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Weather-Predicting Woolly Worms Will Go to the Races Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 15-16

One of the more intriguing festivals in North Carolina takes place Oct. 15-16 in Banner Elk as large crowds gather in this picturesque mountain town for the 39th annual Woolly Worm Festival.

Photo by Todd Bush
Photo by Todd Bush

The Woolly Worm Festival includes two days of races featuring more than 2,000 woolly bear caterpillars. The fastest worm at the end of Saturday’s races earns $1,000 and the right to predict the winter for the North Carolina High Country. Smaller prizes are awarded Sunday.

The festivities date to 1978 when a local magazine editor wanted to give the forecast based on the legend that a woolly worm’s stripes predict the severity of winter. A worm’s 13 fur bands represent the 13 weeks of winter. Brown bands indicate mild weather, while black bands indicate cold, snowy conditions.

The problem was each worm had different stripes and the editor didn’t know which one to trust. So the Woolly Worm Festival was born to designate the official winter-weather worm.

“The festival is down-home, all-American fun,” says Mary Jo Brubaker, event chairperson. “Turn off your cell phone, leave your stress behind and just have fun. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

Those who wish to race a woolly worm may bring their own worm or purchase one from the local PTO for a dollar. The races take place in heats and the worms race on vertical strings, inching their way up to the finish line.

“There are a variety of strategies,” Brubaker says. “The main thing is to find the eyes and make sure they’re peeking to the heavens. The worms like warmth, so we give people straws to blow on them and warm them up. Some people clap; some people cheer. Some families come every year and wear coordinated team shirts.”

The festival also includes craft vendors, a variety of food and live entertainment.

Hours for the festival are Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Attendees who want to race a worm on Saturday should register before 2 p.m. Sunday’s fastest worm receives a $500 prize, but no weather forecasting credentials.

Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for children ages 6-12. Kids 5 and younger are admitted free. For festival info, visit: www.WoollyWorm.com, or call (800) 972-2183. For lodging options, go to www.BannerElk.com.