Mountains of foliage: What does Grandfather Mountain do with its fallen leaves?

LINVILLE, NC (November 9, 2021) — Autumn at Grandfather Mountain draws visitors from across the country to witness the vibrant changing of the leaves, as hues of yellow, orange and red cascade down the mountain.

Many of these visitors take vacation to behold the seasonal spectacle, but for members of the Grandfather Mountain maintenance staff, fall means an uptick in work.

Once gathered, fallen leaves are mulched, composted and used for sundry purposes, including topsoil for landscaping. Photo by Luke Barber | Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation

Andrew Grindstaff leads the maintenance department for the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns and operates the Linville, N.C., nature preserve. He and his staff work hard to keep the park in pristine condition year round, but each autumn presents its own share of unique challenges.

“Our biggest challenges are our busiest times when a lot of people want to see the leaves,” Grindstaff said. “So, we’re balancing our time between parking cars and trying to get the leaves up. Another challenge is the wind. You have to base your days on which way the wind is blowing.”

The maintenance department began its yearly leaf cleanup on Oct. 7 and expects the effort to last until mid-November, typically when the last leaves fall from the trees. Aiding the department in its effort this year is the Billy Goat Debris Loader, which is essentially a giant vacuum that sits on the back of a truck the maintenance staff has nicknamed “Tom Brady,” referencing the famous NFL quarterback often referred to as “the GOAT.”

Grandfather Mountain maintenance staff member Tom Vance collects fallen leaves throughout the park, using a special high-powered vacuum. Photo by Luke Barber | Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation

The process begins with maintenance crews going throughout the park and using leaf blowers to pile the leaves up along the roadside and around easily accessible areas near the nature museum, trailheads, the Mile High Swinging Bridge and stewardship foundation offices. A crew of four then arrives to vacuum up the leaves, which are mulched in the process.

“If the leaves are not collected, they’ll clog up the storm drains,” Grindstaff said. “In the event of hard rainfall, this can lead to standing water in roadways, which is a safety hazard, or erosion. If we don’t get them up now, it makes it harder in the springtime because the snowfall compacts the leaves.”

The leaves are sucked into a 10-cubic-yard square box, which maintenance crews have filled up 29 times this year to date. Maintenance will typically fill the box up to 30 times per autumn, but Grindstaff expects his department to exceed that this year. In the past (before Tom Brady joined the team), the maintenance department used a ton truck to collect the leaves, with its record collection amount at 20 ton-truck loads.

Fall color proved bountiful this year at Grandfather Mountain — as did the amount of fallen leaves collected by the nonprofit nature park’s maintenance team. To date, Grandfather Mountain staff has gathered nearly 300 cubic-yards of fallen fall foliage. Photo by Skip Sickler | Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation

As part of the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation’s sustainability efforts, the mulched up leaves do not go to waste. The leaves are dumped in an area away from public view, where they are composted and can be later used as topsoil. Grindstaff said these leaves are used for landscaping purposes around the mountain, and staff and board members may even use the compost for their own personal gardens.

To learn more about the Grandfather Mountain’s sustainability initiatives, visit

The nonprofit Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation strives to inspire conservation of the natural world by helping guests explore, understand and value the wonders of Grandfather Mountain. For more information, call 800-468-7325, or visit to book a trip.

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