Fall Fun at the Woolly Worm Festival in Banner Elk NC

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Most of us are familiar with Groundhog Day, wherein a large rodent (a.k.a. Woodchuck) checks to see his shadow on February 2 and helps to predict when Winter will end. 

But have you ever heard about how one quaint North Carolina mountain town uses a fuzzy caterpillar known as the Woolly Worm to make similar predictions? 

Held annually on the third weekend of October, the delightfully unique Woolly Worm Festival in Banner Elk NC is a family-friendly 2-day event with up to 175 vendors, delicious food, and live music.  

At the center of all the action are Woolly Worms (a.k.a. Woolly Bear Caterpillars). These black and brown fuzzy caterpillars have 13 stripes, which are used to predict the severity of the forthcoming Winter season. 

You can even buy your own Woolly Worm and register it at the festival, which might come in handy for the special prediction (hint, hint).

If you want your Woolly Worm to have a chance to be the honored caterpillar and to win the Grand Prize (cash!), you’ll want to attend on Saturday. Smaller cash prizes are handed out on Sunday. 

While you’re having fun at the festival, you can also see the area’s Autumn leaves during their peak Fall colors. Even better, the proceeds from the festival will go back to the local community. 

Read on for our complete guide to visiting the Woolly Worm Festival in Banner Elk NC, and learn how the special Woolly Caterpillar is chosen for the Woolly Worm prediction.  

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Wooly Worm Festival Attendees
Woolly Worm Festival Grounds

Woolly Worm Festival Info

ADDRESS: Historical Banner Elk School, 140 Azalea Circle, Banner Elk NC 

PHONE: 828-898-5605

DATES: October 21-22, 2023

HOURS: Saturday 9 AM–5 PM; Sunday 9 AM–4 PM

COST OF ENTRY: Adults- $6 Cash, $7 Credit Card; Children ages 6-12- $4 Cash, $5 Credit Card; Children under age 6- Free. Tickets can be purchased online in advance or at the gate.

PARKING: Free parking is available on a first come, first served basis, but there’s also extra parking for various prices in nearby lots. Make sure to bring CASH!

OTHER: $1 to buy a Woolly Worm, and $5 to register it for the race


DRIVING DIRECTIONS: From the neighboring town of Boone NC, take NC 105 South for approximately 13 miles. Turn right onto NC 184, which will lead into the heart of Banner Elk and the Woolly Worm Festival.

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Wooly Worm Festival Staff
Woolly Worm Festival Staff 

History of the Woolly Worm Festival

The Woolly Worm Festival was co-founded by Jim Morton, the son of Hugh Morton (creator of the Grandfather Mountain attraction). But he never guessed just how big this annual Banner Elk festival would become.

It all started in 1973, when Jim Morton spent the Fall season in the NC High Country. That’s when he learned the Appalachian folklore surrounding the Woolly Worm’s ability to predict weather for Winter from a local.

A few years later, he was invited to a meeting designed to create a merchant’s association and brainstorm ideas to grow the mountain town of Banner Elk NC.

Jim proposed creating one of the most unique annual Banner Elk festivals, which would attract publicity, bring in outside merchants, and attract locals and outside visitors alike.

The day before the meeting, he was doing an assignment about Woolly Worms  for a local publication and just used the first one he found due to a deadline. This worm happened to be completely brown.

After the meeting, he came across another Woolly Worm, who was predominantly black with a few brown stripes.

He was struck by a thought: How could their caterpillar predictions for Winter be trusted, since the caterpillars’ markings varied so widely?

That was when Morton decided to create a festival revolving around these little creatures, and have an annual Woolly Bear Caterpillar winter prediction event.

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Wooly Worm Black and Brown Fuzzy Caterpillar
Woolly Worm 

The Wooly Worm Selection Process

After this “eureka!” moment, Jim needed to figure out how to select one special Woolly Worm to make the prediction.

One evening, he and his friends were hanging out and watching Woolly Worms crawling up stalks of milkweed. They decided to race the caterpillars up a string, and the winner would be the chosen one. 

The Woolly Worm Festival Association was formed soon thereafter, and the first festival was held in 1978.

Roy Krege (better known as “Mr. Woolly Worm”) has been there as a vendor since the very first festival as a vendor. He eventually became Mr. Woolly Worm for to entertain kids, and to educate the visitors on the caterpillars.

He would stand on the racing platform, cheering on the worms and announcing the final winner. He has since retired from being the unofficial mascot, but was an integral part of the festival’s early success. 

Jim Morton has since passed away, but his legacy lives on as the festival celebrates its 46th year. Growing from just 3–7 vendors to more than 175 vendors, it has become one of the most popular festivals in Western North Carolina

READ MORE: The 10 Best Restaurants in Banner Elk NC for Foodies

Wooly Worm Race
Woolly Worm Race

Woolly Worm Races

One of the most fun things to do at the festival is the Woolly Worm race, in which pretty much anyone can participate.  

There are a few tips that can help increase your chances of winning one of the cash prizes.

First off, you want to make sure to keep your caterpillar comfortable. If they feel threatened, it will cause them to curl up into a ball as a defense mechanism. 

You can also help by keeping your worm warm in your hands, or letting them crawl on you or in a cup before the race.

But the biggest tip I can share from my experience at the festival is to make sure your caterpillar is facing the right direction on the string. Some people put their Woolly Worms on facing the wrong way!

There are multiple racing heats that go on throughout the 2-day event. You can buy a Woolly Worm to race at the festival for $1, or you can bring your own.

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Wooly Worm Race - Blowing
Encouraging a Woolly Worm during the race

Woolly Worm Race Prizes

If you want to win one of of the Woolly Worm race prizes, visit the sign-up booth next to the big racing platform, register your caterpillar, and give them a fun name.

The races start around 10 AM, but I’d recommend registering early because the race slots are limited. 

On Saturday, all the races count towards being the honored Woolly Worm who will get a chance to predict the Winter weather.

The Woolly Worms who win all of the various preliminary heats will race in the finale around 4 pm on Saturday for the Grand Prize– $1000 in cash! 

If you can’t make it to the festival’s first day, you can race Woolly Worms on Sunday in hopes of winning a smaller cash prize of $500. There’s also a Woolly Worm racing heat exclusively for local businesses. 

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Wooly Worm Festival Cutout
Woolly Worm Festival Cutout 

Woolly Worm Predictions for Winter

You may be wondering how the winner of the Woolly Worm Race predicts the Winter weather conditions. The key to that is based on the Woolly Worm’s stripes.

Each Woolly Bear Caterpillar has 13 stripes that are either black or brown. Each season of the year has 13 weeks, which is why their 13 stripes are so significant.

As the local legend goes, each week of Winter is represented by a colored band on the caterpillar. Black stripes represent ice and a cold, snowy week, while brown reflects a milder week.

But note that it can range from dark to light brown. Lighter brown means that the mornings that week will be chilly, but by the afternoon it’ll be a nice Winter day, ending with a chillier evening.

If it’s a darker brown, that means a week of low temperatures, which are good for making snow stick. In short, it suggests great weather for North Carolina skiing and snowboarding

To “read” a Woolly Worm’s colors, simply start at the head of the caterpillar for the first week of Winter, and then progress down to the tail for the last week. 

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Wooly Worm Festival hats.
Wooly Worm Festival hats

The Woolly Worm Festival Experience

Even before visitors enter the festival, they’re welcomed by the beauty of Fall in North Carolina and vibrant Autumn leaves all around. 

Once you’re inside, there are so many fun things to do and see at the October festival.

You can snap cute photos of yourself as a Woolly Worm, or shop for special Woolly Worm Festival merch (including hats, t-shirts, hoodies, and more).

Visitors can even customize their clothing. All you have to do is choose what item you want, then pick from an array of different designs.

They will then press your custom design on the pot, and voila! You’ll have your own unique Woolly Worm souvenir straight off the press. In my experience, it was definitely worth the wait.

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Wooly Worm Festival Christmas Crafts
Woolly Worm Festival Christmas Crafts

Woolly Worm Crafts

There are long rows of vendors to explore, with many wonderful, handcrafted pieces. It’s the perfect place to purchase early Christmas presents for friends and family, or just to buy yourself souvenir gifts.

You can find jewelry, home decor, art, food from local farms, and so much more. Keep your eye out for free stickers from event staff, and a big Woolly Worm mascot to take pictures with. 

But don’t spend so much time shopping that you miss out on the whole reason for the festival.

Whether you choose to buy your own caterpillar (you can find them at a tent among the vendors) or just want to watch the Woolly Worm races, follow the sound of cheering and look for the giant stage. 

Once you find the crowd, you can sit on hay barrels to watch the caterpillars race.

On the day I visited, the announcer even invited some children to come down front to dance and cheer for their favorite Woolly Worms.

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Wooly Worm Festival Food Vendors
Festival Food Vendors by Maria Smith

Woolly Worm Festival Food & Activities

If you find yourself getting hungry, there are plenty of food options to choose from.

You can find classic fair food, or peruse the food trucks from local restaurants.

There’s also plenty of old-fashioned treats like cotton candy and funnel cakes to satisfy your sweet tooth. 

Whether you’re sitting down to enjoy your food or just relaxing, there is live music playing throughout the day. 

In addition to the Woolly Worm races, there are myriad fun activities throughout the festival, including a face painting tent, mini golf, and much more. 

They also have bouncy houses for children to enjoy, and balloon darts and other games where you can win a prize.

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Save the Woolly Worms box
Save the Woolly Worms Box 

After an eventful day of shopping, eating, and cheering on Woolly Worms, guests can head out for the evening.

But if you bought a Woolly Worm, please remember to place yours into the wooden box by the exits.

All of the fuzzy caterpillars are released back into their natural habitat after the Wooly Worm Festival is over! –text and photos by Maria Smith

Leave No Trace logo

We encourage anyone who loves the Blue Ridge region to learn about the Leave No Trace principles of responsible environmental stewardship. 

Stay on marked trails, take only pictures, pack out your trash, and be considerate of others who share the trails and parks you explore. 

Remember that waterfalls and rocky summits can be dangerous. Never try to climb waterfalls or get close to a ledge to get a selfie.

When you're exploring the wilderness, it's better to be safe than to be a statistic!

The BRMTG was created by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett, the award-winning team behind the world-renowned responsible travel website Green Global Travel. Born and raised in North Georgia, Editor-In-Chief Bret Love grew up hiking and camping in the Blue Ridge Mountains with his family. A professional writer/editor since 1995, he's covered travel and culture for 100+ publications, including American Way, Destination Marriott, Georgia Travel Guide, National Geographic, and Southbound. In 2010 he co-founded the award-winning website, Green Global Travel, which is ranked among the world's top travel blogs. Since launching BRMTG in 2020, he and Mary Gabbett have visited 50+ Blue Ridge Mountain towns together. Though she lived in NYC for 14 years, photographer/Business Manager Mary Gabbett's family has Georgia roots dating back 200+ years. Her great-grandfather was President of the Western Railroad of Alabama. Before moving to Atlanta in 1989, she fell in love with the North GA mountains, where her aunt owned a cabin. In 2010 she co-founded Green Global Travel, and has since traveled to more than 40 countries on six continents. Her photos have appeared in numerous travel publications (including National Geographic and Southbound) and various textbooks.