5 Best Places to See Fall Colors in North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains

·5 min read

This article originally appeared on My Smokey Mountain

The towns of Waynesville and Maggie Valley, located on the North Carolina side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Haywood County, are the perfect place for a fall vacation. The beech, birch and maple forests in this region turn stunning shades of yellow, orange and red in the fall. Crisp autumn weather is the perfect excuse to get outside, whether you're taking a scenic drive with the windows down, hitting the trails, or just enjoying a beer on one of the many local breweries' patios.

Stay in Waynesville or Maggie Valley, located between Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway, to be perfectly poised for leaf-peeping and outdoor adventure. The towns themselves are also charming in the fall, full of beautiful foliage, autumn events and great food and drinks.

Check out five of our favorite places to enjoy autumn near Waynesville and Maggie Valley, N.C.

When Is the Best Time to See Fall Colors Near Great Smoky Mountains National Park?

While peak colors vary from year to year, mid-October is your best bet at finding great color. Leaves start to change earlier at higher elevations and later in lower elevations, so adjust your plans accordingly when you get to the area depending on where the color is at. From Haywood County, you can access a range of elevations so that you can hopefully find some color, no matter which days in October you visit. Consult this fall color map to help you start planning: biology.appstate.edu/fall-colors/fall-color-map-north-carolina.

Blue Ridge Parkway

One of the east's most quintessential autumn drives, the Blue Ridge Parkway stretches more than 500 miles from the doorstep of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. While the entire parkway is a bit too ambitious for a day trip, you can drive as far as you like before heading back towards Maggie Valley or Waynesville.

Two of our suggested hikes, Waterrock Knob and Graveyard Fields, are located along the southern section of the parkway.

Waterrock Knob

Autumn color views from Waterrock Knob on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina
Autumn color views from Waterrock Knob on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina (Photo: iStock)

Whether you want to soak in the views on a scenic drive, or take a hike in perfect fall weather, Waterrock Knob is a must stop. Head to the Blue Ridge Parkway and drive to milepost 451.2. You'll find a parking area at an overlook with 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains, awash in fall colors. Take some photos and enjoy a picnic at one of several picnic areas or lace up your hiking boots and hit the trail to the knob's summit located at the north end of the parking lot.

This 1.2-mile roundtrip trail climbs 400 feet to Waterrock Knob's summit at 6,292 feet. It starts as paved, but quickly transitions into a dirt hiking trail. Relax on the rock outcroppings near the summit where you can take in incredible views of the foliage-filled valley below.

Graveyard Fields

Brilliant autumn colors surrounding Second Falls in the Graveyard Fields area of Blue Ridge Parkway.
Brilliant autumn colors surrounding Second Falls in the Graveyard Fields area of Blue Ridge Parkway. (Photo: Getty Images)

Get ready for some spooky season vibes on this aptly named trail. While it isn't a real graveyard, the stumps leftover after fire and logging destroyed much of the area look a bit like headstones. Today, the forest has grown back and is a fabulous place to wander amongst fall colors.

Park at milepost 418.8 on the Blueridge Parkway and hike 2.3 miles roundtrip viewing the picturesque Lower and Upper Falls.

Cataloochee Valley

A large bull elk wades across a river during the autumn rut season.
A large bull elk wades across a river during the autumn rut season. (Photo: Getty Images)

Head to the remote Cataloochee Valley area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, accessed off of Hwy. 276 on Cove Creek Road, for picturesque fall views and wildlife watching. In the autumn, many of the park's elk gather here for the "rut," or mating season. During this time of year male elk, known as "bulls," assert their dominance by sparring with each other. You might also hear the bulls bugling to attract females and deter other bulls.

Dawn and dusk are the best time to see elk in the area. Make sure to stay at least 25 yards from elk as they can be aggressive any time of the year, but especially during the rut. Cataloochee Valley is also dotted with historic buildings including homesteads, churches and a schoolhouse which are particularly charming against a backdrop of fall colors.

Looking Glass Falls

Fall colors at Looking Glass Falls in Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina
Fall colors at Looking Glass Falls in Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina (Photo: Getty Images)

What could be more magical than a waterfall named after Alice in Wonderland amidst fall colors? With three viewing platforms located very close to the parking area, this popular waterfall is easily accessible for most people. Located along Hwy. 276 in the Pisgah National Forest, view the 60-foot falls from the roadside platform or descend the stairs to get a different perspective at the middle and lower platforms.

The parking lot often fills up, so get there early in the morning to ensure you get a spot and to hopefully catch some incredible early morning fog amidst the fall color. Continue driving Hwy. 276 to enjoy more beautiful autumn colors.

Learn more at visitncsmokies.com.

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