aerial woolly worm

The annual Banner Elk Woolly Worm Festival draws thousands of people to Banner Elk for the weekend from all over the region. This image was captured from a ladder truck courtesy of Banner Elk Volunteer Fire and Rescue in 2019.

BANNER ELK — After a scaled-down year due to COVID-19, the Woolly Worm Festival is returning to downtown Banner Elk to full crowds this weekend. This year’s 44th annual Banner Elk’s Woolly Worm Festival, sponsored by the Banner Elk Kiwanis Club and Avery County Chamber of Commerce, will be from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 16, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 17.

Celebrating the renowned woolly worm, a caterpillar which becomes the isabella tiger moth, the festival will feature more than 150 vendors and thousands of visitors with their trained worms racing to see who has the fastest worm, as well as a prediction of the winter weather based on the winning worm’s appearance.

The woolly worm races feature multiple heats in which owners place their worms at the bottom of a string and hope theirs is the first to reach the top. At the elevated finish line, the champion worm will have its segments read by Avery County native Tommy Burleson, the 7-foot, 2-inch former North Carolina State University basketball player and 1972 Olympic basketball team member.

Aside from winning the grand prize of $1,000, the winning worm also has the distinction of being named the “worm of record” for the year to predict the winter weather for the High Country. The bands of fur on the worm that vary in shading and color between brown and black determine the weather forecast, with each segment corresponding to one of 13 weeks of winter. The darker the band, the more severe the weather forecast for that week. The champion woolly worm’s markings will be read by Burleson, who will analyze all 13 segments of the woolly worm and announce the prediction.

To race a worm, the cost is $5. Challengers may bring their own woolly worm or buy one at the festival for a small fee.

The fun continues on Sunday, when the winning worm wins a $500 prize. Historically, fewer competitors have entered the Sunday competitions, increasing a racer’s chance of bringing in some extra holiday cash with their fuzzy friend.

To relax from the heat of worm-racing competition, visitors will also find a wide variety of craft vendors, meal options and music throughout the festival grounds.

All visitors are asked to wear a face mask for the health and safety of all visitors and volunteers. Pets are not allowed (other than woolly worms, of course).

To learn more about the Woolly Worm Festival, purchase tickets and more, contact the Avery County Chamber of Commerce at (828) 898-5605 or click to www.woollyworm.com.

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