“On your mark. Get set. Go!” Almost at once, thousands of spectators began clapping and cheering. Live commentary echoed across the festival ground, drowning out the murmurs of a hundred conversations. When the race leader was overtaken by an opponent, the crowd erupted into a thunderous ovation. It was a bewildering event to witness – especially considering all the hoopla was about a race between twenty-five woolly worms.
For many people, the woolly worm races are the reason they attend the Woolly Worm Festival. But it’s not the only thing to do at the annual event – hundreds of juried vendors sell their handcrafted artwork, food trucks feed the masses, and entertainment plays in every corner of the open field.
It was entirely a coincidence that I checked into a condo for a one-week stay in Beech Mountain the day before the festival. “Are you going to the Woolly Worm Festival?” the woman asked as I picked up the keys. I didn’t know the first thing about it – but it sounded intriguing. So the very next day, I drove down the mountain and found myself at the most bewildering and exciting festival I’d ever attended.
Table of Contents
How Did the Woolly Worm Festival Begin?
In 1978, Grease premiered during the summer movie season, NASA unveiled the first group of female astronauts, and the residents of Banner Elk held the first Woolly Worm Festival. Although the idea for a fall festival had come about a few years earlier, it wasn’t until Jim Morton moved to the small mountain community that the woolly worm became involved.
One of Morton’s earliest adventures in the area was a trip to Grandfather Mountain. During the visit, he learned about the local folklore of the woolly worm’s ability to predict the upcoming winter’s weather. He became fascinated with the prognosticator.
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A few years later, Morton wrote an article for Mountain Living Magazine, including a section predicting the winter’s weather. He photographed the first woolly worm he found and used that as the basis for his prediction. But the very next day, he found another woolly worm with an entirely different forecast.
Morton was pleasantly frustrated by the encounter. How could the folklore be correct if woolly worms offered competing predictions? He realized there needed to be a way to select which woolly worm would be crowned as the ultimate prognosticator. He approached the committee formulating a plan for a fall festival and suggested the featured event be a woolly worm race. The idea took off – and the Woolly Worm Festival became a reality.
Folklore of the Woolly Worm’s Winter Prediction
The woolly worm’s body is divided into 13 sections – coinciding with the number of weeks of winter. A furry coat develops on each section and is typically colored either brown or maroon. According to folklore, a black section predicts harsh winter weather while a brown section predicts mild weather.
When is the Woolly Worm Festival in 2023?
Every festival since the inaugural in 1978 has been held on the third weekend of October. The timing can sometimes perfectly align with the peak of fall colors in the area and usually includes cooler, more comfortable daytime temps.
The 46th Annual Woolly Worm Festival will take place on October 21-22, 2023, from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Saturday and 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. on Sunday.
The Woolly Worm Festival Race – the featured event for most attendees – begins around 9 a.m. on Saturday with the first of several dozen heats. Each heat lasts about 15 minutes with about a 10-minute break in between each. The final race – leading to the announcement of the champion – begins around 5 p.m.
The Corporate Woolly Worm Race is held on Sunday. This smaller race features woolly worms sponsored by local businesses. The sponsoring business of the winner gets a trophy and bragging rights for the following year!
The Woolly Worm Race
An elevated stage dominated one corner of the festival ground. A vibrant yellow wall – painted for contrast against the woolly worms – stretched the length of the stage. Every few feet, a four-foot length of thin white string ran vertically between two screws, creating “lanes” for the race.
Anyone can enter the woolly worm race. All that’s required is a small entry fee, a woolly worm, and a clever name. Most people arrive with their own woolly worms captured somewhere in the western North Carolina mountains – but you could also purchase a caterpillar at the entry table. As for the clever name, a few examples include Fuzz Lightyear, Dale Wormhardt, and Woolly Smith – what will you name yours?
The race has grown to hundreds of entries in recent years, forcing the organizers to expand the heats – or smaller qualifying races – to twenty-five racers at a time. The announcement for the upcoming heat blares over the speakers, and handlers – woolly worms in hand – make their way to the stage.
Adam Binder – better known at the festival as Mr. Woolly Worm II – lays out the ground rules for the race. “Don’t place your woolly worm on the string until I say go. Once you release your woolly worm, you cannot touch it again until the race is over. However, you’re allowed to blow on them with the straws we provided to encourage them to climb faster.”
Binder took on the role as the official commentator of the woolly worm races in 2017 following the retirement of Roy Krege – also known as Mr. Woolly Worm – after serving in the position for 38 years. But Binder did not walk into the position – he endured 7 years as an apprentice under Krege before he was granted the moniker Mr. Woolly Worm II.
The stage was crowded with twenty-five handlers gingerly holding their woolly worms, a friend or family member, and support staff to monitor the race. Binder lifts the microphone to his bearded face, a shadow cast from the ballcap covered in stuffed woolly worms. “On your mark. Get set. Go!”
Almost at once, thousands of spectators began clapping and cheering. Binder provided live commentary, his voice echoing across the festival ground and drowning out the murmurs of a hundred conversations. Wool-Verine was in the lead, but Night Flurry was catching up fast – no, wait, now Pokey had taken the lead! The crowd erupted into a thunderous ovation.
It was bewildering to witness – especially considering all the hoopla was about a race between twenty-five woolly worms. Eventually, one of the caterpillars reached the red tape at the top of the string, and a winner was announced. Squeals pierced the air from the teenage winner.
In 1988 – just before the 11th annual Woolly Worm Festival – Jim Morton wrote in the Johnson City Press, “To find one specific caterpillar for an official prognostication is the essential purpose of the popular woolly worm races.”
And that’s exactly what they do. Dozens of heats throughout the day – each lasting a mere 15 minutes – leads to a semi-finals round, and eventually the finals. Around 4 p.m. Saturday, as the crowds begin to thin and vendors start winding down, the final race begins. The race victor will be crowned the official prognosticator, and the color bands read aloud as the official prediction for the upcoming winter’s weather.
Did You Know?
The woolly worm is not a worm at all. It is the Isabella Tiger Moth caterpillar. The caterpillar has a woolly fur coat that first led to the nickname, and the Southern folklore of its weather predictions cemented the name. However, throughout the New England and Midwestern states, the caterpillar is known by another inaccurate nickname – the “woolly bear.”
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Juried Craft Vendors
Ever since the inaugural Woolly Worm Festival, juried craft vendors have been a main staple of the weekend event. A festival committee examines the artwork of all applicants to determine if they are genuinely handcrafted. As a result, you won’t find antique dealers or dollar store candelabras at this festival!
At the center of the festival grounds, nearly 200 brilliant white tent tops stand above the sea of festival goers. Beneath each top, a vendor has tables, shelves, and bins stocked full of handcrafted artwork for sale. Woodworking, jewelry, clothing – you’ll also find fine art photography and stunning pieces of home décor.
I’ll admit I did not spend much time browsing the vendor booths – but others sure did. At the 10’ entrance to each booth, a gaggle of window shoppers jostled for position with earnest buyers. People walked away with artwork wrapped in bubble wrap or shopping bags stuffed full. Two men slowly worked their way through the crowd with an endless string of excuse me’s as they carried a ginormous wooden eagle carved with a chainsaw.
Food at the Woolly Worm Festival
I’m fairly certain the “secret” ingredient in all festival food is grease. But I guess that’s not much of a secret, considering I could hear the deep fryers fifty feet away from the nearest food truck.
A long row of food trucks and trailers lined the back of the festival grounds. Lights glittered overhead as thin wisps of smoke disappeared into the sky. Enormous menu boards presented just about every kind of food you could imagine.
The lines moved quickly. In less than five minutes, I walked away with a basket of chili cheese fries and chicken tenders. But, hey – my watch had already notified me of achieving my walking goal for the day, so I could binge just a little, right?
Parking at the Woolly Worm Festival
I had it easy. From my condo on Beech Mountain, all I had to do was descend the mountain through about a dozen hairpin curves, and I came out on Main Street in Banner Elk near Lees-McRae College. A vacant lot on the corner had been co-opted by a non-profit for the weekend – $10 cash, and I was safely parked.
Depending on which direction brings you into Banner Elk, you may have it that easy – but it could potentially be much more difficult. It seemed the worst way to enter town during the festival was Tynecastle Highway – NC Highway 184 from near Grandfather Mountain. Festival goers crossed the road – often outside the crosswalks – halting traffic.
During the Woolly Worm Festival, local non-profit organizations take the opportunity to raise money for their causes. Parking lots at Lees-McRae College, local churches, and banks are taken over for the weekend, and parking is permitted for a small cash fee. The average attendee spends about 2-3 hours at the festival, so parking lots often have a few empty spaces throughout the day.
Tips for the Best Experience
Even after reading everything in this guide – because you did read everything – there are still a few more tips for the best experience at the Woolly Worm Festival.
- Bring cash to pay for parking and those vendors that do not take credit or debit cards – there are no ATMs at the festival, but there are nearby banks
- Arrive early and leave late to avoid the inevitable traffic jam
- Make reservations – if allowed – at local restaurants if you want lunch or dinner
- Be prepared for unpredictable weather – it could be hot, cold, raining, or snowing
- If you purchase large pieces of artwork, ask the vendor if you can meet them after festival hours for easier pick up
- Do not publicly denounce the ability of the woolly worm to accurately predict winter weather – this is for your own safety from the locals
Places to Stay
The Banner Elk area is known for its ski resorts – Beech Mountain and Sugar Mountain are two of the most popular skiing destinations in the state. Condos, rental homes, and cabins are plentiful throughout the area. While these are great options, the full kitchens and locations might be overkill for a festival getaway over the weekend.
There are a few places in Banner Elk to stay, including a lovely bed and breakfast within walking distance of the Woolly Worm Festival. But the best places to stay for the festival are in nearby Boone and Blowing Rock. Here are some options to help you plan the best weekend getaway for the festival.
Pro Travel Tip
Make weekend bookings for any of these properties as far in advance as possible. Weekends tend to book up fast, especially once the fall colors start changing.
The Best Western is the only chain hotel in Banner Elk – fortunately, it’s a great option. With an outdoor swimming pool and two beds in all the rooms, the hotel is a great option for families. The only downside to this motel is that it’s not within walking distance to the festival. Book now with Booking.com or Expedia.com
The Little Main Street Inn & Suites is one of the best options for places to stay during the festival. With free on-site parking, you can leave the car behind while walking about half a mile along Main Street to the festival. Each room is nicely equipped for a perfectly comfortable weekend getaway. Book now with Booking.com
The Azalea Inn Bed and Breakfast is a charming and comfortable place to stay – and the building sits on a corner lot across from the festival! It would provide the shortest walk and best place to stay for this particular weekend.
At The Perry House Bed and Breakfast, guests can sleep in renovated rooms inside a 1901 farmhouse. The B&B sits on a hill just above Main Street – guests can sit on the covered front porch and watch the festival before taking the short walk down the street.
TownePlace Suites is always a great place for families to stay. Free on-site parking, an indoor swimming pool, and an outdoor cooking area with a firepit are a few of the fantastic amenities. The suites come with fully equipped kitchens and sleeper sofas. Book now with Booking.com or Expedia.com
Hampton Inn & Suites is the hotel chain I recommend more than any other. The complementary, hot breakfast cooked every morning cannot be beaten by any other hotel chain. Along with an indoor swimming pool, rooms for solo travelers or entire families, and free on-site parking, this would be a fantastic place to stay. Book now with Booking.com or Expedia.com
The Chetola Resort is the pinnacle of overnight lodging in Blowing Rock. The 3-star resort features an indoor swimming pool, on-site bar and restaurant, room service, and epically comfortable rooms. It might be tempting to never leave the lodge! Book now with Booking.com or Expedia.com
With an indoor swimming pool, complimentary breakfast, and plenty of on-site parking, the Meadowbrook Inn would be a great place to stay in Blowing Rock. The rooms are simply gorgeous with large picture windows, optional gas fireplaces, and comfortable furnishings. Book now with Booking.com or Expedia.com
The Blowing Rock Inn is a no-frills roadside motel where I spent several nights once before. The rooms are comfortable, simplistic, and rustic – but nothing was better than the wicker furniture on a covered front porch each morning to enjoy my coffee. Book now with Booking.com or Expedia.com
If you’re looking for a more traditional hotel experience in Blowing Rock, the Holiday Inn Express is about five minutes from the downtown area. The rooms are comfortable, but the hotel offers few amenities other than free on-site parking and Wi-Fi. Book now with Booking.com or Expedia.com