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12 Best Places to See Fall Foliage in North Carolina

Although many regions of North Carolina will witness the changing of the autumn leaves, the best view to see genuinely stunning fall colors will be in the western part of the state, near the Blue Ridge Mountains. Tens of thousands flock to this mountain range that spans North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia because of the bold colors you take in when enjoying outdoor fall activities. Due to its varied elevations, it is also one of the longest-running leaf seasons in the world, beginning in October and ending in early November.

Since the changing of the leaves varies from year to year and region to region, there is no exact best time to take it in. Since the foliage begins to change at higher elevations and then works its way down the mountain, you can plan your trip accordingly.

Grandfather Mountain, Linville At Grandfather Mountain, you can choose to hike an accessible trail or a more challenging trail through the park's backcountry.
Credit: At Grandfather Mountain, you can choose to hike an accessible trail or a more challenging trail through the park's backcountry. by Grandfather.com

Grandfather Mountain, Linville

At the beginning of October, the foliage will begin to change colors at the highest elevations, areas that are 5,000 feet above sea level and higher. One of the great spots to take in the colors is Grandfather Mountain, located in Linville, which is just a short drive from Boone, Blowing Rock, and Banner Elk.  You will have to purchase a ticket to enter the park, but you can then drive at your leisure, stopping along the way to take in the breathtaking views.  You’ll also find plenty of other attractions along the way, including a nature museum and the Mile High Swinging Bridge, as well as amenities like a restaurant, gift shop, picnicking areas, and hiking trails.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Credit: Great Smoky Mountains National Park by © Kottapsm | Dreamstime.com

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

After the first few weeks of October, you can see the leaves change color slightly lower down the mountain, around 4-5,000 feet.  Here, you’ll want to check out the Boone and Blowing Rock areas and pretty much anywhere along the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a perfect spot during this time.  It is one of the country’s best and largest national parks (and the most visited), but just one visit and you’ll understand all the hype.  Check out the views from Clingmans Dome, the tallest point in the park, and at the many overlook stops along Newfound Gap Road.

Pisgah National Forest Looking Glass Falls in Pisgah National Forest
Credit: Looking Glass Falls in Pisgah National Forest by © Sean Pavone | Dreamstime.com

Pisgah National Forest

Around the third week of October, areas around 3-4,000 feet will be hitting their peak seasons of color, including regions like Nantahala Gorge and Linville Gorge. However, one of the most impressive spots you can visit here is Pisgah National Forest. This massive forest spans over 500,000 acres and features some of the most amazing scenery on the east coast. Some excellent spots for taking in the foliage are Looking Glass Rock – a massive rock known for its face reflecting the sunshine and the Cradle of Forestry – a 6,500-acre heritage site dedicated to forest management and education.

Biltmore Estate, Asheville Biltmore Estate
Credit: Biltmore Estate by © Gary Bydlo | Dreamstime.com

Biltmore Estate, Asheville

At the end of the month, the best places to take in the fall leaves will be under 2,000 feet, including many of the towns in Western North Carolina, like Asheville, Brevard, Hendersonville, and Cherokee.  Although there are numerous stops you could make in any of these towns, one of the most beautiful and intriguing stops you can make is at Biltmore Estate in Asheville.  In addition to seeing fall foliage on your drive to and from Biltmore, you can also enjoy the colorful blooms in the Estate’s gardens and grounds.  Plus, you can stop in at Antler Village and try a few of Biltmore’s award-winning wines at their winery.

Chimney Rock State Park Chimney Rock at Chimney Rock State Park
Credit: Chimney Rock at Chimney Rock State Park by Chimney Rock at Chimney Rock State Park

Chimney Rock State Park

The rest of the lower mountain elevations should be on full display from the end of October through the first week of November. During this time, Lake Lure and Chimney Rock are two of the best spots to check out. Lake Lure, best known as the location where Baby met Johnny in Dirty Dancing, has over 720 acres of lake and beach area to enjoy at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Here, you can take in the fall colors by car or by a guided boat tour.

Just outside Lake Lure is Chimney Rock State Park, a historic park that spans nearly 7,000 acres and offers breathtaking views of the fall foliage. Of course, the best view is from the top of the Chimney Rock itself – a granite monolith over 500 million years old and 315 feet tall. From the top, you can see Lake Lure and numerous mountain ranges along the horizon. Other great spots in the park to check out are the Hickory Nut Falls and the Hickory Nut Gorge.

Hanging Rock State Park & Pilot Mountain State Park Pilot Mountain State Park in North Carolina
Credit: Pilot Mountain State Park in North Carolina by © Cynthia Mccrary | Dreamstime.com

Hanging Rock State Park & Pilot Mountain State Park

Located within a 30-minute drive from each other, both Hanging Rock State Park and Pilot Mountain State Park offer stunning views of fall as it descends on North Carolina. A collective 62 miles of hiking trails are available for those looking to stretch their legs, including the Mountain-to-Sea Trail that traverses both of these parks along its 1,200-mile route to the coast. The best views in each respective park are from the parking area near Pilot Mountains pinnacle and from the very edge of Hanging Rock. At lower elevations than some of the state parks closer to the Appalachian Mountains, fall foliage should peak here around mid-October. After taking to the hiking trails and being awed by beautiful vistas, celebrate with a glass of wine along the Surry County Wine Trail. With over 19 wineries to choose from, you’ll be spoiled for choice in the Yadkin AVA. Mt. Airy is also just a 15-minute drive from the gates of Pilot Mountain State Park. You may recognize it as the legendary filming location of the Andy Griffith Show. 

Lake Norman Lake Norman in North Carolina
Credit: Lake Norman in North Carolina by © Cynthia Mccrary | Dreamstime.com

Lake Norman

Just outside North Carolina’s largest city, Charlotte, Lake Norman is a respite from the hustle and bustle of the downtown crowds. Wreathed in deciduous trees, Lake Norman is a wonderful place to frolic in the fall foliage reflected in the serene water. Head out to Jetton Park, on the eastern side of the lake, for the very best views, or rent a boat to explore the labyrinth of narrow inlets and secluded coves for pristine fall scenery. The leaves around Lake Norman begin to change towards the end of October as summer lingers a bit longer in North Carolina’s Piedmont Region in the center of the state. Laketoberfest Music & Brew Festival is an annual event that takes place mid-October and is the perfect complement to an autumn foliage-dedicated trip along the lake’s edge. If you can’t make it for the festival itself, 27 breweries and wineries are nestled nearby.

Cherohala Skyway Cherohala Skyway
Credit: Cherohala Skyway by © Darrell Young | Dreamstime.com

Cherohala Skyway

While the Blue Ridge Parkway gets all the fame, tucked away in southwestern North Carolina is a lesser-known stretch of road that is just as striking. The Cherohala Skyway may be the most beautiful ribbon of asphalt in the United States, a certified hidden gem in the mountains. Stretching almost 43 miles from Tellico Plains, Tennessee, to its grand finale in Robbinsville, North Carolina, this highway’s intriguing name is an homage to the nearby Cherokee and Nantahala State Parks, a portmanteau of the two. Autumn is the perfect time of year to experience this scenic drive as the rolling mountains come alive in a flurry of copper and paprika-colored hues in early October. A few stops along the way that will take your fall leaf peeping to the next level include Hooper Bald and Big Junction Overlook, both located near Mile 10. 

Mount Mitchell State Park Mount Mitchell State Park
Credit: Mount Mitchell State Park by © Zrfphoto | Dreamstime.com

Mount Mitchell State Park

A mere 35 miles north of Asheville, Mount Mitchell State Park is the apex of the Black Mountain Range and the first state park in all of North Carolina. Just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, this is the highest point on the East Coast at 6,684’ tall. The park’s height means that autumn will turn the leaves fast and furious, and visitors will notice a tinge of color starting as early as the end of September. Make a beeline for the Mount Mitchell Observation Park in the early morning hours or at sunset for incredible, sprawling autumn scenery – without the crowds! On a clear day, this is the perfect place to take in fall’s last sighs. If you’re willing to brave a strenuous hike, try hiking the Mount Mitchell Trail, 11.2 miles roundtrip and a whopping 3,692 feet of elevation gain. You can reward yourself for your feats at Asheville’s Highland Brewery with their famous Hazy Heights IPA.

Raven Rock State Park Raven Rock State Park
Credit: Raven Rock State Park by © Chansak Aroonmanakul | Dreamstime.com

Raven Rock State Park

Less than an hour’s drive southeast of North Carolina’s capital of Raleigh, Raven Rock State Park is the perfect fall getaway close to the city. With over 26 miles of hiking trails to explore, there are endless opportunities to get lost in the quintessential fall foliage. The Cape Fear River winds its way through the park, eagerly carving a path all the way to the Atlantic Ocean on North Carolina’s coast. The river alone is a sight to see come autumn as it creates a striking tunnel of brilliant leaves and a hiking trail in itself following along its rocky shores. The 2.4-mile Raven Rock Loop Trail offers guests panoramic views over the Cape Fear River from an overlook before taking hikers to the towering Raven Rock itself, once used by travelers as a landmark. Autumnophiles can completely immerse themselves by spending a night under the stars in one of the park’s primitive backcountry campsites.

Nantahala National Forest Dry Falls in Cullasaja Nantahala Forest
Credit: Dry Falls in Cullasaja Nantahala Forest by © Cvandyke | Dreamstime.com

Nantahala National Forest

At North Carolina’s southwestern tip, the Nantahala National Forest is the largest dedicated forest area in North Carolina. Nantahala has over 500,000 acres for outdoor lovers to explore. Its name means the “Land of the Noon Day Sun” in Cherokee; this vast swath of wilderness happens to include the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi, Whitewater Falls at over 400 feet tall, and panoramic views from several iconic balds like Lone Bald, the highest point in the park. Towards the east side of Nantahala is the Panthertown Valley, nicknamed the “Yosemite of the East” for its plethora of waterfalls. Snaking its way through the national forest for thousands of years to create the Nantahala Gorge, the Nantahala River is great for whitewater rafting expeditions that float through cathedrals of canary-colored birch trees and towering oaks. The Glen Falls Trail is particularly beautiful in autumn as shades of ochre and maroon bounce off its misty cascade.

Elkin Stone Mountain, North Carolina
Credit: Stone Mountain, North Carolina by © Roy E Farr | Dreamstime.com

Elkin

Elkin is the very heart of the Yadkin Valley Wine Region, also known as the Yadkin AVA. Almost two cities in one, with Jonesville, NC just across the trickling Yadkin River, Elkin’s vineyards become a fiery blaze in autumn as the grape leaves begin to turn from their summery deep green to iridescent shades of gold and ruby. Sip a glass of the good stuff at one of the nearby wineries like Adagio Vineyards or Christian Paul Vineyards, located in the center of town. This appellation is particularly known for its Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Visitors can continue their search of the best fall foliage at Carter Falls, only a 10-minute drive and an easy hike with the waterfall itself festooned in autumnal foliage come October. Elkin is on the doorstep of Stone Mountain State Park, yet another well-loved natural area where you’re sure to peep some changing leaves juxtaposed against the granite dome that gave the park its name. Hikers can get up close and personal with this unique geologic formation on the Stone Mountain Loop Trail, a 4.9-mile loop that winds past waterfalls, trout streams, and a historic homestead. 

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