Banner Elk’s famed Woolly Worm Festival celebrates its 41st year the weekend of Oct. 20-21.

The festival is known worldwide for its quirky mission of conducting races among woollybear caterpillars, known locally as woolly worms. Races are held both days, with Saturday’s winner getting the honor of forecasting the winter weather in North Carolina’s High Country.

Saturday’s winning worm also receives $1,000, while Sunday’s champion wins $500.

“Last year we had someone drive all the way from Indianapolis, Indiana, to race their worm,” said Kathy Boone, the festival’s chairperson. “The races really make it a unique event.”

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

However, the fact that every worm has different color patterns created a conundrum for the editor, so the festival was born to designate the official weather prognosticator.

Those wishing to race a woolly worm may bring their own or purchase one from the local PTO for a small fee. The races take place in heats, with worms racing up vertical strings on the main stage, inching their way to the finish line. Winners from each heat qualify for the semifinals, with semifinal winners facing off in the finals.

“It’s exciting to win a race, it’s exciting to be in the semifinals, and it’s so exciting to be in the final race,” Boone said. “We’ll have over 2,500 worms raced on a typical weekend and we collect them afterwards and put them back in the wild.”

The festival also includes craft vendors, plus a variety of live entertainment and food. This is the first year that the festival has been designated the Official Woolly Worm Festival of North Carolina by the NC Legislature.

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 1 p.m.

Admission is $6 for adults and $4 for children ages 6-12. Kids 5 and younger are admitted free. For festival info, visit: www.WoollyWorm.com, or call (800) 972-2183.

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