BURNSVILLE, N.C. — Jody Higgins sipped a coffee Tuesday morning, sitting cozy in a worn leather couch at the local hangout, Appalachian Java and Café.
She is one of the regulars at the café on Main Street, just off the Town Square in the heart of the tiny downtown. By lunchtime, there isn't a seat left in the house.
But the shop known for its java, Greek grilled cheese and giant cinnamon buns, is also a draw for the growing swarms of tourists, who slide along the Norman Rockwell streets, peeking in pottery studios, stopping at antique shops and tasting craft brews at Homeplace and the Snap Dragon.
Higgins, retired after 25 years as editor of the Yancey Times Journal, has seen the town change from a manufacturing hub to a forlorn, forgotten spot of empty buildings, to the now-discovered tourist hotspot built around October.
"I'm seeing so many more people coming to town from places like Texas and Florida and Alabama where the heat is unbearable," Higgins said. "We get weekend trippers and on Saturday, you'll see people from Asheville and Hendersonville, where it's gotten too crowded in October. They're coming for the leaves."
Like many small towns and villages across Western North Carolina, Burnsville - population 1,800, town seat of Yancey County, population 18,000 - is capitalizing on October as the biggest month of the year for business, banking on a colorful fall leaf season.
According to Brandi Burleson, Yancey County finance officer, while July has traditionally had more tourists, October is starting to boom. The occupancy tax increased from $6,131 in October 2015 to $8,101 in October 2016, and gross sales increased from $204,000 to $270,000, a 32 percent jump, she said.
And people aren't just staying, they're moving to Burnsville. Higgins is a returnee herself. She was born here, moved to Arkansas, but came back in 1971 for the small town community and beauty.
Lisa Kivett stopped into the java shop for a coffee and a chance for local advice.
"I live in Pennsylvania and I'm looking to move south, but I don't want to be in Texas because of the heat and hurricanes," Kivett said. "I'm thinking of moving here. I think people are coming here because they're more fit now. There's so much to do here, hiking Mount Mitchell, biking and fishing."
The streets and shops have been busy so far, even with the almost uncomfortably hot October to date, reaching 80 last week.
"I've seen bad fall seasons, but people didn't care," Higgins said. "They still come."
Maggie Valley, a Haywood County town of some 600 year-round residents, has always been a popular stopover for visitors from across the country coming to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway, said Ashley Rice, marketing manager, Haywood County Tourism Development Authority.
The Smokies is a half-million acres of forest, and the parkway is a 469-mile scenic drive cut through the mountains. Both are some of the busiest national park sites in the country, and October is the busiest month of the year as people come for the drives, hikes and overlooks peering out at the leaves.
Those visitors spill over into Maggie Valley, a tiny town lined with hotels, cabins, vacation home rentals, restaurants, a new distillery, craft shops and other tourist oriented businesses.
"It's our main month. October is when we see a growth in occupancy tax dollars, which accounts for a large portion of our budget," Rice said. "It's at least 30 percent higher in October than in summer."
The entire county, which borders Buncombe to the west, encompassing Lake Junaluska, Canton and Waynseville, has been seeing an upward trend in October visitors.
"It's definitely the leaves and that fall experience," Rice said.
The word has gotten out about the elk - a plentiful species out West that was extirpated in the East - which were reintroduced to the Smokies in 2001. The elk are in the height of their bugling season.
To further attract leaf peepers, fall festivals pepper each weekend, including the Maggie Valley Fall Arts Craft Festival on Oct. 21-22 and the Apple Harvest Festival on Oct. 21 in downtown Waynesville, which draw some 15,000-20,000 people, she said.
People from across the Southeast come to escape the heat, she said, and book up to a year in advance for the coveted October rooms.
"If they're too late or too early for color they still love it. Seeing that color on the mountains really draws them in. We're in a bowl, with 360 degrees of mountains."
The vibrant dogwoods, maples and oaks surrounding the 200-acre Lake Junaluska are like sugary sweet candy. People can't pass them up in October.
The retreat center 30 minutes west of Asheville has lodging, restaurants and lake activities, like fishing and non-gasoline powered boats and a 2.3-mile walking trail circling the tree-hugging lake open to the public.
"Since I have been here I have seen a dramatic change in what appears to be the number of people staying in our hotels. We had a 16 percent increase since 2012 in occupancy in October," said Jack Ewing, Lake Junaluska executive director.
He said he believes the increase is based on a stronger economy, people are travelling more, they're staying on their trips to the Smokies and the parkway, they're looking for more outdoor activities, and then there's the coupons the retreat center gives out to summer guests - stay one night, get one free in October.
"We've been more intentional about taking advantage of the nature resources that the leaf turning provides for us. Driving on the parkway alone is worth a trip to WNC in the fall," Ewing said.
And the parkway's huge tourist draw and spending money benefits all the small towns along its path. The parkway had 15.2 million visitors in 2016, and 2 million of them came in October, the parkway's busiest month. A National Park Service report showed that in 2015, tourists spent $952.1 million in local communities.
The Smokies spillover in October is equally important to the economic base of gateway communities. The report showed that 11 million visitors spent $943 million in 2015, boosting the economies of local towns including Maggie Valley, Bryson City and Cherokee.
Beverly Collins, professor of biology at Western Carolina in Cullowhee, said the abnormal heat so far this October in the mountains should break starting Monday, and should not affect a fall leaf excursion.
The great diversity of elevations and tree species means different trees turn at different times, she said.
"The heat slowed down the color change, and we haven't had a frost, but with the shorter days and cooler weather coming, we should be on track," Collins said.
WNC is crawling with leaf color in small towns, but residents and business owners of Burnsville suggest this historic town if you have to pick just one.
The outdoors scene is one of the main draws, said Jake Blood with the North Carolina High Peaks Trail Association.
"Burnsville, in my opinion, is one of the optimal places for fall leaf viewing in all of WNC," Blood said. "There are several great hikes to take in the splendor of the Black Mountains in autumn."
One of his favorites is the Black Mountain Crest Trail starting at the Mount Mitchell summit parking lot. Hike 2 miles round-trip to the second highest peak in the Eastern U.S, Mount Craig at 6,648-feet.
"It has unsurpassed views of the headwaters of the Cane River and views of the western extent of the Black Mountains across the valley."
"If you're expecting a Dollywood, you're going to be woefully disappointed," said Ginger Johnson, director of the Yancey County/Burnsville Chamber of Commerce. "We're a quiet, calm place where you can enjoy the mountains. We have a large artistic community, and outdoor recreation, and now a brewery."
She said October has become a hefty base for the economy now that "people have started to discover Burnsville," and it is easier to access with the completion of the four-lane highway.
On the eastern edge of Burnsville, the OOAK (One of a Kind) Art Gallery has seen October sales double since it opened in 2011, said owner Kari Weaver, a clay artist.
Many people happen upon the studio, which features the work of 180 artists, as they venture off the Blue Ridge Parkway. The studio sits at the junction of N.C. 80 South and U.S. 19 East.
The town will showcase its world-class arts and crafts Oct. 14 and 15 at the Highway 80 South Art Hop (www.80arthop.com) along the winding lane dotted with farms and flowing with fall foliage.
"We lives such urbanized lives. There are more organized things to do in Asheville or Charlotte," Weaver said. "When you come here, you get a little bit back in touch with nature, you lose that clock and internal scheduling we tend to do. It's restorative, even if you can't put your finger on it."
That feeling lives at the Nu-Wray Inn, the most prominent landmark on Burnsville's out-of-a-Hallmark movie Town Square. Joey and Jill Farmer and their cousins Eric and Christy Wilson run the inn built in 1833, the same year Yancey County was incorporated. It is booked every weekend through October.
The building started as a stagecoach stopover, and has the original wood floors, windows and stone fireplaces, tasting like a step back in time, expecting to hear a horse and carriage pull up outside.
The second floor deck gives "the coolest view in Western North Carolina," Joey Farmer said, with its rocking chairs for people watching, peering out into the mountains and overlooking the giant red oaks shading Town Square.
It boasts many of the "famous" and "firsts," according to Farmer, a walking Burnsville history book. He says Nu-Wray (a play on words when it became the "new" Ray Inn) is the oldest operating inn in North Carolina and has hosted such big names as Mark Twain, Thomas Wolfe, O. Henry and Elvis Presley.
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