A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

It’s a daily sight for the Sutphin family — Pilot Mountain rising 1,400 feet above the rolling Surry County landscape. Although the family of four can see its distinct silhouette

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

It’s a daily sight for the Sutphin family — Pilot Mountain rising 1,400 feet above the rolling Surry County landscape. Although the family of four can see its distinct silhouette

High in the Hills: 3 Places to Peep this Fall

It’s a daily sight for the Sutphin family — Pilot Mountain rising 1,400 feet above the rolling Surry County landscape. Although the family of four can see its distinct silhouette from their front yard, they try not to let the landmark’s proximity diminish their appreciation for the mountain.

“We enjoy the fall because it gives us a time to re-explore Pilot Mountain and some of the trails there,” says Ron Sutphin, a Surry County native. The cooler weather makes spending time outdoors at local concerts and festivals all the more appealing, too.

If you, like Sutphin, feel the pull of the mountains when fall arrives, remember that western North Carolina extends beyond the well-known locations. In addition to Surry County, the untamed landscapes of Jackson County and, separately, the quaint and lively town of Franklin offer views of autumn leaves, outdoor adventures, and local flavor.


Hop between mountain towns and counties on the Blue Ridge Parkway — leaving plenty of time for beautiful pit stops, of course. photograph by Sam Dean

Surry County 

Follow along the Surry County Wine Trail, which connects 19 vineyards. Photography courtesy of Surry County Tourism

“Visitors are often surprised by the number of different activities they find when they visit Surry County,” Sutphin says. From tastings at wineries to cycling on the Surry Scenic Bikeway, this county at the doorstep of the Blue Ridge Mountains offers vast and varied options.

If your vision of a perfect fall day includes sipping a glass of Merlot with views of nearby mountains, put the Surry County Wine Trail on your to-do list. The trail connects vineyards in pastoral locations and wineries in idyllic small towns, like Elkin and Dobson. With a wide range of grape varietals that grow well here, the 19 vineyards on the trail offer many options. There are plenty of classics, like Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons, but vineyards also sell hybrids, like Traminettes and Chambourcins, that create new enthusiasts with every tasting.

Fans of The Andy Griffith Show have plenty to enjoy in Mount Airy, the homeplace of the show’s star and namesake. Main Street evokes the ’60s television series’ small-town Mayberry. Remember Snappy Lunch and Floyd’s City Barber Shop? You’ll find memorabilia from the show’s cast at the Andy Griffith Museum, and replicas of Mayberry sets at Wally’s Service Station.

Stop by the Mount Airy Museum to immerse yourself in the area’s history, from early Native American life to the world’s largest granite mine, which has operated for more than 130 years. The museum also conducts walking ghost tours much of the year and a ghost trolley tour from August through November.

Explore downtown Mount Airy to find your own version of Mayberry. Photography courtesy of Surry County Tourism

Another sweet trail, the Surry Sonker Trail, celebrates a dessert so unique, you can only find it here. Thought to have originated in the 1800s among Scottish and Scotts-Irish settlers to the area, sonker is a big, juicy, cobbler-ish concoction made with fruit or sweet potato. Recipes are as varied as the families who have passed the recipes down from generation to generation.

As a child, Sutphin looked forward to sonker on Sundays at his grandmother’s. “She was always fixing a meat- and vegetable-type plate after church, but somewhere in the kitchen, there was a sonker cooked to a golden brown,” he says.

In its tour of the Appalachians from Virginia to western North Carolina, the Blue Ridge Parkway skims Surry County’s border, providing access to its stunning views, overlooks, and hiking trails. Don’t miss Fox Hunters Paradise overlook, easily accessible from the county’s entrance to the parkway on NC Highway 18.

This shaded stone overlook at the end of a short path reveals vistas that include Saddle Mountain and the distant dome of Pilot Mountain. As the story behind the overlook’s name goes, hunters used to relax fireside here while their hounds hunted. According to legend, their discerning ears could distinguish the dogs’ yelps echoing through the valley, telling them whose pup was closest to catching a fox.


Come fall, you’ll find plenty of stunning views in the western part of the state. Photography courtesy of JACKSON COUNTY TDA

Jackson County

On the Blue Ridge Parkway in Jackson County, the drive is the destination. Photography courtesy of JACKSON COUNTY TDA

For more time on the Blue Ridge Parkway, drive southwest to Jackson County, where the scenic drive weaves along the county’s northeastern border for about 45 miles. Within the county, you can take many picturesque hikes, go fly-fishing on the Tuckasegee River, and see the sights in charming towns like Sylva and Dillsboro.

For a gorgeous in-town view, head to the Jackson County Historic Courthouse at the west end of Sylva: The hilly front lawn of this historic courthouse beckons people to climb the 107 steps to the top for a spectacular view. With the Blue Ridge Mountains as its backdrop, the 1914 landmark is renowned as the most photographed courthouse in the state.

For a more relaxed visit to take in autumn’s splendor, plan a stay midweek. You’ll avoid the weekend rush, find better rates, and have trails and rivers all to yourself.

On Jackson County’s stretch of Blue Ridge Parkway, spend a leisurely day driving the picture-perfect mountain contours enrobed in showy fall colors. The 1.5-mile loop trail at Richland Balsam Overlook, the highest point on the parkway, leads through spruce-fir forest to the 6,410-foot summit. After taking in the striking scenery from Waterrock Knob’s parking lot, make the moderately strenuous hike up for views from its peak. Caney Fork Overlook, Cowee Mountain Overlook, and Balsam Gap are among the other resting places to admire the captivating scenery.

See Schoolhouse Falls and discover other adventures in Panthertown Valley Photography courtesy of JACKSON COUNTY TDA

In wild and rugged Panthertown Valley, the diverse terrain includes 6,300 acres of waterfalls, gorges, mountain bogs, high mountain valleys, and 4,000-foot peaks. Granite domes and sheer granite cliffs have inspired the nickname “Yosemite of the East,” but make no mistake, this is Nantahala National Forest backcountry. You won’t find any amenities or facilities here, and signage is minimal, so come prepared and bring a map of the valley.

For a short hike, try the quarter-mile trail at Salt Rock Gap, which ends with views of Big Green and Little Green mountains. Another shorter hike in Panthertown leads to Schoolhouse Falls splashing into a picturesque pool. You can access this trail from the Cold Mountain Gap Trailhead.

In Jackson County, you can also view one of the highest waterfalls east of the Rockies, Whitewater Falls. To reach an overlook platform, you need only walk a quarter mile on a shady, paved path. Water plummets 411 feet down the rocky cliff in striking contrast with the vibrant yellows and oranges of the surrounding woodlands.


Celebrate all things pumpkin at Franklin’s Pumpkinfest on October 21. Photography courtesy of Franklin & Nantahala TDC


West of Jackson County lies the town of Franklin, home of the annual Pumpkinfest, where tents filled with hand-crafted jewelry, woodworking, and fine arts line the downtown streets. Bring a pumpkin on October 21, and take part in the World-Famous Pumpkin Roll, or cheer on contestants as their gourds wobble and bounce down Phillips Street. A pumpkin-pie-eating contest and a costume contest are other highlights of the festival.

One drive perfect for autumn, the Mountain Waters Scenic Byway, passes through Franklin as it winds its way from Highlands to Almond through Nantahala National Forest. From Franklin driving east, the byway ascends 2,000 feet through Cullasaja Gorge with dramatic views and waterfalls dotting the route.

Stop at Dry Falls for a photo op made even more majestic by the golden hues of autumn. Ample parking and a wheelchair-accessible overlook make this an easy stop. The falls crash over a massive rock ledge into a pool below, and you can follow the path to walk behind the waterfall’s curtain of water.

Heading west on the byway from Franklin, you’ll enter the Nantahala River Gorge. Along this section, take time to amble along a short, paved path at another super-accessible stop to see panoramic views at Wayah Bald. On clear days, you’ll see miles of reds, yellows, and oranges from the top of its stone tower. The bald overlooks Franklin, and it’s possible to see as far as Tennessee and Georgia from its heights.

The next must-see spot on the byway, Nantahala Lake, is a bit hidden away, which lends to its charm. “It stays somewhat undiscovered year-round, even when we are the busiest,” explains Robbie Messick, manager at Lake’s End Marina and Boat Rental, the only marina on the lake. “It’s a lot quieter than other parts of the mountains.”

The marina’s fall sunset tours glide along the glassy water in the golden light of the fading day. If you’d rather explore the water on your own, the marina rents pontoons, ski and wakeboard boats, kayaks, canoes, paddle boards, or you can bring your own boat to one of the public ramps on the lake. If fishing’s more your speed, float to your own little cove and cast a line. If the fish are biting, you could reel in a rainbow trout, walleye, or largemouth bass.

Wherever you choose to experience North Carolina’s mountains, you’ll be surrounded by serenity, cradled in the peaks of the Appalachians.

This story was published on Sep 29, 2023

Lara Ivanitch

Lara Ivanitch is a freelance writer who resides in Raleigh.