When the leaves start to turn in the fall, there’s no place like western North Carolina to view nature’s most colorful artwork. Curving and climbing across mountains, fields, and forests
When the leaves start to turn in the fall, there’s no place like western North Carolina to view nature’s most colorful artwork. Curving and climbing across mountains, fields, and forests — with plenty of outdoor adventures, educational excursions, and good eatin’ along the way — these scenic drives will give you a reason to hit the highways, roll down the windows, and take it all in.
Beginning at the Santeetlah Gap overlook, the Cherohala Skyway connects Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee and Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina. Nearly 18 of the skyway’s 43 miles wind through Graham County before crossing the state line.
The skyway is popular among motorcyclists for its thrilling curves, but the route also provides stunning overlooks for motorists as well as hiking trails and waterfalls. Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, visible both from an overlook and via hiking trails, is home to more than 100 species of trees, including some tulip-poplars that have grown to more than 100 feet high and 20 feet in circumference. The highest point on the skyway is Hooper’s Bald at 5,429 feet.
The aptly named Waterfall Byway features a whopping 200 waterfalls along its route, which stretches for 98 miles through Cherokee, Clay, Jackson, Macon, and Transylvania Counties.
A long drive calls for a hearty meal. Start the trip off with the Hungry Man’s breakfast — pancakes, eggs, and bacon or sausage — at the Country Skillet in Rosman before hopping on the byway. Or have a cappuccino and a bagel at Buck’s Coffee Café in Cashiers. Outside of Cashiers, it’s a short hike to the 411-foot Whitewater Falls.
Just outside of downtown Highlands, a quarter-mile, family-friendly hike leads to Dry Falls, so named because you can walk behind the waterfall without getting wet. For a thrilling adventure, Highlands Aerial Park offers ziplines through the forest canopy and a giant triple-seater swing through the treetops. Once your feet are firmly back on the ground, head to Mountain Fresh Grocery to enjoy a hot press sandwich made with brie, bacon, house-made fig jam, apples, and arugula in the store and stock up on snacks for the road.
There are more people of Scottish descent in North Carolina than anywhere in the world, and Franklin is rich with Scottish heritage. The Scottish Tartans Museum features exhibits on the history of tartans, such as the kilt. At the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, peruse crafts from more than 300 local and regional artists in the Craft Shop and learn how the school has contributed to preserving the folk arts of Appalachia in the History Center. In Murphy, visit Fort Butler Memorial Park, located at the former site of Fort Butler, from which the Cherokee were marched to Tennessee along the Trail of Tears.
Encompassing 30 miles — 16.5 miles in Swain County and 14.5 miles in Tennessee — this nationally-designated All-American Road takes motorists through Great Smoky Mountains National Park and offers opportunities to glimpse a diverse array of wildlife, including elk and black bears.
Near Cherokee, the Mountain Farm Museum features a collection of log structures including a farmhouse, barn, and apple house, while the Oconaluftee Visitor Center features cultural history exhibits. The visitor center was named for the Oconaluftee River, which runs along part of the byway and is a popular spot for trout fishing. “By the visitor center, you have a big open field where the elk like to hang out,” says Callia Johnson, a park ranger in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “In the mornings, it’s often foggy and misty. It looks very magical.”
Leaving the visitor center and heading up in elevation, sweeping mountain views provide great opportunities for catching a stunning sunrise or sunset. Newfound Gap is a great place to see both, and from the Newfound Gap parking lot, the 8-mile roundtrip hike to Charlie’s Bunion leads to a round outcrop with stunning views. “No matter what section you hike, you’re going to have a good time,” Johnson says. “You’ll see a wide variety of plants, trees, views, and all the good things you want out of a hike.”
The 64.4-mile Forest Heritage Scenic Byway traverses Pisgah National Forest through Haywood, Jackson, and Transylvania counties, making it a great place to see fall color.
“The byway is a spot that we point people to when they say, ‘Where can we see some beautiful leaves?’” says Clark Lovelace, executive director of the Transylvania County Tourism Development Authority. “In the fall, you’re blanketed by colors all around you.”
Start your trip off in Brevard by shopping a selection of local farm goods and crafts at the Transylvania Farmers Market, open Saturdays year-round. Next, check out the Transylvania Heritage Museum, featuring exhibits on the history and heritage of the county, before hopping on the byway.
Heading northwest from Brevard, the impressive, often-roaring Looking Glass Falls sits just off the road, allowing motorists to pull over and see the falls without having to hike, but you can also take the stairs to the pool at the bottom for a closer look. Past Looking Glass Falls, Sliding Rock is a natural waterslide that provides a refreshing dip on a hot summer day. A little farther along U.S. Highway 276, the Cradle of Forestry is a 6,500-acre site that is considered the birthplace of forestry science. Several buildings of the first American forestry school are preserved, and visitors can explore the forestry museum, take a guided tour, or enjoy walking trails.
In Canton, stop for lunch at Jukebox Junction Soda Shop. After a sandwich, burger, or hot dog, finish your meal off with a milkshake.
After lunch, continue to the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute to tour the campus developed by NASA in 1962 and learn about its role in the space race. Come back after dark for an evening sky viewing to take advantage of the site’s telescopes as well as its status as an International Dark Sky Park. Tours and evening viewings must be booked in advance.
Migrating wildlife, Indigenous Americans, and early European settlers alike all used the path cut through the mountains by the French Broad River as a passageway. Today, a portion of this path is now the French Broad Overview, a 16.3-mile scenic byway through Buncombe and Madison Counties lined with sheer rock walls called palisades that were carved from the valley by the river.
Start off at the Zebulon Vance Birthplace and tour the reconstructed log cabin where North Carolina Civil War governor and United States congressman Zebulon Vance was born. Then, head into town for lunch at Blue Mountain Pizza with handmade butter pecan ice cream for dessert.
This 10-mile byway in Polk County begins at the South Carolina state line and crosses the Pacolet River several times before terminating in Saluda. The route runs along the Tryon “Thermal Belt,” a weather phenomenon in which the mountainside creates an area where frost is less likely to occur.
In Tryon, the Nina Simone Plaza features a bronze statue in honor of native singer and pianist Eunice Waymon, better known as Nina Simone. Also, be sure to check out the Tryon International Equestrian Center to enjoy a variety of equestrian competitions and discover why the town is considered the birthplace of modern show jumping.
Heading west from Tryon on U.S. Highway 176, the Norman Wilder Forest is a 185-acre preserve featuring hiking trails, mountain streams, and sheer cliffs. The preserve is also part of the North Carolina Birding Trail.
Just past the forest, Caro Mi Dining Room serves up country suppers, family-style. “It’s an absolute institution,” says Melinda Massey, director of Polk County Travel and Tourism. “We have people come into the visitors center in Columbus and say, ‘Back in 1962, I had the best meal of my life in this area. Do you know where I ate?’ And the answer is, ‘Yes, I do!’”
Farther along U.S. Highway 176, Pearson’s Falls Natural Heritage Site is a 300-acre botanical preserve that’s home to many species of rare plants — and a 90-foot waterfall.
At the end of the byway, check out the Saluda Historic Depot to learn about the railroad history of this area, including how the Saluda Grade, the steepest standard-gauge mainline railway grade in the country, crests at the top of the town. Finish your trip by checking into the Orchard Inn, a bed and breakfast overlooking the Warrior Mountains.
Before the Blue Ridge Parkway was built, Little Parkway was the primary road connecting Linville and Blowing Rock. The 18.5-mile parkway takes motorists through Avery, Caldwell, and Watauga counties and along the side of Grandfather Mountain.
Start your trip off with a hike at Linville Falls. The 1.6-mile Erwins View Trail offers views of both the upper and lower falls as well as a view of Linville Gorge, sometimes called the “Grand Canyon of the East.” Refuel after your hike with a hickory-smoked, hand-pulled pork barbecue plate at Old Hampton Store & Barbecue in Linville.
Hop on Little Parkway heading out of Linville and take a quick detour to iconic Grandfather Mountain for an adrenaline-pumping walk across the Mile-High Swinging Bridge. Be sure to stop by the wildlife habitats and see the cougars, elk, and black bears.
In Blowing Rock, wander through the Blowing Rock Art and History Museum to learn about the art and craft heritage of the area through permanent and rotating exhibits by Blue Ridge makers. Finish the day off with the pecan-encrusted mountain rainbow trout at Twigs Restaurant and Bar.
Covering 17.9 miles through Ashe County from Warrensville to the Virginia state line, the Big Horse Creek Byway — named for the creek that it parallels, a pristine spot for fly-fishing — takes motorists through some of the most remote countryside in the state.
Before hitting the road, have the biscuits and gravy at the Whistle Stop Café in Warrensville. Then, head out of town on NC Highway 194 toward Lansing. Here, travelers who bring a furry friend along can stop at the Lansing Creeper Trail Park and let Fido stretch his legs in the off-leash dog park. Dogs are also welcome at Molley Chomper Hard Cider, a cidery just off the byway in Lansing that uses heritage and dessert apple varieties from small, local orchards. Molley Chomper cider can also be purchased at the Old Orchard Creek General Store, along with coffee, tea, and artisan goods.
Driving out of Lansing, the byway parallels the path once taken by the Virginia Creeper Train — a nickname used by locals for the Virginia-Carolina Railroad because of the steep grade, sharp curves, and numerous bridges that required it to move slowly. “Some of the valleys that you drive through there are just spectacular,” says Andy Guion, tourism committee chair for the Ashe County Chamber of Commerce. “The mountains really just shoot up right off the road.” To the west of the byway, Pond Mountain rises to an elevation of 5,000 feet.
“When you head up the road, you get into the country, and it’s so peaceful,” Guion says. “It’s a place where you can get lost in your thoughts and still be in touch with nature.”
Learn more about the scenic byways of North Carolina.