A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

In the western-most reaches of North Carolina, cradled by the Great Smoky Mountains and Nantahala National Forest, Graham County beckons with outdoor adventure and stunning, rugged beauty, which shines even

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

In the western-most reaches of North Carolina, cradled by the Great Smoky Mountains and Nantahala National Forest, Graham County beckons with outdoor adventure and stunning, rugged beauty, which shines even

6 Ways to Explore Graham County During the Most Stunning Season

In the western-most reaches of North Carolina, cradled by the Great Smoky Mountains and Nantahala National Forest, Graham County beckons with outdoor adventure and stunning, rugged beauty, which shines even brighter when autumn arrives and paints the majestic mountain peaks bright gold and ruby red. Sunrise hikes surrounded by changing leaves, picnics with waterfall views, an epic scenic drive through the mountains, trophy fishing, mountaintop sunsets — the fall adventures are endless. So grab your sweater, pack a picnic, and prepare for the ultimate journey through autumn.


Explore more than 150 trails, including Hooper Bald Trail. photograph by Hunter Turner of Little River Creative

Explore Autumn from the Hiking Trail

When the mountains change from green to stunning shades of crimson, gold, and orange, there’s no better place to experience the transformation than in the woods. Lace up your hiking boots and pack a picnic, because, with more than 150 trails to explore, there are plenty of options for stretching your legs. For family hikes and those looking more for a casual walk, check out the Yellow Creek Falls Trail. Here, you’ll find a .6-mile round-trip journey leading to a gorgeous waterfall cascading into a pool. It’s a great spot to relax, eat lunch, and watch the leaves fall. For paved, accessible options, consider the Cherohala Skyway Spirit Ridge Trail or the Maple Springs Overlook just outside of Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. Both offer nearly 360-degree views and are equally beautiful spots for viewing the leaves during the day and the starry skies at night. For experienced hikers, try the Benton MacKaye Trail, which provides a rare glimpse of untouched wilderness. “You see, perhaps, what the forest looked like 300 years ago,” says local trailkeeper Kim Hainge. “You see more of the wildlife that has been frightened away by people on the Appalachian Trail.” And while it’s not quite as remote, the iconic Appalachian Trail still holds stunning natural beauty for hikers. “It crosses a wonderful place called Stecoah Gap, which has one of the most beautiful vistas, especially in the fall,” says Hainge, who also recommends the Bartram Trail — named for famed botanist John Bartram — for its sweeping views, particularly from Cheoah Bald peak.


Stunning views abound along the Cherohala Skyway National Scenic Byway. photograph by Hunter Turner of Little River Creative

Take a Colorful Road Trip on the Mile-High Road in the Sky

Stretching 43 miles from Robbinsville to Tellico Plains, Tennessee, the Cherohala Skyway National Scenic Byway was specifically built for motor touring — which means postcard-worthy views around every corner. Between the two small towns, the skyway leads up and away, rising to more than 5,300 feet at its highest point. Take a day trip to discover a sparkling lake and towering trees, hushed woods and whispering waterfalls, a cozy lodge and delicious pit stops. Stop for a picnic at a beautiful overlook right off the byway, or head to the top of Huckleberry Knob and Hooper Bald, two impressive peaks boasting 360-degree views from their summits. As you make your way from Graham County into Monroe County, Tennessee, be sure to make time to explore the crystal-clear Indian Boundary Lake in the Sky and the 90-foot Bald River Falls before heading back toward Graham County on a sunset autumn cruise. 


The view from behind the wheel doesn’t do pristine Santeetlah justice, so those in the know trade their cars for canoes or boats. photograph by Hunter Turner of Little River Creative

Reflect on the Surrounding Beauty from a Stunning Lake

Trade your car for a canoe at pristine Lake Santeetlah. You can soak up the surrounding mountain views and changing leaves with a paddle in hand — the remote lake boasts calm, clear water perfect for boating and paddle sports — or grab your fishing pole to fish for everything from rainbow trout and catfish to walleye and large-mouth bass. Plus, hikers can easily access the Santeetlah Lakeshore Trail, where they’ll enjoy equally impressive views of the water and falling leaves. And don’t worry about packing all of your gear; stop in at the full-service Santeetlah Marina for fuel, rentals, and a small boutique. 


Embrace the Escape from the Coolest Collection of Accommodations

Who wants a standard hotel room when they can stay in a covered wagon? Or a tree house? Or a yurt? In Graham County, where you rest your head at night can be just as unique and varied as the adventures you get into during the day. At Iron Horse Motorcycle Lodge and Resort, bunk in your own covered wagon. And these aren’t Little House on the Prairie-style — each wagon has heat and air-conditioning, comfy beds, a mini-fridge, and more. Or head to The Heart Center retreat to spend the night in an authentic Mongolian yurt complete with hand-painted artwork, sky views, and decks for taking in the leafy scenery. And if that doesn’t get you close enough to the trees, River’s Edge Treehouse Resort definitely will — think that tree house of childhood but luxury, with king beds, mini-kitchens, satellite TV, and more. Or head to the historic Tapoco Lodge on the banks of the Cheoah River, which offers lodge rooms, suites, and cabins appointed with plush king beds and hot tubs, plus autumn views of the Yellowhammer Mountains. And to be even more immersed into nature, check out Snowbird Mountain Lodge: Since 1941, this cozy retreat set on 100 acres off the Cherohala Skyway has celebrated the wilderness that’s all around with breathtaking views of the Smokies and a dedication to helping guests explore the great outdoors right outside their windows.


Have an Adventure on a Mountain Bike or on Horseback

If you’re looking for an adrenaline rush, grab your helmet! Mountain biking enthusiasts from all over flock to Tsali Recreation Area, ranked among the top locations for the sport in the country, for a ride when the leaves change. The recreation area’s nearly 40 miles of bike trails are broken into four moderately difficult loops ranging from 7.3 to 13.9 miles of single track. Located on a hilly peninsula stretching into Fontana Lake, the trails afford riders sweeping views of the water as well as wooded mountain scenery. And mountain bikers aren’t the only ones who enjoy Tsali — horseback riders also head out on the trails; an alternating-day schedule keeps cyclists and equestrians separate. But whether you’re on horseback or two wheels, it’s a great way to take in all the colors of the season.


Fly-fishing and autumn views abound at Snowbird Creek and Santeetlah Creek. photograph by Hunter Turner of Little River Creative

Cast a Line and Admire the Autumn Views

With a delayed harvest season that kicks off on October 1, Snowbird Creek draws fly-fishermen, hikers, and leaf peepers alike. A 1.8-mile stretch of Snowbird Creek offers catch-and-release fishing of thousands of stocked fish. “The Wildlife Commission stocks brook trout, brown trout, and rainbow trout,” says local fishing expert Rick Davis. “And some of them are trophy-sized fish that they put in there! Even a novice fisherman may get lucky and catch a trophy-sized trout.” Davis says this stretch of Snowbird — with its easy entry and wide stream that can accommodate fly-fishing groups — is ideal for families. Further down the creek, the native trout section winds for nearly five miles and offers waterfall views. “If you want to spend the day here, you can walk in, fish a while, and come back out,” Davis says. “Or just go in and hike and enjoy the streams and beautiful scenery along the way.” And for those who want to bring home their catch, Davis recommends Santeetlah Creek, a trout stream also stocked by the Wildlife Commission. Anglers can keep up to seven fish per day from those waters. But no matter the stream, Davis says the county offers plenty of opportunity for fall fishing fun. “It’s just a wonderful place to visit,” he says. “And if you want to have fun and catch some fish yourself or with your kids or grandkids, it’s easy to do here.”

This story was published on Sep 28, 2023

Jennifer Bringle

Jennifer Bringle is a Greensboro-based writer. Her work has appeared in Glamour, Good Housekeeping, The Washington Post, and Southern Living, among other outlets.