I had to admit, the weather for this week was looking phenomenal.  I already had two great days in the park soaking up grand views and fantastic fall foliage.  Today was calling for some clouds and rain throughout the morning and early afternoon, but even then it was going to clear off.  On top of that, the next two days were looking great as well.  No room to complain this week!  It's such a great time of year to be in the park, so even with the unfavorable weather conditions today, I still wanted to get something out of it.  I also wanted to be able to cover all corners of the park while the changing colors were at their peak.  My instincts told me to take the drive across the park, east on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and make my way up, down, and around the one-way Balsam Mountain Road.  I would also get in a few short hikes along the way, just to wet my whistle.
          The rain that night had done a bad number on the upper elevations around Newfound Gap.  Whatever leaves were clinging to the trees before it came were now ripped off with authority.  There weren't any views from the various overlooks traveling through the park either.  Down lower, the colors were still in decent shape, just a little soggy.  As I made my way up the Blue Ridge Parkway, I managed to find one overlook with a view beneath the clouds.  I could see the slopes extending from the Balsam Mountain range with patches of color.  I also took notice of the fine color display in my immediate vicinity.
          Now, the last time I made the drive along Balsam Mountain, it resulted in a great deal of frustration.  I made sure to check both online and over the phone to find out if the road would idneed be open upon my arrival.  Sure enough, the gate was wide open and inviting.  The clouds still socked everything in, so there were no views at the moment.  I didn't mind because the rain had ceased along with the wind.  It was actually a neat experience to drive along a high mountain road through the clouds.  The unpaved road was blanketed in shades of yellow and orange from the recently battered foliage.
          A ways out, I came to the pull-off for the Spruce Mountain Trail.  The park recognizes and maintains but a half mile of this trail.  There used to be a firetower at its summit, but the path to get there has been left to nature.  It also connects to the northern end of the Polls Gap Trail at a campsite, but that too is closed because of blowdowns and erosion.  As short as this trail is, it doesn't shy away from gaining a chunk of elevation.  About halfway up, I came to a point where the forest was in transition from summer to fall.  If I looked downhill, the vegetation was entirely green and the path muddy.  When I did a 180 degree turn and lookedu phill, the trees were suddenly bright with yellow and the ground was covered in a collage of colors.  It was such a sharp and unique contrast in that one small pocket of the woods.  When I scaled the ridge, there were a few junctions, the first one leading left and uphill to the old tower.  I needed to at least go to the campsite which was a few tenths further.  Before arriving there, I passed a sign describing the status of the Polls Gap Trail.  Needless to say, my surroundings gave merit to the trail's closure because massive were down and tangled everywhere.  It looked like a war zone to be honest.  From what I could see, there were dozens of blowdowns and dense brush overtaking the forgotten trail.  After visiting the campsite, I was interested in taking the old path up to the summit.  There was a large blowdown at that junction as well, blocking the turn, but I could see past it and the trail was obvious.  I was intrigued, so I decided to follow it.  There was a lot of crawling, climbing, pushing, and pulling through all of the trees and saplings.
          By the end, I was drenched because of the rainwater sticking to the leaves.  Through it all, I never lost site of the trail.  I eventually reached the summit, looked around, and headed back.  It would be neat if there was still a tower here to offer rare views into this area of the park.  It was nice to reach the maintained trail and no longer have to fight through obstructions.  When I returned to the road, I looked around first and admired the scenery and enjoyed the solitude.
          I dried off before hopping back into the vehicle, then continued north along the one-way road.  Along the way, the clouds were beginning to break and sunlight was passing through the gaps intermittently.  It appeared the day was about to get a whole lot better.  I reached the trailhead of Balsam Mountain Trail, the very spot I was hoping to begin back in early September.  So I had a 2.3 mile stretch to do, and with the weather improving, I was very excited to see it through.  There is a bit of elevation gain this way to Beech Gap, but not nearly as much as coming up from Round Bottom along the gap's namesake trail.  The forest canopy was bare for the most part, but every so often I would look up and find a big beauty.  One that really stood out was loaded with bright red leaves near Ledge Bald.  At that point the clouds had all but dissipated.  The sun was high and bright, and the blue sky served as a sweet backdrop for the lingering fall color.
          The trail continues to scale the gently sloping ridge of Ledge Bald.  With all of the trees stripped of their leaves, the area appeared very open.  A lot of light was shining in now, like it would in April and May when wildflowers bloom along the ground but the trees are yet to fill in.  You could catch glimpses of nearby ridges and peaks through the trees.  The entire bald on down to Beech Gap was covered thick in white snakeroot.  It was no longer blooming, but I remember what it looked like at that very gap a month and half ago.  You had to fight through it at points because it grew in so thick.  Ledge Bald is rather extensive as it twists around the spine of Balsam Mountain.  Not nearly as famous as the park's other maintained balds, but I still found it special.
          After the bald, the trail drops rapidly into Beech Gap.  You lose the views and find yourself surrounded by more firs than before.  I had filled in this gap on the map, so I didn't need to go any further.  I reminisced for a moment then turned right around.  The weather continued to improve the rest of the way.  I made it back to my vehicle and would spend the rest of the afternoon driving around.  My hiking for the day was done.  I followed the one-way road down toward Straight Fork and out toward Cherokee.  Another corner of the park seen and thoroughly enjoyed this autumn.