the mountain above and below the Santa Fe ski basin are already reaching peak color – mostly all golden, but very beautiful. We hope to go backpacking again next weekend so we can take in more of the aspen gold without the thousands of people (literally) who are making the trek up Hyde Park Road in their cars. It is good, however, to see people making that connection to the beauty of nature, even if for only a few hours.

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