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From the white sandy beaches in the Outer Banks to the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, there’s lots of gorgeous scenery in North Carolina. In the fall, the many outdoor adventures the state offers can often be enjoyed among spectacular autumn foliage too. Whether you’re looking for big thrills or more relaxed activities, you’ll find plenty of things to do outdoors here this fall.
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There are endless opportunities for hikes that bring gorgeous views of the brilliant autumn foliage, and Grandfather Mountain has long been an icon of stunning scenery and ecological diversity. Grandfather Mountain State Park boasts a 2,456-acre backcountry to explore, accessed from trailheads along the Blue Ridge Parkway as well as from the Profile Trailhead on NC 105. The Grandfather Trail is one of the most popular routes, complete with ladder climb up cliffs. The high elevation results in especially vibrant colors, exploding with an intensity that continues throughout much of the season, though the best time is between late September and late October.
There are many scenic recreational activities that can be enjoyed right within the hearts of North Carolina’s cities, including Raleigh, the capital. Nestled within is Umstead State Park, a nearly 6,000-acre park filled with biking and hiking trails and lakes. Pedal the 13 miles of trails that travel through some of the park’s most scenic and secluded areas, most of which are smooth enough to cruise in any style of bike. The more adventurous can ride over bumpy terrain and through creeks on a mountain bike.
One of the best places to enjoy some tranquil paddling in the fall is Dismal Swamp State Park, a wetland forest on the state’s northern border. You can bring your own kayak or canoe, or rent one from the visitor center. There are also ranger-led group paddling tours throughout the fall – most are free but may require pre-registration. Visit the official park site for more details here.
With the big tourist crowds of summer gone and the weather often ideal, the Cape Hatteras National Seashore is even more enjoyable in the fall. Locals often describe it as the very best time of the year to go. Located in the Outer Banks area, it boasts 72 miles of unspoiled coastline to enjoy, ideal for peaceful strolls and quiet contemplation, along with picturesque lighthouses and outstanding opportunities for surf fishing. Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is part of this area, spread along a 13-mile stretch of Highway 12, offering a birdwatchers’ paradise with some 365 different bird species.
If you’re looking for more of a heart-pounding adventure, you can fly over the canopy of brilliant fall colors on a zipline near Asheville. Navitat Canopy Adventures, touted as one of the best by many publications like Outside magazine and Lonely Planet, offers zip lines that travel through a secluded 242-acre mountain cove with 1,200 feet of elevation change. It will feel like you’re flying above the treetops with the zip lines as high as 350 feet off the ground, ranging from 360 feet to 3,600 feet in length with speeds of up to 65 miles per hour. Rappelling and walking across suspended sky bridges are possible too, all while enjoying spectacular long-range views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
One of the best times of the year to visit the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is in the fall. Visitors can stroll two universally accessible wildlife trails, a half-mile each, enjoying the seclusion while watching for more than 200 different birds, a booming black bear population, and a small population of endangered red wolves, which were reintroduced from captivity three decades ago. During the spring, summer, and fall, guided tours are available too. Fall highlights include the Saturday Red Wolf Howling events, bird walks and tram tours.
A hot air balloon ride brings the opportunity to see all that fall color from above, a breathtaking sight with the Blue Ridge Mountains blanketed in a kaleidoscope of beautiful hues, typically around the last two weeks of October. The sunny days of September lead to the trees creating more red pigments that result in even more brilliant shades. During the hour-long excursion you gaze down at the foliage, winding country roads and Asheville’s skyline in the distance, offered by Asheville Hot Air Balloons and Asheville Balloon Company.
From the Appalachians to the Crystal Coast, the waterways in North Carolina offer everything from beginner-friendly flatwater paddleboarding on smaller lakes and reservoirs as well as more challenging rivers and larger lakes for the more experienced. Coastal standup paddleboarding is possible too, and fall is the ideal time without the need to battle the crowds while providing a much more tranquil experience. You’ll find rentals available throughout the Outerbanks in places like Duck. You can paddle the oceanfront or soundfront water, meandering across the gentle ripples, or along fast-moving waves.
With the tourists thinning out and the weather pleasant, while north swells, south swells, east swells, wind swells, hurricane swells and light westerlies result in outstanding waves, autumn is one of the best times for surfing along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in the Outer Banks. In fact, avid surfers say there’s no place better than Hatteras in the fall along the entire east coast. Just north of Rodanthe is the S-Surves, one of the most popular spots, and slightly south, the Rodanthe Pier brings locals and visitors alike to paddle out on a regular basis when the surf is good.
One of the best places to see fall foliage in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Mount Mitchell’s summit sits within the Black Mountain range. The highest point east of the Mississippi River, it can be accessed just off the Blue Ridge Parkway in Mount Mitchell State Park, only 35 miles northeast of downtown Asheville. At the top, there’s an observation point for taking in the breathtaking view from 6,684 feet above and it won’t take much effort to get there, with about a 10-minute walk along a handicapped-accessible path. You’ll also find picnic areas and a museum focused on the natural and cultural history of the mountain. And, if you want to get some actual exercise in, there are also plenty of hiking trails ranging in difficulty from easy to challenging.
One of the best things about fall is the chance to pick your own pumpkin. North Carolina offers many pumpkin patches at farms across the state, most of which offer a variety of activities too. Hayrides can get you out into the patch to choose your pumpkins, from small ones that are ideal for decor to massive-sized options perfect for transforming into an amazing Jack o’ lantern. Some bring opportunities to get up close to farm animals, enjoy homemade treats like apple cider doughnuts and buy pumpkin products like pumpkin pies and pumpkin butter. Carrigan Farms in Mooresville is just one of the popular options, attracting families from near and far for more than 40 years.
Autumn also means apple picking and a fun day out for the whole family. As the ripening season is a bit early here, you’ll need to go between mid-September and early October. In Hendersonville, the heart of apple country, Grandad’s Apples n’ Such offers picking, a spectacular mountain view and a bakery selling amazing fried apple pies and other treats. If you’re closer to Asheville, the Orchard at Altapass is just off the Blue Ridge Parkway atop the Eastern Continental Divide. Here you can enjoy apple picking, hayrides, mountain music, and more.
One of the most popular attractions in the Outer Banks, other than the beaches, are the wild horses of Corolla, descendants of the original colonial Spanish Mustangs. Fall is a great time to enjoy beautiful beach weather without the crowds while watching these majestic creatures. You’ll need a 4X4 vehicle to do a self-guided tour, so if you don’t have one, book a guided tour instead. While seeing the horses is never guaranteed, the chances are very good that you’ll spot at least one. Even if you don’t, it’s worth going to enjoy the area’s incredible natural beauty and diverse wildlife.
Running through a corn maze is another one of the most popular outdoor fall activities. While you’ll find them across the state, Aw Shucks Farm in Monroe offers a corn maze that has a new design every year, along with many other attractions like a petting zoo, corn hole game, old fashioned general store, hayrides and even a bonfire where you can enjoy s’mores.