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Leaf peeping: A regional specialty

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    Fallen leaves float on the water in Bear Creek in Little River Canyon National Preserve, Sunday, Nov. 6, 2005, near Fort Payne, Ala.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

This region's long rivers and mountain backdrops can't be outdone when it comes to showcasing autumn's big flash.

With more than 400 species of hardwoods that display their colors in the fall, leaves of red, gold and orange have a coming-out party from late September to early November.

The peak fall foliage in the Cumberland Plateau, Appalachian and Blue Ridge mountain areas of Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and North Carolina usually occurs during the last two weeks of October.

In the valley regions, fall's gypsy colors usually peak from mid-October to late November.

Cindy Dupree, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Tourism, said the Volunteer State has a dedicated seasonal website with a weekly update from color "spotters" about fall foliage changes across the state.

"The beauty of Tennessee and fall foliage is that we're a horizontal state, so the beauty is long for us because it moves across our state," she said.

Here are sure-fire color catchers.

Kaleidoscopic drives

-- The Smokies -- A main attraction always is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. One nice driving tour is Cades Cove, an 11-mile loop in the far western Tennessee section of the park. Also nearby are Gatlinburg, Tenn., and Pigeon Forge, Tenn.

-- The Blue Ridge Parkway -- Think October and start in Cherokee, N.C., and wind through the Smokies to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. You'll have no choice but to slowly savor the colors, for a speed limit of 45 mph is strictly enforced on this curvy journey.

-- The Natchez Trace Parkway -- Can't get away until later in the season? This recently completed 444-mile two-lane road running from Bellevue, Tenn., to Natchez, Miss., follows an ancient trail used by Native Americans and European settlers to move goods and traffic from the Gulf Coast into Middle Tennessee.

-- Lookout Mountain Parkway -- This may be the region's best-kept secret. Within its 93 miles, this parkway spans three states as it stretches across Lookout Mountain from Gadsden, Ala., to Chattanooga. Along the way are Noccalula and Ruby waterfalls, Little River and Cloudland canyons, DeSoto State Park and the unique town of Mentone.

River runners

-- River Gorge color -- The Southern Belle Riverboat in Chattanooga offers a four-hour Fall Leaf Cruise from Ross's Landing through the Grand Canyon of the South, also known as the Tennessee River Gorge, through Nov. 10. The trip includes lunch, live entertainment and narration.

-- Fall Color Cruise at Hales Bar Marina in Guild, Tenn. -- On Oct. 29-30, Hales Bar Marina is bringing back a festival-on-the-river atmosphere for this long-standing favorite. It is another festival with music, dancing, food, arts and crafts, entertainment and more.

-- The fast track -- The Tennessee Aquarium's River Gorge Explorer offers a two-hour ride aboard a high-speed 70-passenger catamaran boat into the heart of gorge while an aquarium naturalist points out wildlife and historic points of interest along the way.

Colorful getaways

-- Rocktoberfest at Rock City -- Every Saturday and Sunday in October, Rock City in Lookout Mountain, Ga., celebrates fall color and its German heritage with entertainment and food.

-- Fort Mountain -- A scenic drive on Georgia Highway 52 near the Cohutta Wilderness leads to this mysterious mountain getaway. A North American Stonehenge, an ancient rock wall stands on the highest point of the mountain. The 855-foot-long wall is thought to have been built by early Indians as fortification against more hostile Indians or for ancient ceremonies.

-- Ketner's Mill Country Arts Fair is on Oct. 15-16 in Marion County on the banks of the Big Sequatchie River. The mill is the only remaining water-powered gristmill in the area, and it dates back to 1824. Visitors can watch the operation of a sorghum mill and purchase pure molasses. Stone ground corn meal and flour are also available, as well as artisan crafts, good country cooking, music and even canoe rides.