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Best Fall Leaf Viewing Trips in North Carolina

Contributed by: Heath Combs

Blue_Ridge_Parkway_AutumnLeaf peepers take note – fall foliage viewing season is almost upon us. But where and when are the best times to see leaves turn in our neck of the woods? It depends.

The varied elevations in Northwest North Carolina create one of the longest color-viewing seasons in the nation.

Elevations range from Mount Mitchell (6,684 feet) – the highest point east of the Mississippi River – to spots less than 1,000 feet throughout the Piedmont. So if you miss a “peak” time in one spot, you can easily catch the best colors at a lower elevation.

Here’s a general guideline on locations and when leaves are usually at their peak:

Grandfather_Mountain_FallOctober 1-10: The highest elevations – above 5,000 feet – turn the earliest. Grandfather Mountain in Linville is a fun place to start. It’s a quick drive from Banner Elk, Boone or Blowing Rock. Tickets for adults are $20 and $9 for children (4-12).

Other locations worth considering include Mount Mitchell, Waterrock Knob, Graveyard Fields and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

October 10-20: This is the best time for elevations from 4,000 to 5,000 feet. This includes much of the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, along with Boone, Blowing Rock and many parts of the Great Smoky Mountains.

October 18-26: This is when the lower elevations, 3,000 to 4,000 feet, start to get in on the action. Some attractive spots include Pisgah National Forest, Sliding Rock, Looking Glass Falls, Dill Falls and Wildcat Falls. Some other prime locations include Linville Gorge, the train ride at Nantahala Gorge and Maggie Valley.

HookerFallsAtLinvilleGorgeOctober 24-31: All the stragglers are now joining the leaf painting party. Some key destinations include Asheville, Brevard, Waynesville, Cherokee, Dupont State Forest, Biltmore Estate, Chimney Rock and Lake Lure.

But if you’d rather stay closer to home, it’s fun to explore the country routes to smaller towns around Winston-Salem. Plug a few towns – Mount Airy, Pilot Mountain, Dobson, Sparta and Wilkesboro – into Google Maps on your smartphone and discover some of the area’s wonderful and surprising back roads.

You’ll also find some nice restaurants for lunch, and you’ll easily be back home in time for dinner.

But if you are interested in some time-tested scenic drives, here are several worth exploring:

Uwharrie National Forest: There are several roads that wind  through Uwharrie National Forest . They offer great views and a wide variety of colors.

Hanging Rock Scenic Byway: From King you take Route 66 and connect with Route 89. The Sauratown Mountains provide the backdrop. You can get out and explore.

Hanging Rock State Park: Hiking trails, waterfalls, dramatic vistas and picnic areas – the charming towns of Danbury, Pinnacle and Pilot Mountain.

U.S. 421 Scenic Byway: This route goes through Wautauga County and offers striking vistas of mountains, valleys and woodlands between Deep Gap and Boone.

New River Valley Byway: Named for the New River, which is the oldest river in the country and the second oldest in the world, this byway winds from Boone to Laurel Springs on N.C. 194 – the “Old Buffalo Trail.” 

Old_Salem_Gardens_AutumnWant to opt for a Forsyth County experience? You could visit Old Salem Gardens and walk around the cobblestone streets. And Reynolda Gardens has lovely fall plants and hiking trails that explore the larger Reynolda House estate.

Finally, the North Carolina Zoo – 2,600 wooded acres and 1,600 animals – in Asheboro offers lots of paths through wooded areas, with the added benefit of seeing lots of exotic animals.

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