Start your engines Raleigh, it’s almost time to chase the Fall foliage in North Carolina! While New England may be one of the best places in the US for leaf peeping, Western North Carolina has one of the longest seasons for fall foliage.
Since the Great Smoky Mountains region has more than 150 different species of trees, this area also has a huge variety of Fall colors to admire
But it’s not just the North Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains that we have easy access to from the Triangle region. Roanoke and Virginia’s Blue Ridge are an easy three-hour drive away, and the North Georgia Mountains and West Virginia Mountains are six hours away.
Fall in the Appalachian Mountains is peak travel season though which does mean higher prices and lower availability. So keep in mind that flexibility is an advantage, as will be traveling mid-week, booking in advance, and possibly, camping.
When will the leaves change in the NC Mountains for 2022?
According to the Smoky Mountains fall foliage map for 2022, the leaves should start changing mid-September with the peak happening between Oct 17-22, but the Fall Color Guy has his predictions earlier than that.
According to Explore Asheville, the changing of leaves usually follows this pattern:
- Mid-October: Areas around 5,500 ft.
- Late October: Areas around 2,300 ft.
- Early November: Areas below 1,500 ft.
Fall in North Carolina is a little temperamental, with the leaves already starting to change in Raleigh, I feel these may be a little earlier this year.
Remember, it’s Mother Nature and she goes to her own schedule without giving us anything more than a few signs to guesstimate. The leaves will also peak at different times depending on the elevations and tree species.
Keep checking in and aim for the mid-range, because if you miss the fall foliage at the top of the mountain, you’ll at least get it at the bottom!
We went to Bryson City last year in the first week of November for the Polar Express experience and there was still plenty of color around (as it’s lower and further south)!
The Blue Ridge Parkway
Let’s start with the star event of any trip to the North Carolina mountains, a scenic drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway. It has the moniker of “America’s favorite drive’ for a reason (see more top USA road trips and USA scenic drives).
This spectacular 469-mile scenic drive begins at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NC and ends at Shenandoah National Park, Virginia and winds through the Blue Ridge Mountains alongside the Appalachian Trail.
While we have not driven the Parkway in its entirety, we have done most of it on separate trips to the various regions, and we’ll share those regions in this post below for your Raleigh Fall mountain getaway ideas.
If you do want to drive it in its entirety, I’d recommend at least three days allowing time for stops and photos.
The High Country Region, NC
We loved our Thanksgiving getaway to Boone and the High Country last year. While we were long past Fall Peak, we still enjoyed beautiful views, gushing waterfalls, and wonderful hikes.
As the name suggests, The High Country has the highest elevations in North Carolina and is where you’ll find towns like Blowing Rock, Boone and Banner Elk, and top Blue Ridge attractions like Grandfather Mountain, Linn Cove Viaduct, and Linville Falls.
The High Country has about 23 percent of its 469-mile length. Many people would say it’s even more beautiful through this section than it is in the other parts.
The Parkway actually started in the NC High Country at Cumberland Knob in 1935 and the opening of the Linn Cove Viaduct in 1987 completed it.
We know without a doubt, the high Country region will be unforgettable during Fall in North Carolina. And with Boone being only three hours away from Raleigh, it’s the closest mountain region to us!
Boone is a fantastic base for exploring the High Country region. As a college town you’ll find plenty of amenities with great breweries, cafes, restaurants and events. You can read our post here with more information on things to do in Boone.
Rough Ridge Trail (Milepost 302.8)
Starting at Milepost 302.8 on the Parkway, this easy 1.5 mile return hike takes you 480 ft. up to the most spectacular views of Grandfather Mountain overlooking the famous Linn Cove Viaduct, the parkway, and the ridges of the Pisgah National Forest below.
Along this trail you’ll find one of the most Instagrammable rocks with epic views of the surrounding mountains. Imagine how it would look with those Fall colors?
(PSST. It’s trick photography guys. This rock has an unseen ledge just under it and is quite safe!)
Linn Cove Viaduct
The Linn Cove Viaduct is an engineering marvel created to preserve the scenic and fragile environment on the slopes of Grandfather Mountain while allowing cars to continue their scenic road trip on the parkway.
It’s a very popular Fall photo opportunity, we missed the Fall colors as we visited during Thanksgiving, but it’s still very impressive to drive across anytime. There are pull outs on the side of the road, be sure to use caution.
The 300-million-year-old peaks stand 6,000 feet above sea level, giving you stunning 360-degree views over the stunning Appalachian Mountain ranges.
This area offers scenic overlooks, hikes, nature museum, and picnic areas. The highlight for many is walking across the mile high, 228-foot suspension bridge (it used to swing, but now it sings!) The views from here are not to be missed.
One of the star attractions of the Blue Ridge Parkway and North Carolina Mountains is Linville Falls, known as “Eeseeoh” or River of Cliffs in Cherokee.
The Linville River travels from its beginning point high on Grandfather Mountain where it flows 2,000 ft down and reaches the three-tiered cascading falls at Linville Falls, where it continues through the beautiful, forested Linville Gorge (the Grand Canyon of the Appalachians) to its end at Lake James and the Catawba River.
Surprisingly, and fortunately, we got a splash of Fall colors over the Thanksgiving period!
While here, head to Linville Falls Winery for some wine, cheese, and beautiful views on this 40 acre vineyard. I was quite impressed with the wine, especially the Brandy Barrel Aged Cabernet Saugvignon, the perfect Fall accompaniment.
Another iconic rock in the High Country region is Blowing Rock, an outcropping of rock 4,090 feet above John’s River Gorge. The rock has a mysterious prevailing wind always blowing over it, which has been known to return thrown light objects over the void.
It’s a short Boone attraction to visit, with just the rock, a few extra viewpoints, and a small hiking trail. The views here are beautiful and worth seeing.
Some may consider downtown Asheville to be in the heart of the North Carolina mountain region.
The city oozes character and quirky charm and is well known for art galleries, excellent breweries, fabulous restaurants, thriving live music scene, hiking trails, healing resorts, the French Broad River, and America’s largest home – Biltmore House (beautiful surrounded by Fall foliage).
From here you have easy access to the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Pisgah National Forest, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Take your pick of Fall leaf peeping activities, including hikes, bike riding, and viewpoints.
Foodies will love this: Asheville was just named top food destination in the USA by Yelp. We can definitely vouch for outstanding food experiences. Asheville is one of our favorite small towns in the USA. You can read our guide to downtown Asheville here.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Famous for its magical smoky haze, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park contains some of the highest peaks in eastern North America, and is internationally recognized for its mountains, waterfalls, biodiversity, spruce-fir forests and wildflowers.
The park straddles the border of North Carolina and Tennessee and is one of the most visited of the USA’s National Parks.
We have been to 23 of the 63 National Parks in the US and so far, the Smoky Mountains are in our top six most loved!
There are so many things to do in the Smoky Mountains, so here are a few highlights. It will be tricky to plan as it has such variations in elevation so different Fall peak times. But, that will also give you more options across a longer leaf peeping time span.
One of the park’s most popular attractions is the highest point of the Smokies at 6,643 ft high. There is a short hike to the top of the tower and outstanding leaf peeping views. Fingers crossed you have timed it right. We got snow tipped trees instead!
Video: Top of Clingmans Dome
Newfound Gap (5,046 ft) also has stunning panoramic views. It’s also where the state border runs between Tennessee and NC. You can also walk a little of the Appalachian trail here.
Cades Cove Loop Bike Ride
One of our favorite things to do in the North Carolina Mountains is the 11 mile Cades Cove loop bike ride (You can also drive it).
Cades Cove is an isolated valley located on the Tennessee side of the park. It started as a seasonal hunting camp for the Cherokee Indians before the Europeans settled the area between 1818 and 1821. You can visit many of the preserved buildings along the trail.
Apart from the stunning fall foliage, this is the best area to see wildlife. We saw so many bears here. That was in May though!
As Cades Cove is at lower elevation this would be a great later Fall experience.
Bryson City and the Great Smoky Mountains (South Entrance)
Bryson City is known as the Quieter Side of the Smokies, Bryson City is another laid-back mountain town in Western NC focused on outdoor lifestyle.
It sits at the southern gateway of the Smoky Mountains NP and the Nantahala National Forest and is surrounded by streams, waterfalls, and lakes.
Leaf peeping activities include hiking, biking, horse riding, swimming, tubing, rafting, and fishing. You’ll find breweries with fire pits and, if you’re lucky like us, you may time the Fall colors with the Polar Express holiday experience.
Bryson City Accommodation
- We loved this cozy cabin rental tucked away in the mountains Read more about it in our Bryson City post
- You can find more vacation rentals near Bryson City here.
- The relatively new Stonebrook Lodge in downtown Bryson City is a good hotel option.
Here are a few things to do near Bryson City in the Fall.
The Elk at Oconaluftee Visitor Center
One of the best things to do in North Carolina during the Fall is to witness The Rut. This is the time when male elks preen their horns and fight each other for herd dominance, shouting their bugle calls along the way.
The elk come out to the fields near the Oconaluftee visitor center at dawn (and then at dusk) and tend to stay out for 60-90 minutes, before retreating into the shadowy forest.
The 1.5 mile Oconaluftee River Trail is beautiful with the Fall foliage and also a place you may see elk wading in the river or on the banks. Use your common sense around wildlife.
Top Tip: Arrive no later than 7:30am. It’s a 30-minute drive from Bryson City.
Deep Creek Hike
5 minutes from downtown Bryson City is the 4-mile loop Deep Creek hike, located within the Smoky Mountains NP. This loop walk takes you past three waterfalls: Juney Whank Falls, Indian Creek Falls, and Tom Branch Falls.
The trail was resplendent with vibrant Autumn colors. Deep creek is also popular for fly fishing!
Another place to see Fall foliage in North Carolina is the Nantahala Forest. There are plenty of outdoors activities on offer including hiking, biking, zip lining, fishing, and white-water rafting.
The Nantahala River is one of the most popular whitewater rafting rivers in the Southeast with easy Class II and III rapids. The lesser intensity of this whitewater rafting experience gives you more scope to appreciate the colors.
We did this years ago with friends. While the water was a little chilly, we had a lot of fun, and the spa after it back in our vacation rental tapped off the experience.
Road to Nowhere
The scenic Road to Nowhere (or Lakeview Drive), has beautiful views of Fontana Lake, especially during the Fall.
This six-mile drive takes you through the Great Smoky Mountains to its finish at the mouth of a tunnel.
You can walk through the graffiti-decorated tunnel or enjoy any of the three hiking trails from the Road to Nowhere: The Noland Creek Trail (18 miles round trip), the 3-mile Goldmine Loop Trail and the 42-mile Lakeshore Trail.
And the drive to the tunnel from Bryson City is spectacular, look at these views and colors below.
For those with more time, you may want to extend your road trip by driving an extra 3 hours to Chattanooga in Tennessee.
It has a vibrant lifestyle similar to Raleigh and is surrounded by stunning mountains and outdoor adventure. In fact, if I thought my legs weren’t firmly planted here in Raleigh, Chattanooga could be a place I’d live.
I can only imagine how beautiful the exquisite Lovers Leap Falls and views from Rock City Garden would be in the Fall.
Roanoke and Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, VA
A three-hour drive from Raleigh makes for an easy weekend getaway that will bring you to the largest metropolitan center nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains chain.
We visited in mid-October and had plenty of beautiful Fall colors. Downtown Roanoke has plenty of local stores, and farm to table restaurants, as well as the Roanoke Valley Greenways winds for over 30-miles through the various communities of this region.
The Tree Top Quest high ropes obstacle course at Explore Park was one of the best we’ve done, made even better by the Fall colors as we climbed and zipped amongst the canopy.
The Peaks of Otter
The Blue Ridge Parkway is only a 10-minute drive from Downtown Roanoke with plenty of pullovers for views and hikes. We spent the day enjoying the many vistas and Blue Ridge Parkway fall colors from Milepost 120 at Mill Mountain to Milepost 86 at the Peaks of Otter.
At the Peaks of Otter, there is a popular hike (or shuttle) you can take to Sharp Top Mountain. Enjoy 360-degree views of the Peaks of Otter area, The Piedmont to the East, and the Shenandoah Valley with the Allegheny Valley Mountains to the west.
The Roanoke Star
The 88.5 ft tall freestanding, illuminated Roanoke Star was constructed in 1949 as a holiday decoration at the top of Mill Mountain.
It has now become the progressive symbol of the town giving it the nickname of Star City.
Most people come here for selfies and gorgeous Fall colors and views of Roanoke Valley, the mountains, and downtown.
Read More: A Guide to Enjoying Roanoke in the Fall
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
From Roanoke, you can take the Blue Ridge Parkway all the way north to its end at Shenandoah National Park (approx 3 hours)
The Skyline Drive in Virginia catches the baton at the end of the Blue Ridge Parkway and runs through the entire 105-mile length of the Shenandoah Valley National Park on the crest of the Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains.
It is the ONLY road in the Shenandoah National Park, and has plenty of hiking trails, picnic spots, viewpoints, and lodges.
Be prepared for endless viewpoints over the Shenandoah Valley, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the Massanutten Mountain Range. Despite the beauty of each overlook, you can quickly catch fatigue, so plan your stops well on either side of the road as the views are different.
The East is more mountainous with lush forest, the West more mountains with expansive views of the Shenandoah Valley.
Rafting the Upper Gauley, West Virginia
Adventure lovers, are you ready for one of the best Fall experiences on the East Coast? White Water rafting the Gauley River only happens during the Fall when the dam at Summersville Lake is released, creating guaranteed flow on the Gauley River.
For 6 weekends in September and October, rafters from around the world visit to raft with the Upper or Lower Gauley – or both.
The Upper Gauley is known as the “Beast of the East, for its hard-hitting Class 5 rapids, considered some of the most challenging in North America.
Beginners may want to attempt the calmer Lower Gauley and have more time to enjoy the scenic views.
Leaf peepers will love this unique Fall activity for seeing the orange, crimson, and gold foliage enclosing the river.
We rafted this back in 2005, and while not as intense as our experience rafting the Nile River in Uganda, there were some pretty wild rapids.
We had a blast on this camping and rafting experience with our friends. It was definitely on the chilly side though so bring your warm clothes and a campfire!
The Upper and Lower Gauley is a five hour drive from Raleigh, and is also located only 30-minutes from the New River Gorge National Park, the USA’s newest national park.
North Georgia Mountains
For those who have already explored the North Carolina mountains in the Fall and are looking for something different, why not consider the North Georgia Mountains?
As it’s further south, this is the perfect Fall road trip for those who want to travel a little later (and need more time to plan).
We have a full post sharing three places to visit in the North Georgia mountains. Each is a 6-7 hours drive from Raleigh, but only an hour drive between each place. We’d recommend spending 2-3 nights in each place for this Fall road trip.
Unicoi State Park
The 1,050-acre Unicoi State Park is centered around beautiful Lake Unicoi within the Chattahoochee National Forest. It is two miles from the alpine village of Helen, one of the most visited towns in North Georgia.
There are plenty of adventure activities here including a double zip line flying across the lake. My absolute favorite was hiking to the nearby spectacular Anna Ruby Falls, one of America’s best kept waterfall secrets.
We also stayed in the unique barrel shaped cabins, with lake views from our deck.
Amicalola Falls State Park
The stunning Amicalola Falls State Park is located within the Chattahoochee National Forest and is home to the highest waterfall in Georgia, Amicalola Falls. Hiking from the bottom to the top would be spectacular during the Fall. (It made our best waterfalls in the USA list).
Another activity is the 2,400-ft zip line taking you way above the treetops for stunning mountain views. This is one of the best zip lines we’ve done in the USA.
Sunset from the Amicalola Falls lodge is also not to be missed. As well as lodge accommodation, there are fantastic cabins for rent and a campground.
Brasstown Valley Resort and Spa
Why not finish this North Georgia mountain road trip with a little relaxation and luxury?
The 503-acre Brasstown Valley Resort and Spa has something for every member of your family, whether you’re looking for relaxation, outdoor adventure, or fine dining.
It’s main focus is the golf course and spa, but we enjoyed horseback riding, wine tasting, hiking and boating on Lake Chatuge.
There are 9.2 miles of wilderness trails off the property and Georgians tallest mountain, Brasstown Bald is nearby.
Chattanooga is also only a two hour drive from here, so, again, if there is room in your itinerary, it may be a great idea to pop over there. You could totally loop back to Raleigh from Chattanooga via the North Carolina Mountains.
More North Carolina Tips
- 15 fun day trips from Raleigh
- Guide on things to do in Wilmington
- 20 best things to do in Outer Banks
There you have it, our suggestions on where to see Fall foliage in North Carolina.
I hope this post gave you some new ideas on places to visit? Please ask any questions or share your own suggestions in the comments below!