From the rolling Blue Ridge Mountains to the manicured gardens of Durham, there are so manyamazing places to enjoy fall in North Carolina. The North Carolina fall foliage season is one of the longest in the country, thanks to a variety of elevations and a plethora of deciduous trees.
Here are some of our favorite places and ways to see North Carolina fall colors. Whether you are soaring in a hot air ballloon, hiking on a trail in the mountains, or riding in a train car through the forest, you are sure to enjoy the reds, golds, ambers, and umbers of autumn.
Fall in North Carolina- Where to See Fall Foliage in North Carolina in 2023
1. Grandfather Mountain
The hunt for fall colors in North Carolina begins in late September at Grandfather Mountain. This mountain peak sits at nearly 6,000 feet in elevation and is a UN Biosphere Reserve.
It is home to the Mile High Swinging Bridge, a 228-foot-long bridge that spans a 80-foot chasm, and is a wonderful spot to view the incredible North Carolina fall foliage from above.
This beautiful park has several hiking trails, from easy walks to trails that use ladders and cables to climb the rocky cliff faces. During the peak fall color season, Grandfather Mountain does offer 20-minute guided walks to help you identify the foliage.
While there is certainly a chance that you may encounter wildlfie while hiking on the park’s trails, you can guarantee a sighting if you visit the park’s wildlife habitats where they house bears, mountain lions, otters, bald eagles, and more.
2. Beacon Heights Trail
With thousands of hiking trails across the state, it’s hard to pick which one would be perfect for an autumn afternoon. Here is a brief synopsis of some of our favorite family-friendly fall hikes in North Carolina.
The Beacon Heights Trail is a one-mile, out-and-back hike that provides beautiful views of Grandfather Mountain, Hawksbill Mountain, and Table Rock. It takes about 30-45 minutes to complete the trail, and it’s a fantastic place to stop and stretch your legs after driving on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The Beacon Heights Trail parking lot is at mile marker 305.2 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Explore more of the state. Here are the 10 best things to do in North Carolina with kids.
3. Mount Mitchell State Park
The highest point in the United States east of the Mississippi River is Mount Mitchell, about 30 miles from Asheville. Mount Mitchell’s peak sits at 6,684 feet in elevation which means that fall comes early here as well.
Enjoy the view from Mount Mitchell’s observation deck in late September and early October when the autumn foliage begins to show off its many colors as they pop next to the spruce and fir trees.
If you want to stretch your legs check out the Commissary Trail, an easy 2-mile trail that follows an old logging railroad bed and is a nice place to walk with the crunch of leaves underfoot.
Here are our favorite things to do in Asheville with kids.
4. Graveyard Fields Loop Trail
The Graveyard Fields Loop Trail gets its spooky-themed name from the mossy tree-stump “headstones”. Rest assured, there are no gravestones on this trail.
This 1.3-mile loop trail can be completed in 30 minutes and the trail is mostly paved or created out of a wooden walkway. It is easily accessible from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Kids will love to explore the waterfall and splash near the watering hole. Remember that the trail can get muddy, so dress accordingly.
Milepost 418.8 Blue Ridge Parkway south of Asheville in Canton
5. Elk Knob State Park
Beech Tree Trail is an easy one-mile loop trail located at Elk Knob State Park. Due to its flat elevation and well-maintained trail, this hiking trail can be enjoyed by all levels of hikers.
For those who want a little bit more of a hiking challenge at the State Park, consider an afternoon adventure on the Elk Knob Backcountry Trail. This 3.8-mile, out-and-back trail is rated as a moderately difficult trail and takes about 2 ½ hours to complete.
Address: 5450 Meat Camp Rd, Todd
6. The Gorge Zip Line Canopy Tour
Why not enjoy a little fall foliage with some adventure mixed in? The Gorge Zip Line Canopy Tour is America’ steepest and fastest zip line with 11 zips on the Green River Gorge near Saluda, right near the state’s border with South Carolina.
The zip lines pass over old-growth forests in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There are also three rappels and a sky bridge to enjoy. Given its foothill location, fall color tends to peak in mid to late October.
Note: You must be at least 10 years old and 70 – 250lbs in order to zip line.
7. Chimney Rock State Park
Vibrant orange wings flutter en masse during the monarch butterfly migration. Starting in mid-September, their flight path crosses the North Carolina mountains. The best odds of seeing monarch butterflies are on the Blue Ridge Parkway at Cherry Cove (milepost 415.7) and Wagon Road Gap (milepost 412.2) and at Chimney Rock.
Conviently, this is also a nice place to see North Carolina fall foliage. Head to Hickory Nut Gorge in mid-October to see maroon dogwoods, red sourwood leaves, and yellow poplars. Or, stand atop Chimney Rock and view the North Carolina fall colors painting the nearby ridge lines.
Continue your exploration of the beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway. Here are 14 Great Spots to Stop on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
8. Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
All abroad! It’s time to book a ticket on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad’s fall foliage ride. Visitors can view picture-perfect views from their seats as the train travels through Fontana Lake, the historic Fontana Trestle, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Nantahala National Forest, the Nantahala and Tuckasegee Rivers.
There is something majestic about viewing the fall leaves with the setting sun. Relax on this 3-hour round-trip train ride as the Sunset Tuck whisks you around through western North Carolina. There are no stops along the way for this particular tour, but don’t worry. The concession cart is full of delicious treats to purchase.
Starting in Bryson City, the Tuckasegee River Excursion is a four hours round trip. Visitors can view the beautiful fall-colored mountainside in the comforts of a train carriage.
For movie fans, you will also pass by the set of the 1993 movie, The Fugitive, starring Harrison Ford. In the middle of your ride, you will be able to stretch your legs and peruse the town of Dillsboro, NC. Don’t forget to check out Riverwood Shops for their Appalachian handmade crafts, and have some Carolina BBQ at Haywood Smokehouse.
The Nantahala Gorge Excursion consists of a 4 ½ hour round trip ride from the train depot to Nantahala Gorge. Visitors will be able to explore the gorge during the one-hour layover before hopping back onto the train.
Due to the popularity of these trips, it is highly recommended to book a reservation as soon as possible as weekend dates tend to fill up first. If your travel itinerary is flexible, you may want to consider booking a visit Monday-Wednesday.
45 Mitchell Street, Bryson City
9. Tweetsie Railroad
Maybe a three-hour train ride seems a bit too long for the younger members of the family, but still want to experience a fall foliage train ride. Tweetsie Railroad in Blowing Rock, NC is the ideal destination for beautiful scenery and family fun. Entertaining families for over 60 years, Tweetsie Railroad has the honor of being North Carolina’s first theme park.
From carnival rides to meeting the friendly animals that call Deer Park Zoo home, children of all ages will love to spend the day. Of course, no visit would be complete without taking a train ride on either the “Tweetsie” or the “Yukon Queen”. The rides are 40-45 minutes long with a Wild West-themed train adventure. Your admission ticket to Tweetsie Railroad covers unlimited rides on the Wild West Train Adventure.
300 Tweetsie Railroad Lane Blowing Rock
10. See the Shadow of the Bear near Whiteside Mountain
As the harvest sun sets behind Whiteside Mountain, a bear-like shadow emerges from the canopy for 30 minutes every evening from mid-October to early November.
Catch the “Shadow of the Bear” from Rhodes Big View Overlook on Highway 64 near Cashiers. This natural phenomenon is quite popular, so expect to join several others parked along the highway to catch this unique, shadowy spectacle.
As a bonus, you will be able to enoy plenty of North Carolina fall foliage in the area while waiting for the bear to emerge.
11. Enjoy Great Smoky Mountains National Park on a Horse
Instead of hiking or biking along the beautiful trails of The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, why not participate in a guided horseback ride? Fall rides at the national park are available until late November. The guided rides are approximately 45 minutes in length and the horses go at a walking pace.
Here is a quick snapshot to help you plan your autumn horseback ride. If horseback rides are not available, families can also consider a carriage or wagon ride in the park. These experiences are about 20-30 minutes long on the park trail. Please see the barn’s websites for up-to-date- pricing for guided horseback rides, guided carriage rides, and guided hayrides.
Make your way to Cades Cove barn for a guided horseback ride through the forest trails. Reservations are NOT accepted at this barn, it is on a first come first serve basis. Each tour group has no more than nine riders at a time. You will be matched up with a horse depending on your experience as a rider. The guided tour is about one hour in length.
- Minimum age – 6 years old
- Minimum height – 4 feet
- Maximum weight – 300 pounds
- All riders 15 years of age and younger must wear a helmet (Helmets are free of charge for all riders)
- No cameras or phones allowed on horseback rides
5686 Cades Cove Loop Rd, Townsend
Smokemont Riding Stables
The Smokemont Riding Stables is where you can make a reservation in advance for this unique fall foliage viewing experience. The stable offers three different horse-riding experiences. Please see their website for up-to-date prices:
- The Hourly Ride- 3-mile loop trail where visitors can ford the Oconaluftee River, go through a tunnel, and see mountain views.
- Waterfall Ride- A 2 ½ hour ride has visitors ride to Chasteen Creek Waterfall. You will be able to dismount and explore the creek before heading back to the ranch.
- Four-Hour Ride- Guided horse riding trail on a wooded mountain trail. Able to view beautiful creekside scenery and two cascades.
Important details to help you plan your visit:
- Minimum age – 5 years old
- Maximum weight – 240 pounds
- Horseback riders that are 12 years and younger are required to wear a helmet. Riders aged 13-17 can ride without a helmet with permission from their Parent/Guardian. It is recommended that all riders wear helmets.
- No doubling up with children while riding the horses
135 Smokemont Riding Stables Rd, Cherokee
Spend more time in the park! Here are the 10 best things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
12. Leatherwood Mountains Horseback Riding
The Leatherwood Mountains in Ferguson is a unique destination since this is where you can go horseback riding and see the beautiful fall leaves of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Many families will want to book an overnight stay at this fall vacation destination.
If you have your own horse, you can bring your equine friend and have your own adventure at this horseback riding destination. There are over 75 miles of well-marked trails to explore and a stable to rest at night.
For those who want to participate in a guided horseback ride this autumn, reservations are strongly recommended as this is a popular experience for those with kids. Please review the company’s policies before planning a visit.
- Minimum age – 8 years old
- Maximum weight – 225 pounds
- Helmets are required and provided to each horseback rider
512 Meadow Rd, Ferguson
13. Wander Duke Gardens in Durham
You don’t have to head out of the Research Triangle to enjoy North Carolina fall colors. There is plenty of autumn color to see at Duke Gardens in Durham.
At Sarah P. Duke Gardens, the red footbridge in the Asiatic arboretum harmonizes with the crimson of Japanese maple and the ginkgos turn brilliant shades of gold. There are also several other local deciduous trees which put on a colorful show.
Floral colors at public gardens add beauty to the season. There are a wide variety of mums in all different sizes and colors throughout the Asiatic arboretum. The camelia flowers are also in bloom.
Duke Gardens also hosts special events to help locals learn what to plant in their garden to get enjoy autumn color as well as which perrenials to plant for fall.
14. Carolina BalloonFest and Other Fall Foliage Balloon Rides
Instead of seeing the fall leaves at ground level, why not view the breathtaking views of North Carolina in the fall from the skies?
Asheville Balloon Company
Check out western North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains while riding a hot air balloon. The Asheville Balloon Company has been showing off the beauty of Ashville with its gentle rides. Put your confidence in your ballonists as each of them has over 30 years of experience in navigating the skies. Don’t forget to bring your camera to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!
Each ride lasts between 45 minutes to one hour, depending on the winds. The company requires that passengers be at least six years old, and must have written parental consent to ride. Due to the insurance company’s rules, the Asheville Balloon Company cannot allow pregnant women to ride.
For those who weigh more than 250 lbs, it is recommended to book a private flight. If a group booking a private flight weighs greater than 400 lbs combined, please call the company to verify that there is an available basket that can carry more than 400 lbs.
Meeting Location: Ingles Markets, 1572 Sand Hill Road, Asheville
BIG OH! BALLOONS
Take a flight from Big Oh! Balloons early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Located in Central North Carolina, owners and balloon pilots Charles Page and Kristie Darling have been flying in North Carolina for over 40 years.
Guests can book flights from around 7:30 to 9:30 AM and around 4:45 to 6:45 PM. This is when the winds are the calmest for an enjoyable balloon ride.
During your one-hour flight, you will get to view the Brushy Mountains, Pilot Mountain, the city of Charlotte, and Winston-Salem. The balloons can fly 1,500 feet off the ground, but you can fly higher or lower if you prefer.
For those who want to bring their children on a fall-viewing balloon ride, the company has a 48-inch height minimum. This allows the child to see over the basket without being held. Children must be able to stand for an hour on their own without being carried.
Reservations are conducted over the phone (704-872-7761). Charles and Kristie will be happy to answer any of your questions. Don’t forget to ask about a professional drone videographer who can film your adventure.
Meeting Location: 399 W Page Hager Rd, Cleveland
Did you know that Statesville is considered the Hot Air Balloon Capital of the East?
Don’t miss the Carolina Balloonfest in Statesville. This three-day festival in October occurs right at the peak of North Carolina’s fall foliage. Hot air balloons launch twice a day, early morning and late afternoon. You can book a flight with over 15 different balloon pilots to choose from. Once you have booked your pilot, the pilot will help you schedule your flight.
Do note that admission to the festival and riding a hot air balloon are two separate events. Your admission ticket to the Carolina Balloonfest will only include events such as live entertainment, a wine and beer garden, a kid zone, and a marketplace village. Make sure to grab a spot to watch the Hot Air Balloons lift off.
Festival Location: 260 Hangar Dr, Statesville
15. Beech Mountain
Beech Mountain is a wonderful location for the family to see the changing colors of a North Carolina Fall. It is known as “the highest town in Eastern America”, and the fall colors in this mountain town are ideal for a weekend getaway.
Most Southerners know this area of North Carolina as a skiing destination, but what some travelers don’t realize is that this mountain town is also a great destination in the fall.
Get out on the trails such as the one-mile Upper Pond Creek Trail which follows the creek and is a known habitat for wild turkeys and deer. Lower Pond Creek is also nice and a bit more of a challenge without being too difficult.
The Hi-Lo Adventure Trail offers a few different scenic drives for leaf peeping. Choose from the Tasters Loop, Lakeside Loop, or Mountain to Mountain Loop
Pinnacle Inn Resort is an ideal place to serve as home base as you enjoy autumn. They have a variety of condos that are great for famileis and amenities like a two-story indoor pool and rec center and access to the private Beech Mountain Club where you can play golf or tennis.
16. Uwharrie National Forest
Located in central North Carolina, Uwharrie National Forest is a lovely place to enjoy fall color. While it may not have the dramatic mountain vistas found in the western part of the state, it showcases the more subtle but equally charming colors of rolling hills, hardwood forests, and peaceful lakes.
Morrow Mountain has several overlooks and trails such as the Morrow Mountain Loop Trail and Sugarloaf Mountain Trail which are nice routes to enjoy the splendor of autumn. If you are up for a big adventure, the Uwharrie National Recreation Trail is a 20-mile-long trail traverses the forest.
Paddling on Badin Lake allows you to enjoy the reflection of the autumn colors on the water’s surface. If you would rather just enjoy the colors from your car, try the Uwharrie Scenic Road or the North Carolina Pottery Highway. Both are filled with wonderful scenery.
17. Pisgah National Forest
The Pisgah National Forest is known for its waterfalls and Appalachian spendor. Black Balsam Knob offers panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and valleys and can be reached via the Art Loeb Trail or the Black Balsam Knob Trail. Looking Glass Rock Trail, Graveyard Fields Loop Trail, and Linville Falls Trail are some more hiking trails to enjoy in this forest.
Linville Gorge is often referred to as the “Grand Canyon of the East”. You can hike along the time or head into the gorge and enjoy the scenery.
Looking Glass Falls is located near the town of Brevard and surrounded by hardwood forests that turn vibrant shades of red, orange, and yellow in the fall. Linville Falls, Crabtree Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls are some other waterfalls that make for great focal points for fall foliage photography.
18. US National Whitewater Center
Feel the rush of adenine as you climb your way through the trees in North Carolina. Famous for promoting an active and outdoor lifestyle, families can purchase an all-access pass on the day of their visit to the US National Whitewater Center.
This pass includes whitewater rafting, ziplines, and Obstacle Challenge. The rope challenges will get you up and close to the fall foliage. Before you participate in the rope courses, keep in mind that each participant must be between 45 to 265 lbs. Children five and older may participate in some of the rope courses.
5000 Whitewater Center Parkway, Charlotte
19. Navitat Canopy Adventures
Navitat Canopy Adventures offers not one but three different tours, “Tree Top Tour”, “Mountain Tour”, and “Treetop Express Tour”. For the treetop tour, you will be 80 feet above the ground and will experience 6 ziplines. The Mountain Tour will have guests soaring 350 feet from the ground and going over 60 mph above the fall leaves. Bring your GoPro camera for this zipline adventure.
The Treetop Express Tour was built with young families in mind, and those who are new to the zipline experience. Guests will be able to experience ziplining, rappelling, and exploring the adventure course at 75 feet up in the air. Children who are five years old but are between 35 to 45 lbs will zip tandem with their trained Adventure Guide. This experience is only 90 minutes long and perfect to fit into your fall-themed getaway.
Before you book your adventure, participation requirements include that all guests are five years of age and weigh between 45 and 225 lbs. Pregnant visitors are not allowed to participate in the tree-top adventures.
242 Poverty Branch Rd. Barnardsville
20. Zipquest Waterfall and Treetop Adventure
At Zipquest Waterfall and Treetop Adventures you can choose between traveling via zipline to see Carver’s Falls or zip among the trees on platforms and spiral staircases.
The waterfall zipline tour contained eight tree-to-tree ziplines, three suspension bridges, and three spiral staircases. The zipline tour is a bit shorter than the waterfall tour. This particular tour contains five tree-to-tree ziplines, one suspension bridge, and two spiral staircases. All participants must be eight years old and older, with a weight range between 70 and 250 lbs.
533 Carvers Falls Road Fayetteville