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The Best Places to See Spectacular Fall Leaf Colors

Aug 17, 2007
It's that time of year again. The days are getting shorter, the nights are getting a bit chilly, and the leaves are starting to change color. Starting in October and usually lasting for about six weeks, leaves will be changing to red, orange, yellow, brown, and other hues too numerous to mention.

Whether you're a seasoned "leaf peeper" or planning your first fall foliage tour, the questions are the same. Where do you find the most vibrant colors? Which scenic highways and byways provide the best opportunities for your viewing pleasure? Where are the best places to see the show?

The best places to see brilliant autumn colors and awe-inspiring mountain vistas are right here, in the western mountains of North Carolina. The hills and mountains in and around Asheville are world-renown for their "fall color show". This area is consistently ranked high on "Best Places to Visit" lists because of it's natural beauty and southern charm. Many believe that autumn is the best time to be here.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a perennial favorite. Breath-taking panoramas and leaf-carpeted forests are abundant in this timeless oasis. But, if you're the one driving, keep your eyes on the road. The stunningly beautiful sights along this drive can be a big distraction. And, at those elevations, you do not want to run off the road. Stop at the designated "scenic overlooks" to take your turn gazing, or switch drivers occasionally if you can. During leaf season the Blue Ridge Parkway can become a little crowded. If you want to get off the beaten path you might consider the drive through Hickory Nut Gorge, or The Pacolet River Scenic Byway.

In early October the leaves start to change in the higher elevations along the parkway, beginning around Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi River. Along the parkway you'll find campgrounds, picnic areas, trails, waterfalls, and recreation areas. The parkway also passes right through Asheville, so there is a wide range of exciting tourist destinations and shopping nearby.

Popular destinations north of Asheville include Grandfather Mountain and Linville Falls along US 221 near Boone, Craggy Gardens on the Parkway, and Roan Mountain, on the Tennessee border. To the west you can raft down Nantahala River, see the highest dam this side of the Rockies at Fontana Lake, or hike up Cold Mountain, made famous by the book and movie of the same name. Also west of Asheville are the towns of Cherokee and Maggie Valley, offering a diverse range of native crafts and eclectic shops. To the southeast, near Hendersonville, you'll find Lake Lure, (where Dirty Dancing was filmed), and Chimney Rock Park,which Boasts one of the highest waterfalls in the state, at 404 feet.. And southwest of Asheville, near Brevard, are several popular diversions such as Dupont State Forest, Looking Glass Falls, and the Forest Discovery Center at the Cradle of Forestry Historic Site.

Closer to Asheville, colorful views abound at Mount Pisgah or Graveyard Fields along the parkway. Magnificent views and aesthetically pleasing architecture combine at Biltmore House and Grove Park Inn. To see a wide variety of native foliage up close, stop in at the North Carolina Arboretum, just off the parkway at mile marker 393 or The Botanical Gardens of Asheville, near UNCA.

Driving through is a good way to see lots of color, but you may get more out of it if you immerse yourself fully in the experience. As mentioned earlier, you could take a hike or go rafting under the multi-colored canopies. You might enjoy a scenic train ride on The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad in Dillsboro, or if you want a completely different perspective, you might find consider flying above it all in a hot-air balloon. Remember you may have to book most of these excursions in advance.

If you plan an overnight visit, remember that local lodging becomes quite crowded as well. Consider making reservations in advance or planning your trips for Sunday through Thursday, if possible. You might even want to stay at places a bit farther away from the more frequented routes.

Items you may want to bring along include a warm jacket, a camera, extra food, drinks, a cooler, a map, a cellphone, and maybe binoculars. And remember to top off your gas tank occasionally.

The North Carolina mountains are definitely the place you want to be when the leaves are changing. But be warned, once here, you may never want to leave.
About the Author
James Rice is a lifelong resident of western North Carolina. Visit Leaf Links for links to resources with more detailed fall foliage information, including more scenic drives and destinations. Also try the NCmountainfun.com home page for more area attractions.
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