Fall Foliage and Leaf Peeping in the Carolinas

Highway bearing to the left into a tunnel along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Fall leaves of various colors can be seen in the foliage beside the road and a brown sign reads "Rough Ridge Tunnel"
The Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the firs destinations for leaf peeping that most folks think of. It’s winding path through the North Carolina Mountains gives you lots of opportunities to enjoy the leaf change from early in the season to the midpoint. Rough Ridge Tunnel elevation around 4400 Feet. Photo taken 10/14/2001.

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?

Fall foliage along the side of a mountain as seen from an adjacent peak. In the distance more mountains can be seen stretching to the horizon under cloudy skies.
If you’re heading to the mountains to take in the scenery in the fall, set out early and be sure to pack your patience. At time it may seem like everyone else in the Carolinas had the same idea. Photo from near the Green Knob Overlook Taken on 10/14/2021.

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.

Looking up at a mountain in fall. Leaves are turning color with many amber, reds, and oranges can be seen. Further mountain in background is more of a silhouette and mostly cloudy sky.
The changing leaves contrast the evergreens that are intermixed in the forests along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Near Fall Ridge Junction Overlook on 10/14/2021.

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.

Highway to the turning to the left at the base of a large mountain. Multi Colored Fall Foliage runs almost to the top where evergreens grow.
If you head out early enough in the season, you might have a chance to beat the crowds and still enjoy the Fall Foliage. The road to the top of Mount Mitchell just off the Blue Ridge Parkway is a great place to start your leaf peeping journey. Photo from 10/14/2021

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

Looking out over mountain scenery. An evergreen forest in the foreground leading to a slope with multicolored fall foliage. Fog lets through some sunlight to highlight the leaves.
From the Mount Mitchell observation tower, you get a great view of the fall scenery surrounding the evergreen forest at the summit. Photo from 10/14/2021.

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.

Highway leading uphill with multi colored trees on both side.
Although the trees at the summit of Mount Mitchell are mostly evergreen, the drive to the top is lined with color as early as the middle of October. Photo from 10/14/2021.

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.

Evergreen forest in the foreground with multicolored fall foliage in the distance. Looking down at a road cut through the forest.
Looking out from Mount Mitchell on 10/14/2021.

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

gravel road in DuPont Forest leading to a covered bridge in fall. Leaves are all changing to golds yellows and reds with many leaves on the ground to the right of the road.
Hiking down Buck Forest Road in DuPont State Forest is great way to enjoy the fall foiliage. Photo from 10/27/2021

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.

High Falls Waterfall at DuPont Forest in the Fall as seen from the hiking trail - closer to the falls but with multi colored leaves only on the left hand side
Fall makes a great time to visit the waterfalls in DuPont Forest. Photo from 10/27/2021

Hike out to the covered bridge and then onto High Falls and if you’re feeling adventurous trek on to Triple Falls all while enjoying the fall scenery.

Fall leaves in DuPont State Forest with part of triple falls visible and surrounded by multi colored vegetation and trees
Triple Falls surrounded by fall foliage. Photo from 10/27/2021
Smaller water fall atop a larger waterfall with a pool in front of the second fall. Colorful trees flank the waterfall.
A set of stairs lead down to the middle section of Triple Falls where you can get a great view of the waterfall and the surrounding foliage. From 10/27/2021

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.

Looking south from Sassafras Mountain at fall - some lower peaks and lots of trees and leaves changing color.
Sassafras Mountain, the highest point in South Carolina offers and excellent place to enjoy fall leaves. From 10/27/2021

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.

same view as from previous picture but in fall - trails leading to Sassafras Mountain vied from observation tower leaves yellow, red, green
The foothills trail in fall offers a kaleidoscope of colors as seen from Sassafras Mountain. From 10/27/2021

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.

view of landscape from an elevated position over smaller mountains with a lake in the distance.
Looking out over South Carolina from the Sassafras Mountain observation tower. From 10/27/2021

Fall Foliage From the Middle of November and On

wooden boardwalk with black iron fence on each side heading to the Caesars Head lookout just before the overlook at the edge of fthe head. Trees grow on each side with leaves of yellow and orange.
In Fall, even the boardwalk leading to the Caesars Head Lookout offers a hint of the spectacle that awaits. From 11/9/2021

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 rock known as Caesars Head on the right looking out over the South Carolina Piedmont in fall. leaves are all different colors and the sky is bluse
Just before reaching the Overlook at Caesars Head you pass over the wooden deck lookout. The overlook can be really crowded in the fall, but the views from the lookout are just as good. From 11/9/2021

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.

Side profile of Caesars Head overlook. Granite rock formation on the left pushing out over the valley below. Leaves changing color in fall with reds, yellows, and still some green mixed in..
Side view of Caesars Head. From 11/9/2021

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.

Campbell Covered Bridge in Fall - red covered bridge with creek running below and tin roof - trees behind the bridge have their leaves turning - lots of reds some yellow and still some green leaves.
Campbell’s Bridge Park is a great stop along any fall road trip. The fall leaves surrounding the old covered bridge make the whole scene look like something from Norman Rockwell. From 11/9/2021

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.