UPDATED: The Leaf-Peeper’s Guide to the North Carolina Mountains
Western North Carolina is at its most stunning when autumn arrives and the leaves burst into color. Before you head out leaf-peeping this fall, check in weekly to see what colors our experts are seeing at 22 of our favorite mountain spots.
Grandfather Mountain/Linn Cove Viaduct (milepost 304.4)
The Linn Cove Viaduct was the last section of the Blue Ridge Parkway to be completed, but it was worth the wait. The award-winning feat of engineering winds gracefully along the side of Grandfather Mountain while minimizing damage to the mountain habitat below — and offers some gorgeous views to drivers along the way. Get directions here.
Rough Ridge Overlook (milepost 302.8)
Climb to the viewing platform for a stunning view of the surrounding mountains — and get a bird’s-eye-view of Linn Cove Viaduct. Get directions here.
High in a northwestern corner of the state, a little town on the Elk River welcomes new friends and temporary neighbors to celebrate mild summers, snowy winters, and — perhaps most spectacularly — bright, beautiful autumns. Get directions here.
It’s 499 steps to the top of Chimney Rock, but you can catch your breath at the top as you enjoy a fantastic view of Lake Lure below. In addition to beautiful fall foliage, Chimney Rock State Park is also home to rare plants and an impressive variety of birds, including the peregrine falcon. Get directions here.
Beacon Heights (milepost 305.2 + 1-mile roundtrip hike)
A short hike from the parking lot rewards you with a large area of exposed rock where you can relax and take in views of Grandfather Mountain, Hawksbill Mountain, and Table Rock. Get directions here.
This beautiful mountain village is home to downtown restaurants, boutiques, and plenty of outdoor activities. At Tweetsie Railroad, take a ride on a real steam locomotive. Get directions here.
Chestoa View Overlook (milepost 320.8)
This view requires a very short hike, and at the end you will be rewarded with a spectacular view of Linville Gorge, Table Rock, and Grandfather Mountain. Get directions here.
Craggy Gardens Visitor Center (milepost 364.4)
While the wildflowers that give this spot its name will not be blooming as much in the fall, there will still be plenty of color provided on the surrounding mountains — and by the red berries of the mountain ash trees that can be found growing on the balds. Get directions here.
Mt. Mitchell State Park (milepost 355.4 + drive into park) The highest peak this side of the Mississippi is well worth a visit, but the observation deck also makes for some excellent leaf-peeping in the fall. You can drive almost to the peak and then take a short walk to the top. If you feel like taking a longer drive, follow the Mt. Mitchell Scenic Byway through Pisgah National Forest, Toe River Valley, and a few mountain towns. Get directions here.
The Biltmore Estate is beautiful at any time of year, but autumn is an especially good time to visit the house and gardens, since temperatures are comfortable and colors are vibrant. Get directions here.
Cherohala Skyway National Scenic Byway
It may not be as well-known as the Blue Ridge Parkway, but this remote scenic byway offers plenty of dramatic overlooks as it winds through Cherokee and Nantahala national forests. Get directions here.
Waterrock Knob (milepost 451.2)
Waterrock Knob is best visited at either sunrise or sunset. Be sure to bring warm layers as this picnic area sits more than a mile high in elevation. Get directions here.
Check out the fascinating Judaculla Rock (from the Cherokee name Tsul ’kalu), which is covered in petroglyphs and holds spiritual significance for the Cherokee people. Get directions here.
Visit local shops and restaurants and take advantage of the excellent fly-fishing on the Tuckasegee River in this small mountain town. Get directions here.
Rhodes Big View Overlook
This spot has something special in addition to a view of fall foliage: the mystical phenomenon known as “the shadow of the bear.” For a few weeks in mid-October and early November, come to Rhodes Big View Overlook at 5:30 p.m. to watch the shape of a giant bear emerge from behind Whiteside Mountain. Get directions here.
Highlands Biological Station
Highlands Biological Station is a 24-acre facility of Western Carolina University. Now in its 93rd year, the HBS campus includes the free Highlands Nature Center and the 12-acre native-plant Highlands Botanical Garden, with trails and boardwalks connecting different habitats from woodlands to wetlands, and a dozen demonstration gardens (pollinator conservation garden, moss garden, rain gardens, rock outcrop garden, and more). These botanical gardens feature more than 450 labeled plants native to the mountain region. It is a beautiful place to check out the changing colors in the trees and other plants while strolling through the garden or enjoying a picnic. Get directions here. Note: due to current Covid restrictions, the Highlands Nature Center is closed, but the HBS Botanical Gardens and grounds are open daily from dawn to dusk.
Osage and Blue Valley Overlooks
These overlooks on NC Highway 106 near the town of Highlands offer visitors dramatic views of Blue Valley as well as nearby Osage and Scaly mountains from the heart of the Nantahala National Forest. Get directions here.
Cullasaja and Dry Falls
Take U.S. Highway 64 through the Cullasaja River Gorge and you’ll pass several dramatic waterfalls. Keep an eye out for Cullasaja Falls, where there is a small pull-off area to park, and take a look at the autumn leaves framing the 250-foot drop. A short distance upstream is Dry Falls, which offers two ways to view the falls: a viewing platform off a parking lot, or from behind the cascading water via a short stroll on a paved path. Get directions here.
Richland Balsam Overlook (milepost 431.4)
At 6,053 feet, this overlook is the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway — and it’s a great place to see some of North Carolina’s Fraser fir Christmas trees. Not to worry, though, not all of the trees here are evergreen; you’ll have plenty of opportunity to see some color at this sky-high overlook. Get directions here.
Graveyard Fields (milepost 418.8)
Leaves here turn early, but this is a spot you won’t want to miss. Much of the foliage here is found on shrubs rather than tall trees due to fires in the area over the years. Rather than diminishing its beauty, however, the fires have caused the fields to have an unusual variety of plants and animals. Get directions here.
Bryson City This small town on the border of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a beautiful place to appreciate the colors of autumn while exploring downtown or taking a ride on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. Get directions here.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
One of the entrances to Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located two miles north of the town of Cherokee, which sits in the Oconaluftee River Valley. In addition to visiting the Park, be sure to stop by the Oconaluftee Indian Village, a living history museum. Get directions here.
Dr. James Costa is a Professor in the Western Carolina University Department of Biology and Director of the Highlands Biological Station, a multi-campus center of Western Carolina University. The biological station is comprised of several teaching and research labs and dorms as well as a natural history museum (Highlands Nature Center) and a 12-acre native plant conservation and demonstration garden (Highlands Botanical Garden). He is the author of several science books, including Highlands Botanical Garden: A Naturalist’s Guide and, most recently, Darwin’s Backyard: How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory.
Dr. Kathy Mathews is a Professor of botany in the Western Carolina University Department of Biology and Director of the WCU Herbarium, a repository for preserved plant specimens collected primarily in the southern Appalachians and southeastern U.S. Mathews specializes in flowering plant systematics, which seeks to explain patterns of diversity among the flowering plants.
Dr. Howard S. Neufeld is a Professor in the Appalachian State University Department of Biology. He teaches plant physiology and Honors courses. The focus of his research has been on the impacts of ozone on native plants and is now directed toward understanding the ecophysiology of understory and invasive plants as well as the impacts of climate change on native vegetation. In the fall, Neufeld writes a weekly color report for App and maintains a Facebook page, Fall Color Guy, that is devoted to the change of seasons.
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These places are the stewards of some very special items: Doc Watson’s first recording, the desk Virginia Woolf used to redefine the novel, and Elisha Mitchell’s pocket watch are just some of the cherished pieces that teach us about our state’s history and the people who preserve it.