Fall in North Carolina is particularly special because the autumn leaves are around for an extended amount of time.
The vibrant fall colors almost seem to develop in shifts, gradually working their way down the Blue Ridge mountainsides as seasonal temperatures begin to drop.
Changes at the higher altitudes (see: Mount Mitchell, Clingmans Dome, Richland Balsam) usually start in September.
Down at the lower elevations around Asheville, Cherokee, and Waynesville, the leaf-peeping season often pushes well into November.
In North Carolina, fall is a true season, sprawling over 3 months. The mountains of Western NC arguably offer some of the very best places to see fall colors in the United States.
Whether it’s hikes in national forests, drives along the Blue Ridge Parkway, or drinks with a view, there are a bounty of options for enjoying fall foliage in North Carolina.
So check out our picks for the 15 best places to see fall colors in Western NC, including a dozen breathtaking photos taken along the Blue Ridge Parkway on a road trip from October 19-23, 2020!
1. Graveyard Fields
The Blue Ridge Parkway fall colors have already got a fantastic reputation, so it’s just a matter of finding the best spots along the world-renowned route to stop and take them.
Graveyard Fields, which was originally named for tree stumps left behind after a storm several hundred years ago because they looked like grave stones, is most definitely in the running.
Located just 30 miles southwest of Asheville along the BRP, Graveyard Fields is one of the most popular (read: often crowded) of the famous roadway’s sites.
It has an amazing hiking trail that leads trekkers to two wondrous waterfalls, past open blueberry patches, and through a picturesque high mountain valley.
This spot is also highly regarded for its vivid NC fall foliage, which frames many of the most stunning waterfall views.
2. Grandfather Mountain State Park
Looming large at 5,946 feet, Grandfather Mountain is a beloved landmark along the Blue Ridge Parkway,. It’s also the centerpiece of one of Western North Carolina’s wonderful state parks.
Boasting nearly 2,500 acres of rugged backcountry wilderness, the park has a lot of space to explore within it.
But the vast panoramas viewed from the rocky outcrops along its 12 miles of hiking trails are what Grandfather Mountain State Park is most known for. The photo above should help you imagine their splendor when draped in North Carolina’s fall colors.
In addition to the marvelous hiking trails, the nearby Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation offers a mile-high swinging bridge that can be accessed for a small fee (which goes towards the park’s conservation efforts).
3. Beech Mountain
The highest town east of the Mississippi, Beech Mountain is a one of North Carolina’s premier destinations for snow skiing.
The peak’s lofty perch also makes Beech Mountain a picturesque spot for seeing the fall colors in North Carolina.
Riddled with outdoor recreation opportunities, from tennis to trout fishing, Beech Mountain is a resort town with all the amenities you’d expect. You’ll find theme parks, upscale restaurants, meandering greenways, and high-class hotels.
The Blue Ridge mountain town‘s elevation– 5506 feet above sea level– supplies expansive views of the peaks and valleys below it. In short, this is a prime spot for leaf-peeping in luxury!
4. Craggy Gardens
Just northeast of Asheville, Craggy Gardens is another of the most treasured stops along the BRP. It is truly an ideal place for taking in Asheville’s fall colors.
Located at Milepost 364 (and several other nearby stops), Craggy Gardens is full of rocky terrain, with twisted tree trunks and low-slung hardwood canopies.
The mountain is pushing 6,000 feet in elevation, so the jaw-dropping landscape expands out for miles in every direction.
The prize-winning roost from which to enjoy the best fall colors of the Blue Ridge Parkway is the summit of Craggy Pinnacle, with its staggering 360º views.
5. Clingman’s Dome
North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell is the highest point east of the Rockies, and Clingman’s Dome along the NC/TN border is the second highest.
Technically speaking, its highest point is in Tennessee, but of course views aren’t technical.
Located at 6,643 feet above sea level, Clingman’s Dome is the ultimate highlight of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
There’s an amazing scenic drive up to approximately 300 feet below the summit. Then, at the very top, there’s a 45-foot tower from which to view all the awesomeness below.
A destination on both the Appalachian Trail and NC’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail, Clingman’s Dome is a literally the high-point of many hikers’ and leaf-peepers’ journey.
6. Pisgah Inn
Located between Brevard and Asheville on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Pisgah Inn was established in 1919 (before the Parkway itself) and rebuilt in the 1960s.
Located way up high atop Mt. Pisgah, the inn is home to some of the BRP’s most iconic views.
This is a great option for those who are unable (or simply unwilling) to hike, but still want to check out the fall colors in NC. Though numerous trails are available nearby, the Pisgah Inn is a fantastic place to sit back in a deck chair and soak it all in, with no sweat required.
There’s a restaurant, gift shop (including traditional Blue Ridge foodstuffs), and overnight accommodation for those looking to linger a little longer. There’s also outdoor seating at the restaurant, as well as an observation deck and picnic greens.
READ MORE: The Best Things to Do in Asheville NC
7. Black Balsam Knob
The 28.5-mile Art Loeb Trail is widely considered one of the best Pisgah National Forest hiking trails.
Black Balsam Knob is its loftiest point, and offers the best views of North Carolina’s fall foliage along the trail (and arguably in all of Pisgah National Forest).
Fortunately, visitors don’t have to hike the entire Art Loeb Trail in order to appreciate the scenery from Black Balsam Knob.
To reach this section by car, drivers can simply turn off of the Blue Ridge Parkway onto Black Balsam Road (FS 816).
This is a very popular spot, so it’s best to arrive early or be prepared for crowds vying to get the same scenic vistas. Also, thunderstorms here are notorious for making a quick impression.
READ MORE: Pisgah National Forest: A Beginner’s Guide
8. Devil’s Courthouse
Located relatively close to Graveyard Fields and Black Balsam Knob, the Devil’s Courthouse is another of the great natural spaces close to Asheville.
At Milepost 422.4 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Devil’s Courthouse is a location of local lore, as well as a fantastic lookout for NC fall foliage.
There is a half-mile hike up to a rocky viewing platform that boosts observations of four different states: North Carolina, western South Carolina, eastern Tennessee, and north Georgia.
It’s a lofty location so nice, even Peregrine Falcons have chosen to nest there!
9. Blowing Rock
“The Blowing Rock,” which is dramatically poised above the town that bears its name, is one of the oldest and most revered Western North Carolina tourist attractions.
Located at 4,000 feet above sea level, overhanging the Johns River Gorge 3,000 feet below, the Blowing Rock yields views of Mount Mitchell, Grandfather Mountain, Table Rock, and Hawksbill Mountain (not to mention all the fall colors in between).
Unlike most of the state and national parks along the BRP, taking in views from “The Blowing Rock” costs a nominal fee.
But the town of Blowing Rock is free to visit, and there are lots of attractions in and around it.
10. Banner Elk
Banner Elk is one of the many great small mountain towns in North Carolina’s High Country. It’s also one of the best destinations to visit if you want to see fall colors in NC.
The leaf color around Banner Elk (3,700 feet) typically peaks in the latter half of October, and there are many close options for viewing them.
You can paddle canoes and kayaks on Wildcat Lake, climb high at Emerald Outback, or simply stroll along the beautiful Banner Elk Greenway.
Located between Beech Mountain and Linville Gorge, Banner Elk also makes for a convenient home base for leaf-watching along the BRP from late September into mid-November.
11. Looking Glass Rock
An ancient pluton formed by hardened magma underneath the earth’s surface, Looking Glass Rock gets its name from the rockface’s glossy reflection after a rain.
However, it is also possible to hike 2.7 miles to the top of Looking Glass Rock for a phenomenal view of the forest (Pisgah National Forest, to be specific) from which it ascends.
The Looking Glass Rock Trailhead is located near Brevard. It can be accessed from US-276, which is the main thoroughfare through the southern section of Pisgah Forest.
It’s also worth stopping by for a glimpse of Looking Glass Falls, which is the most accessible waterfall of note in the PNF.
READ MORE: The Best Downtown Asheville Restaurants
12. Cowee Mountain Overlook
Widely considered amongst the best Blue Ridge Parkway overlooks, the Cowee Mountain Overlook offers up many layers of mountain ridges in its wide, deep panorama.
Located at BRP milepost 430.7, this amazing overlook is southwest of Asheville and sits at over 5,900 feet in elevation.
Facing westward into the southern Appalachians, the Cowee Mountain Overlook is well-regarded as a great place for getting photos of sunsets.
So visitors should expect plenty of tripods and onlookers trying to get the perfect shot. Hey, it didn’t make this list for nothing!
13. Julian Price Memorial Park
If you love water as much as we do, Julian Price Memorial Park offers a magnificent mountain lake and numerous streams lined with colorful hardwood trees.
The backdrop of majestic mountain peaks towering over them makes for some seriously stunning photos.
Located at milepost 297, the memorial park is part of the larger Blue Ridge Parkway system, and has a very easy 3-mile trail that loops around the lake.
This place is incredibly special to locals and travelers alike for its immediate proximity to the beauty and grandeur of the Blue Ridge Parkway in autumn.
14. Linville Falls & Linville Gorge Wilderness
Linville Falls is one of the most celebrated waterfalls along the Blue Ridge Parkway. And Linville Gorge is so spectacular, it is often referred to as “the Grand Canyon of the East.”
The trails that lead to Linville Falls have several spurs for getting different perspectives of the multi-leveled waterfall, which breaks out of the forest and plunges some 90 feet down.
Managed by Pisgah National Forest, the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area is a unique and rugged landscape within the forest. There are nearly 40 miles of trails upon which to explore it.
The Linville Falls Visitor Center is located at Milepost 316.4 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and has a quaint trail that runs behind it.
15. Chimney Rock State Park
Pushing the limits of what we can loosely call Western North Carolina, Chimney Rock State Park is actually in the North Carolina Piedmont region. Nevertheless, we’re still talking about a place that’s less than 30 miles from Asheville.
Chimney Rock State Park has one of NC’s most iconic rock formations– the spire for which the park is named.
For a fee, visitors can climb to the top of Chimney Rock to look down on Lake Lure (the filming site for Dirty Dancing’s lake scenes) and Hickory Nut Gorge.
Aside from the spire itself, Chimney Rock State Park boats over 5,700 acres of wilderness, including the beautiful Rocky Broad River and Hickory Nut Falls.
Chimney Rock Village is a proper little tourist town with tattoo shops, greasy spoons, and an emimently walkable Main Street. In other words, this one is a great place for families. —by Jonathon Engels, lead photo by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett