North Carolina is a beautiful travel destination year-round, but in the fall, it is especially enticing. Photographers flock here for the vibrant colors of the leaves while hikers embrace the cooler weather and crisp morning air. Whether you want to explore the arts scene in cities like Asheville or traverse national parks, North Carolina is an unbeatable choice for fall travel.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the best places in North Carolina to see fall foliage this season. The park sits at the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, with a multitude of forest ridges dotting the vast landscape as far as the eye can see. The park covers a total of 522,427 acres and is home to a biodiverse ecosystem of plants, animals, fungi, and other organisms. There are more than 19,000 species documented as living in the park, but scientists and researchers suspect there are up to 100,000 more species living there that are unaccounted for. The rich collection of plants and trees in this forest setting means the vibrant fall colors here stretch, neverending, into the horizon.
If you are looking for fall foliage in North Carolina without traversing the trails of a national park, the city of Asheville is the place to go. This charming city has a population of less than 100,000 people and sits in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is a rising destination with a lively arts scene, interesting architecture, and plenty of museums and galleries to explore. Besides being able to admire the colorful trees in the mountains surrounding the town, Asheville comes alive in fall with lots of festivals and community events. There is the Eliada Fall Festival and Corn Maze, the Oktoberfest Half Marathon & 5K in the River Arts District, and Carolina CiderFest, to name a few.
Pisgah National Forest
The Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina is a picturesque spot for nature lovers to explore during the fall. Located in the Appalachian Mountains, the forest is home to Mount Pisgah, a 5,000-foot tall peak. The Pisgah National Forest spans over 500,000 acres of rivers, mountains, hardwood forest, and hiking routes. The nature area is accessible within a 10-minute drive of downtown Asheville, perfect for a day trip among the fall colors.
Chimney Rock State Park
A top destination for beautiful fall colors in North Carolina is Chimney Rock State Park. This park in Rutherford County is just 25 miles southeast of Asheville and boasts mountain landscapes that will inspire hikers. The fall colors in the park begin to appear in October, with the park’s website updating its Fall Colors Reports weekly, starting October 5th, 2023. There is an entrance fee to visit Chimney Rock, a main attraction of the park, which takes around 3.5 miles to hike. Other popular sites to visit in the park are Eagle Rock and Rumbling Bald, both more remote and less touristy.
Hanging Rock State Park
Hanging Rock State Park is in Stokes County, North Carolina, and is a premier destination for fall travel. With 48 miles of hiking trails to explore across 9,000 acres, the state park is full of scenic viewpoints and places to escape into the wilderness. There are seasonal campgrounds, lake access for swimming, horseback riding trails (6 miles), and bike paths (15 miles). Part of the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail (North Carolina’s 1,175-mile state hiking route) also runs through this park.
Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad is the ultimate family-friendly fall attraction in North Carolina. This historic train journey departs from Bryson City, North Carolina, and offers travelers the choice of boarding a traditional steam-powered or a diesel-fueled locomotive. Prices start from around $58 per person for the journey that takes passengers to leaf-peeping sites not accessible by car. The train ride offers views of Fontana Lake, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Nantahala National Forest, and the Tuckasegee River.
Forest Heritage Scenic Byway
One of the best places to visit in North Carolina in fall is the Forest Heritage Scenic Byway. This can be done as a day trip from Asheville or as part of a larger North Carolina road trip. The Forest Heritage Scenic Byway is a 79-mile highway that travels through the Pisgah Ranger District and surrounding rural areas. The drive provides stunning views of hardwood forests and mountain peaks, all decorated in vibrant fall colors during the month of October.
Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway is a top attraction in North Carolina in any season, but it is especially popular and worth a visit during the fall. Located in the western part of the state, this parkway stretches from Virginia to Cherokee, passing by the charming city of Asheville. It’s beautiful year-round, but fall brings vibrant leaves and pleasant temperatures. Top attractions along the route include the highest mountain peak in the eastern United States (Mount Mitchell), the oldest river in North America (New River), the deepest gorge on the east side of the Grand Canyon (Linville Gorge), and the highest waterfall located east of the Rockies (Whitewater Falls).
Uwharrie National Forest
Another top place to visit in North Carolina in the fall is Uwharrie National Forest. The forest is designated as Game Land, comprising two million acres of public land that people can hunt, trap, and fish on. It’s open for camping and day use as well and is a spectacular spot for viewing fall colors later in the season. The Uwharrie National Forest’s location in the North Carolina Piedmont puts it at a low elevation of 400 to 1000 feet above sea level, meaning fall colors appear later in the season.
North Carolina is calling, and as the peak season for fall foliage rolls in, it’s time to start making plans! Book a flight or hop in the car and turn it into an epic road trip as you venture towards these top parks, cities, and attractions in the Old North State.