With the leaves on fire with color and the air so crisp, fall is a glorious time and a reminder that change is beautiful. If you are looking for the best views of the season, look no further than the heart of the Smoky Mountains in beautiful North Carolina. So pack some flannel and plaid, put some Old Crow Medicine Show and Avett Brothers on the playlist, and turn the ignition for the most scenic drives of the season. Here are the best fall foliage drives in North Carolina along with must stops and must hikes to enjoy along the way.
1. Cherohala Skyway – If you are scared of heights this road through the clouds (literally) may not be for you, but if you can brave the twists and turns along mountain tops the beauty of this drive is more than worth it. Once you have experienced Cherohala it is easy to understand why it took 34 years to build. Beginning in the charming little town of Tellico Plains, Tennessee, the skyway is 40 plus miles long ending in Robbinsville, North Carolina with many scenic overlooks along the way.
Tellico Plains – Tellico Plains is a charming little mountain town where you can stop and get a scoop of ice cream, shop for antiques, or enjoy the outdoors. The areas surrounding Tellico Plains and nearby Coker Creek are blessed with over 200 miles of hiking, backpacking, equestrian, mountain biking and motorized trail bike trails. Nationally recognized as a premier trout stream, the Tellico River is a freestone stream located within the heart of The Cherokee National Forest. Its headwaters begin in North Carolina and flow for almost twenty miles to Tellico Plains. The main stream of Tellico River is heavily stocked by the state and requires a special permit to fish. It’s a very large freestone mountain stream with a network of fine native trout laden tributaries. The Tellico River is spotted with a few wild trout mixed in its waters. For the fly fisherman the rivers best assets are its smaller, wild trout streams that contain native brook, rainbow and brown trout.
Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center – Growing from an abandoned school building just a few short years ago to the vibrant center of the community today, Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center brings music to the mountains through the summer performing arts series An Appalachian Evening, as well as the Annual Harvest Festival that happens in October. Additionally, the Stecoah Artisans Gallery which is open Monday-Saturday March-October and Monday-Friday November and December provides sales and support for local and regional artists with the mission to preserve the mountain culture of the historic Appalachian valley. You can buy original artwork as well as fine crafts that have been made North Carolina. There is a wide variety of traditional and contemporary works including paintings, pottery, weaving, wood-turned items, glass works, photography, note cards, jewelry, soaps, quilts, books and much more. Many talented Cherokee Indian artists’ beadwork, pottery, and masks are featured and are produced today in the traditional ways of their ancestors.
Bald River Falls Trail – The Bald River is a major tributary of Tellico River. Just before it empties into the Tellico River, Bald River runs over a large waterfall, Bald River Falls, reported to be from 80-100 feet tall. The falls are easily visible from a bridge across the river, on the scenic Tellico River Road (FS210), at about 6 miles from its start off the Cherohala Skyway. The falls are considered to be the most impressive and scenic waterfall in East Tennessee. The Bald River is short and powerful, flowing through a steep densely wooded valley and replenished by the area’s rains. At the falls, the waters plummet over huge grey rocks, into a round pool at the base, popular for swimming. The Bald River Falls Trail can be reached above the Falls, and follows the Bald River through deciduous forest and over numerous embankments and cascades along the river. It is 5.6 miles to its end on FS126, and is rated as a moderate hike.
Big Frog Mountain – This beautiful remote area offers mountain vistas, waterfalls and clear mountain streams and is a sanctuary for black bears. The 8,358-acre Big Frog Mountain Wilderness Study Area offers about 35 miles of backcountry trails.
2. Pisgah National Forest – Follow highway 276 from Brevard to Waynesville for one of the most breathtaking drives you can imagine with waterfalls right off the road.
Brevard – Located in Transylvania County (great name and great place this time of year), this beautiful mountain town is full of places to shop, eat, drink, and hike. If you are planning a romantic weekend of snuggling up and enjoying the great outdoors, Brevard is the perfect place. It is a walkable town filled with over 50 shops from boutiques to antiques to art galleries. For food enjoy the patio and charm of HobNob. For a little nostalgia Rocky’s Grill And Soda Shop serves up one incredible cheeseburger and milkshake. Brevard is also home to famous brewmaker, Oskar Blues known for Dale’s Pale Ale and Mama’s Little Yellow Pils among other handcrafted beers, an ideal place for an apres-hike.
Waynesville – On the other side of highway 276, lies a jewel of a town called Waynesville with one of the most captivating backdrops of the Smoky Mountains. Not only does fall foliage attract visitors but a plethora of activities like their Apple Harvest festival that takes place in October. Waynesville has lots of very cool dining options like Sweet Onion and Frog Leap Public House along with a variety of shops and art galleries. You will also find some very charming bed&breakfasts here as well.
North Slope – See if you can find the tree stump shaped like a heart along the North Slope Trail (#359). The trail is a nice size path with a steady incline and some interesting stream crossings. It is a lovely walk in the woods. The trail ends at the camp amphitheater – walk through theater to the other side and you will be dropped off onto the camp road. Take a right and follow the road out of the campground then left back to parking.
Looking Glass Falls – Looking Glass Falls is likely the most photographed waterfall in western North Carolina, if not the east coast. The wide vertical drop is visible from the road making it a must see for anyone visiting the area. There are several good viewing areas; one from the road, one at the middle of the stairs, and numerous at the base of the falls. When traveling with kids, try to get them out on the rocks in front of the fall so they can marvel at the wind the rushing water creates. Nine miles into Pisgah National Forest on 276, the pull off is well marked and on the river side of the road.
3. Nantahala Scenic Byway – This enchanting road between Whittier and Marble on US 74 takes travelers through 43 miles of the Nantahala National Forest passing through the deep and scenic Nantahala Gorge. As a world-class whitewater rafting river, the Nantahala River attracts canoeing and kayaking enthusiasts as well. Travelers on this Scenic Byway can explore the Gorge itself or visit nearby destinations such as the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Fontana Lake, and Cherokee, NC.
NOC – The Nantahala Outdoor Center is THE place for whitewater rafting, canoeing, and zip lining. The Riverend’s Restaurant serves up great food and is idyllic to enjoy the scenic river views while sipping on an apres-raft.
Bryson City – A brewery, coffee stop, lots of little shops, and the beginning of the Great Smoky Mountain Railway, Bryson City is a must visit for any North Carolina traveler. On the list of things you must do, try the Everett Hotel Bistro offering delicious locally sourced food like Mountain Trout.
Road To Nowhere – This 3.2-mile loop includes a walk through a 1,200-foot tunnel built for a scenic drive that was never completed. On the hike, you’ll pass some abandoned homesteads, walk along a cascading creek, and get a peek at Fontana Lake and even some wild boar traps. To complete the loop, you’ll hike three trails: Goldmine Loop, Lakeshore and Tunnel Bypass. Park at the lot at the end of Lakeview Drive, walk the paved road through the tunnel. On sunny days you can see fine, but take a flashlight along just in case.
Wayah Bald – At vantage point of 5,342 feet in elevation in the Nantahala National Forest, Wayah Bald offers views north to the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and south into the rolling hills of Georgia. Take a short hike from the summit parking area to climb an old stone fire tower, built in 1937 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, to witness panoramic views of the southern Appalachian mountain chain.
4. Waterfalls Byway: Highway 64 From Franklin to Highlands to Cashiers – The best part of this drive – waterfalls abound right off the road. Between Franklin and Highlands, walk behind Dry Falls and drive behind Bridal Veil Falls. Highlands, North Carolina is one of the highest towns east of the Mississippi River, with an elevation at 4,118 feet. Known for being a haven of sophistication with its upscale shops, restaurants, and galleries lining downtown. Continue driving toward Whiteside Mountain named for its sides that look like sheets of giant ice. Driving on to Cashiers you will find charming shops and restaurants. Four miles to the south of Cashiers is another waterfall, Silver Run Falls.
Franklin – Franklin’s charming downtown is home to the Scotish Tartans Museum, Gem and Mineral Museum, shops, galleries and restaurants.
Highlands – Highlands is a resort town known for being a haven of sophistication with its upscale shops, restaurants, and galleries lining downtown.
Cashiers – Cashiers is another resort town where you can spends days mesmerized by the beauty of the area. With charming shops and restaurants there is plenty to do, plus the Village Green, a 12-acre park offers sculpture, walking trails, wetlands and gardens.
Sunset Rocks 1.2 miles (round trip) – Trail head: Horse Cove Rd., across from the Highlands Nature Center. Features: A rock outcropping overlooking Highlands and Horse Cove; trees marked and identified as part of the Town of Highlands “Highlands Trees” project.
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Satulah Mountain Summit – The trail is a short hike down an old road bed to the summit, which is 4543 ft. Excellent panoramic views. Distance Aprox. 1/2 mile one way.
Whiteside Mountain 2 miles (round trip) – This moderate loop trail offers spectacular views from a high ridge top, 2,100′ above the valley floor. Whiteside Mt. (4900′) has the highest sheer cliffs in the Eastern US (400 – 750′).
Glen Falls 1.4 miles (one way; 15 min. to first falls) – Trail head: Glen Falls parking lot. Trail end: Forest Service Rd. (79C) in Blue Valley. Features: Three cascading waterfalls and a beautiful stream. One of the advantages of this trail is that you can return after seeing the first or second waterfall, and still have an enjoyable walk.
5. Newfound Gap Road – A trip over the Newfound Gap Road has often been compared to a drive from Georgia to Maine in terms of the variety of forest ecosystems one experiences. Starting from either Cherokee, North Carolina or Gatlinburg, Tennessee, travelers climb approximately 3,000 feet, ascending through cove hardwood, pine-oak, and northern hardwood forest to attain the evergreen spruce-fir forest at Newfound Gap at 5,046 ft.
Cherokee – One of the most unique towns you will visit, Cherokee is a mixture of Indian heritage, 80s commercialism (plenty of places to buy an airbrush t-shirt), and some of the best fly fishing in the world. It is a base camp for hikers as well as place to view North Carolina’s Elk. A visit to the Cherokee Museum is a must. You will also find several easy hikes to waterfalls in Cherokee.
Chimney Tops Trail – Another of the most popular hikes located off of U.S. Hwy-441 through the park is Chimney Tops Trail. The challenge of climbing 1700 feet in just two miles means this trail is for people in relatively good physical condition and those with hiking experience. From the trailhead you will be greeted with warning signs about the summit. Once you reach the summit you will notice that you are on the end of a rocky ridge. The warning sign has an actual picture that illustrates what you will have to do to get to the top of Chimney Tops. You will have to scramble/climb/crawl along a rocky spine-like ridge that make up Chimney Tops. This climb is dangerous for those with fear of heights or those with physical limitations. You do not have to climb all of the way out along the ridge to get a good view of your surroundings, but for those that do 360 degree views await.
Clingmans Dome – Just south of Newfound Gap, the seven-mile Clingmans Dome Road climbs to within 0.5 mile of Clingmans Dome. From the large parking area at the end of the road, a 0.5-mile trail climbs steeply to a futuristic observation tower at the ‘top of old Smoky.’ At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is the highest point in Tennessee, and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi. On clear days you can see for 100 miles, unfortunately many days it is foggy at the top, but still spectacular views. When I did this hike not only was it foggy but actually snowing in early October! Nowhere else is North Carolina was it snowing.
6. Blue Ridge Parkway – This iconic stretch of highway should be on everyone’s bucket list. The beauty and splendor that awaits travelers is unforgettable.
The Orchard At Altapass Milepost 328.3 – The mission of The Orchard at Altapass is to preserve the history, heritage and culture of the Blue Ridge Mountains; protect the underlying orchard land with its apples, wetlands, butterflies, and other natural features; and educate the public about the Appalachian experience. Enjoy live music performances at 1pm and 3pm on Saturday and Sunday, May through October. Enjoy picking or buying a variety of heirloom apples.
Moses Cone Memorial Park at Milepost 294 – Flat Top Manor at Moses Cone Memorial Park is now the home of the Parkway Craft Center, one of five shops of the Southern Highland Craft Guild which features handmade crafts by hundreds of regional artists. Throughout the season, local artists demonstrate crafts such as quilting, embroidery, weaving, pottery, glass-blowing, and woodcarving on the front porch of the Manor. Open March 15 – November 30 9 -5 daily.
Black Balsam Milepost 420.2 – Thirty miles from the Asheville exit on the Parkway, with the area being over 6,000 in elevation Black Balsam features surreal sweeping treeless mountain views of Black Balsam Knob, Sam Knob, and Tennent Mountain. These alpine-like mountaintops in the Pisgah National Forest draw people from all over the world.
Graveyard Fields Milepost 418.8 – Graveyard Fields is a very popular hiking spot on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The focal point of this hike are two waterfalls beyond a valley filled with wildflowers and foliage. As you weave along your hike through the valley you are surrounded by Blue Ridge mountains with their 6,000 ft peaks. The area got it’s name years ago from the tree stumps and surrounding trees that looked like grave stones in a graveyard setting. The trees were toppled by a huge wind several hundred years ago. Then in 1925, an intense fire burned the recently logged area, and the forest has been slow in recovering since. This hike is a moderate one and is unique among the hikes of the Blue Ridge.