Every autumn during the third weekend of October, the Blue Ridge Mountain town of Banner Elk becomes the woolly worm racing capital. That’s when this resort town welcomes visitors from near and far for the world famous Woolly Worm Festival.
The festival features two days of racing woolly worms, aka woollybear caterpillars, with crowds cheering on their favorites.
[The 2020 festival, scheduled to take place Oct. 17-18, has been canceled due to COVID-19. The festival plans to return in 2021, conditions permitting. Those dates would be Oct. 16-17, 2021.]
Races are held throughout the day Saturday and Sunday at Historic Banner Elk School in the heart of downtown. The overall winner of Saturday’s races earns a $1,000 grand prize and the honor of predicting the winter weather for North Carolina’s High Country.
While Sunday’s races don’t involve forecasting privileges, participants still vie for prestige, along with a $500 prize.
“It’s really an all-American small town at its best,” says Mary Jo Brubaker, festival chairperson. “As a society, we go to such extremes to entertain people these days, but the down-home simplicity of this festival is wonderfully refreshing.”
The quirky weather-forecasting tradition comes from mountain lore that says the 13 segments of a woollybear caterpillar represent the 13 weeks of winter. Black bands mean cold, snowy weeks, while brown bands indicate warmer conditions. However, each woolly worm sports a different color pattern, so the festival was started in 1978 to determine which worm provides the official forecast.
All attendees are welcome to race a woolly worm. They may bring their own or purchase one from the local PTO. Races take place in heats of 25 contestants. Each worm inches its way up a string as its owner coaxes and cheers. The first to the finish line advances to the next round.
“We have families that have come year after year, and they wear family team T-shirts, like they’re a NASCAR racing team,” Brubaker says. “It’s so much fun to watch people racing the worms, and everyone’s laughing and cheering.”
In addition to races, the festival includes food, craft vendors and live entertainment.
Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Those interested in racing a worm must register and are encouraged to do so by 1 p.m. each day. Daily admission is $6 for adults, $4 for children ages 6 to 12, and free for children 5 and younger.