It’s no secret that North Carolina is a premiere destination for lovers of fall foliage. From one end of the state to the other, there’s an annual explosion of reds and golds as the season turns from summer and leans into autumn. So the question quickly becomes: Where is the best place to see fall colors in North Carolina?
Go West, Young Man
Indisputably, the best place to see fall colors in North Carolina is in her mountains, located in the western region of the state. The Blue Ridge Mountains extend from Georgia to Pennsylvania, but their highest peaks are found in North Carolina, an important factor in considering when and where to view the fall colors. Autumnal change doesn’t happen all at once; it’s a gradual rippling of color that starts at the higher elevations and moves downward. The best place to see fall colors in North Carolina, then, depends on when you plan to view the fall colors.
Starting From the Top
Although it’s not possible to predict from year to year the exact dates for leaves to turn, experts can give us remarkably accurate estimates, based on elevation:
5000 feet: October 3-14
4000 feet: October 11-14
3000 feet: October 18-27
2000 feet: October 28-November 3
North Carolina’s mountains offer a full month of autumn beauty, so you can choose a visit that best aligns with your schedule. To help you decide, we’ve uncovered three hidden gems, visitation spots that are off the beaten path but that provide a truly rewarding experience of autumn in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
North Carolina’s Mt. Mitchell is the highest peak in the eastern United States, towering at 6684 feet, and is justly famous for its state park and brisk air. But if you’re looking for early autumn views in a more intimate, less touristy setting, consider a trip to the state’s southern mountains and enjoy the Richard Balsam Overlook. At 6053 feet, it’s the highest overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway, a magnificent two-lane route through the mountains of North Carolina and Virginia. If you plan ahead and pack a lunch, you can drive just north of the Richard Balsam Overlook and enjoy the Cowee Mountain Overlook, which is one of the few spots on the Parkway with unobstructed 180-degree views. These panoramas make the Cowee Mountain Overlook a popular spot for picnics.
After soaking up the early autumn views, head back down the Parkway and visit the area’s charming mountain towns. Sylva and Cashiers offer shops and restaurants, while Cullowhee is home to Western Carolina University and a variety of October cultural events that celebrate the region’s rich mountain heritage.
My mid-October, fall colors are starting to explode in the Pisgah National Forest, one of the first national forests in the United States, and currently comprised of over 500,000 acres. The drive from Saluda Mountain Lodge is itself beautiful, and the Forest allows the beauty to deepen as you follow the Blue Ridge Parkway into it. One of the lesser-known spots for enjoying fall colors in the North Carolina mountains is Moore Cove Falls, which features an enchanting and easily navigable trail that ends at a 50-foot plunge waterfall over an impressive rock ledge. Kids, especially, will love the fact that you can walk under the ledge and actually stand behind the waterfall.
The trail begins over a wooden bridge that spans the creek, then leads you down into the cool shade of the Forest. In the spring, there are a variety beautiful flowers that thrive in the shade, such as jack-in-the-pulpit and trillium; in the fall, the burst of tree color serves as a striking visual counterpoint to the green of the year-round ferns.
When you arrive at the falls, you’ll find a wooden viewing platform with a railing. Magnificent photos and videos can be taken from there, or you can leave the platform and carefully go over the rocks and sand and snag some impressive shots from behind the falls.
By late October, autumn is reaching its peak at the lower elevations, and one of the best places to enjoy a last look at the fall colors is the town of Brevard, in Transylvania County, often called “The Land of Waterfalls.” Brevard itself is well worth a visit, with an array of cultural events every month of the year, including “Forest Festival Days” held annually in October. And the town has become justifiably famous as a destination spot for enjoying the creative results of local craft breweries.
Beyond the town lay seemingly endless opportunities to enjoy the fall colors. Dupont State Recreational Forest is nearby, with trails, a picnic area, a covered bridge, a lake, and of course waterfalls. The Forest Heritage Scenic Byway is a 79-mile loop that carries you through the virgin forests of the Pisgah Ranger District and offers spectacular views of the countryside. You can pick up the Byway just outside of Brevard and begin your journey. One of your first stops should be the Pisgah Visitor Center, which will provide you several resources to better explore the region. Once you’re on your way, you’ll definitely want to stop at Looking Glass Falls, one of the most popular and most beautiful waterfalls in the state. Although you can enjoy views of the falls from the parking area, the short walk to the falls themselves is well worth it.
Perhaps the most compelling way to enjoy the North Carolina mountains’ fall colors is on horseback. That’s right: on horseback. As you drive along the Forest Heritage Scenic Byway, stop at Pisgah Forest Stables and enjoy a one-hour, two-hour, or two-and-a-half-hour guided ride through the natural fall beauty of the Pisgah National Forest. Reservations are required, so plan ahead. The Stables offer three different trail options, from gentle and easy ones for beginners, to more challenging paths that are appropriate for more knowledgeable riders. The Stables even have 10-minute pony rides for the youngest in your family. The mountains’ fall colors are stunning even from inside a car but become truly memorable when surveyed from atop a gentle and experienced horse.
A Full Month of Color
One of the best things about autumn in the North Carolina mountains is the cascading nature of the color change. It takes a month or more for colors to peak at the various elevations, meaning you have multiple opportunities to enjoy the seasonal transformation. The hidden gems we’ve highlighted here are well worth a weekend getaway, and the staff at Saluda Mountain Lodge are always happy to suggest other itineraries and off-the-beaten-path destinations.