Fall Foliage and Leaf Peeping in the Carolinas
Fall is a great time in the Carolinas. Temperatures are finally dropping and folks are making their way outside to enjoy some of the activities they may have put off due to the summertime heat. All the while there’s one thing in the back of everyone’s mind…the upcoming leaf change and Fall scenery.
There are two things you need to know to make the most of your trip to see the Autumn leaves. Where’s the best place to enjoy Fall foliage in the Carolinas? And when is the best time for leaf peeping in the Carolinas?
Early Season Leaf Peeping is the Least Crowded
Every Fall local news stations report on the bumper to bumper traffic in leaf peeping hotpots like along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Thousands of people all wanting to enjoy the fall foliage at the same time. So if you want to enjoy the fall scenery without the crowds, what should you do?
First thing is to just accept that whenever you head out leaf peeping, other folks are going to be doing the same thing. Unless you’ve got access to private roads or hiking trails, you’re not going to have the woods to yourself. But with a little planning you’ll be able to enjoy the fall scenery without huge crowds and the stress that can bring.
The first thing you need to do is head out during the middle of the week. Now not everybody can get off work, and that’s why it’s the best time to check out the mountains in the fall. If you’re able to swing it, plan ahead and you won’t be disappointed.
Start your leaf peeping adventure in the higher elevations
Another thing to keep in mind is that peak fall foliage season doesn’t hit at the same time everywhere. So if you can get out early in the season, you can still enjoy the leaf change without the crowds. Where do leaves start changing first? That’s easy. The higher elevations in the mountains will see the fall leaves changing color much sooner than in the lower elevations like in the Piedmont and much much earlier than Coastal Plain.
In the Carolinas and especially the western part of our area, we’ve got no shortage of mountains for early leaf peeping. As the days get shorter and the nightime temperature drops so much lower in the mountains, leaves start their transition to a whirlwind of scarlet, amber, and auburn. Elevation is everything. In mid to late October, you could be seeing just the first hint of crimson in Marion North Carolina (Elevation 1400 feet) while out along the Blue Ridge Parkway as you approach 5000 feet, it’s a whole different world of mountains in the Fall.
Mid October Fall Foliage
The absolute highest you’re going to get in North Carolina, or any point east of the Mississippi is Mt Mitchell at 6,684 feet and just off of the Blue Ridge Parkway. While it’s true that the peak of Mount Mitchell is made up of mostly evergreens like Red Spruce and Fraser Firs, on a clear day you can see for 85 miles all around the summit, so you’ll have the best view in the Carolinas for enjoying the fall foliage below.
Even though the summit is surrounded by a mostly evergreen forest, the drive up is an entirely different story. The 4.6 mile road from the Blue Ridge Parkway near the Ridge Junction Overlook (elevation 5160) to the parking lot is one of the most brilliantly colored roads in the middle of October.
The final stretch to the top has to be taken by foot. It’s just over 300 yards, but the hill is rather steep. If you do brave the walk up to the observation tower, you’ll have the best view in the Carolinas of the fall leaf change. All the way from amber and scarlet at the tops of the surrounding mountains to the still green foliage in the valleys below.
After enjoying the leaf peeping at Mt Mitchell, you can sill enjoy lots of color along the Blue Ridge Parkway nearby. You’ll be around 5000 feet up and still have some great color with maybe just a few more greens.
As you drive along the Parkway towards Asheville you’ll drop down to around 2000 feet elevation, that means the fall foliage is be mostly green with just a hint of color. Peak season is still a few weeks away. But if you keep driving something wonderful happens.
The Blue Ridge Parkway starts to climb again, and in Pisgah National Forest not too far south of Waynesville, you’ll hit the highest pint along the Parkway at Richland Balsam Overlook (6053 Feet) and once again you’ll see just how marvelous the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Fall can be.
Late October Leaf Peeping
If you wait until the end of October/start of November you’ll be able to take in the fall foliage in picturesque DuPont State Recreational Forest (Elevation 3600 Feet). DuPont Forest is a popular hiking and family outing location all year long thanks to its mostly easy hikes and six waterfalls. But as the leaves change in the fall, the forest erupts in a symphony of colors.
Another option for leaf peeping around this time is in South Carolina. Sassafras Mountain (elevation 3554 feet) is the highest peak in South Carolina and one of the first spots in the state where you can enjoy the Fall scenery.
One advantage you have for enjoying the fall leaves at Sassafras Mountain is the almost 360 degree view, so you have a much longer window to catch the beautiful mountain views. If you’re early in the season, you can see the North Carolina Mountains as the leaves there begin to change, or if you’re a little late you can enjoy the South Carolina Mountains and even the Piedmont later in the year.
And it’s not just the views from the mountain that are impressive, but the drive up to the top of the mountain is filled with vibrant colors. And if you take the drive from Caesars Head to Sassafras Mountain you won’t be disappointed.
Fall Foliage From the Middle of November and On
And speaking of Caesars Head (elevation 3,215 Feet), most folks think that the best time to visit is when the leaves are changing at the top of the mountain. But that’s not entirely true.
The drive up to the park is great earlier in the season, that’s true. So if you’re wanting to take a drive and enjoy the fall foliage I say go for it. But just remember from the top of Caesars Head, you’ll mostly be looking out over the Piedmont (elevation less than 1000 feet). So the best view from the overlook comes around the middle of November.
If you’ve made the trip up to Caesars Head a little early, don’t despair. The fall scenery around the park is great, and Sassafras Mountain and DuPont Forest aren’t far away. You’ll even enjoy the drive through the colorful mountain Fall scenery.
As Autumn makes its way into the Piedmont, one of the nicest spots to enjoy the cooler weather and take in a little leaf peeping is Campbell’s Covered Bridge in Greenville County. The red covered bridge and the auburn and scarlet leaves come together to form an image worthy of a Norman Rockwell painting. There’s no better start to Autumn in the Piedmont.
So this fall if you’re up for a little leaf peeping, now you have a little information for planning your excursion. Head out early if you can and plan your trip. I already know where I’m going this fall, and I look forward to updating this page in a few weeks with new pictures and tips.