Fall is one of the most beautiful seasons here in North Carolina. We’re lucky to be able to enjoy fall foliage and colors longer than most, since we’re one of the country’s longest color seasons, over 5 weeks, thanks to the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains’ many 6,000-foot peaks, and multiple microclimates. Wondering where and when to see fall foliage? Here’s your 2021 guide to peak fall colors in NC.
Leaf Peeping 2021
The most important things to know about leaf season are what drives early color and what extends the season. Elevation is key to early color, so it starts at the highest peaks and works its way down. Cold sunny weather speeds up the color changes and warm wet weather slows things down. To help you start planning your trip leaf peep, we’ve put together a list of places to visit that coincides with when their leaves will be changing. Color changes can be a little unpredictable, though, so please make sure to check online before you go.
According to this year’s map, partial fall color could arrive in NC as early as the week of September 27.
Please check back for updates before you head out for viewing and for tons of info on your visit, please head to the BEST website ever for the scoop on the NC Mountains, our pals at www.RomanticAsheville.com.
Late September starts at 6,000 ft.
Along the Blue Ridge Parkway, Graveyard Fields is under 6,000 ft but because of the unique plant species, you will find changing leaves earlier in the season, we’re talking about signs of fall in late September. Take the moderate level 3.2 mile hike to explore the beautiful waterfalls.
Fun Fact – it’s called Graveyard Fields because of the tree stumps left behind after it was destroyed from fires and logging.
This beautiful hike gives you spectacular views of Grandfather Mountain and Linn Cove Viaduct, with distant views into the Piedmont. The higher you hike, the better views get. Total elevation climb from the parking area is 480 ft.
Early to Mid October Color around 4,000 – 5,000 ft.
Another early bird when it comes to leaf season thanks to its high elevation. Drive up or hike to the famous Mile-High Swinging Bridge for gorgeous panoramic views of the surrounding mountains from the summit. On your way back down the mountain be sure to stop by Mildred’s Grill for a bite to eat and then walk over to the park’s wildlife habitats to see the black bears, or head to nearby Banner Elk for lunch and easy strolls.
“The highest town in Eastern America” and a familiar name to most Charlotteans, Beech Mountain is an early location in the fall color season usually by the first week of October. Lots to see and do here, including the not-totally-canceled Autumn at Oz plus hiking and more. From here, Romantic Asheville recommends you head south to head to the Waterrock Knob and Black Balsam areas for great color views.
The highest point east of the Mississippi, Mount Mitchell, reaches 6,684 ft. Keep Mount Mitchell State Park on your radar if you want to try and catch some colors changing the beginning of October. Make the hike to the summit and you’ll find an expansive observation deck with unparalleled views.
Head just 26 miles southwest of downtown Asheville for breathtaking views. The popular 1.5-mile (one-way) strenuous hike to the 5,721-ft summit will have scenic fall views around the second week of October. The hike is in the forest and will get a bit rocky in the second half, so wear good shoes.
Known as a landmark in the Nantahala National Forest, Whitesaw Mountain has an elevation of 4,930 feet and is believed to be one of the oldest mountains in the world. Take a moderate two-mile loop trail that will take you to the top of 750-ft. high cliffs with scenic views. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of railing to keep you safe.
For unique scenic views, head to Shadow of the Bear, where you can see a bear-like shadow come out from hibernation for 30 minutes daily (on sunny days) between 5:30-6:15 p.m. from mid-October through early November. While you’re there, check out fun things to do in Jackson County to get the most out of your trip.
Mid to Late October Color Around 4,000 – 2,000 ft.
Mountainous areas surrounding Asheville with 3,000-4,000 feet elevation show the most color the third week of October. If you’re looking for an easy scenic drive, head to Blue Ridge Parkway.
This hiking trail can be one of the most rewarding hikes you can take if you’re up for a workout. While it can be pretty strenuous, the gorgeous view at the top are so worth it, with spectacular views of Linville Gorge. Also known for its rock-climing, Table Rock can be reached by car on the road to the summit open April-December.
Not wanting to hike? Don’t worry, this 76-mile mountain drive will give you all the fall views you need. The Forest Heritage National Scenic Byway is filled with beautiful mountain scenery along with rich history in the Blue Ridge Mountains. You can drive a section or fully go on the two-hour route. It’s a great way to explore Pisgah National Forest, and places like Sliding Rock, Looking Glass Falls, and Looking Glass Rock. There’s also plenty of areas for picnics and hikes along the way. Visit here for tips for safe mountain driving.
Spend a day or two adventuring in Bryson City, approximately 70 miles southwest of Asheville. With part of the county being the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there’s a lot to do for nature lovers, including waterfalls, hiking, rafting, and of course food and shopping. Head there the third week of October for the most fall foliage which will make for stunning views. Pro tip: take a scenic train ride on the popular Great Smoky Mountains Railroad along rivers and Fontana Lake (purchasing tickets in advance is highly recommended).
End of October to Early November When It Ends
This may be the one time to go to the Biltmore Estate and not solely focus on the home. When the leaves are changing the property is absolutely gorgeous and definitely worth the short trip to Asheville. Take your time to explore as much of the property as you can, there are scenic mountain views around every corner.
From the lake you can see surrounding leaves and the reflections on the water towards the beginning of November. The lake is located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains in the Hickory Nut Gorge. From certain points you can spot Chimney Rock which is another scenic spot to visit this time of year.
Known as a “jewel” of a state park in the mountains according to Romantic Asheville, South Mountains is a great place to enjoy nature. Just 70 miles east of Asheville and near Morganton, the park has an elevation of 3,000 feet, with a waterfall dropping 60 feet and more than 40 miles of trails. The best hike per Romantic Asheville is the one-mile trail to High Shoals waterfall where you can walk on beautiful boardwalks by cascades along the way. The best time to go for fall foliage is late October to early November this year, so plan your trip accordingly.
Heading outdoors to check out the leaves?
We’d love to see where you end up. Tag us on Instagram @ScoopCharlotte to share your adventures.