Fall foliage in North Carolina, Great Smoky Mountain National Park Visitor Center

Vibrant Fall Foliage in North Carolina

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If “leaf peeping” vibrant Fall foliage is on your bucket list, be aware that it is on a lot of people’s bucket lists. Tourists will be abundant wherever you choose to go. My best advice? Get an early start each day and visit your “must see” sites before noon. After that, the crowds intensify.

Places to See Fall Foliage in North Carolina

We chose Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina to view the season’s Fall foliage and enjoyed the brilliant yellows, the stunning oranges, and outstanding pops of red along the way.

Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Interesting fact: Great Smoky Mountains National Park does not charge an entrance fee. That is one reason why this is a very popular park.

You might want to make stop at Oconaluftee Visitor Center and visit the Mountain Farm Museum. You might even see elk sparring in the trees by the river. At the very least, you’ll likely see an elk or two in the field next to the visitor center.

In his research, Chris found an app called GyPSy Guide. It was an excellent guided tour throughout the park. Using the wonders of GPS and satellite, the commentary played automatically as we passed a GPS point, sharing behind-the-scene stories, tips, side trips, and driving directions. The guide was excellent; we highly recommend it. 

A few of my favorite photos of Fall Foliage in North Carolina

Mingus Mill

Mingus Mill is just past the visitor center as you enter the National Park. Mingus Mill did not feature a water wheel but worked on water power to grind corn into meal.

North Carolina highlights a number of “Quiet Walkways”. Yep, that’s what the signs call them. The walkways are shore hikes off the roadside but get you right into the heart of the Fall Foliage.

Clingmans Dome

You shouldn’t miss seeing Clingmans Dome (while passing some pretty great scenery along the way) while in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

But make note, the line of traffic getting to the parking lot below the dome was backed up for at least a mile. As we inched toward the parking lot, the clouds descended and covered the dome and the entire mountain. Though we still hiked toward the observation deck, the sky was blanketed in dense clouds. We didn’t get to see too much of anything let alone Fall foliage!

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Cades Cove

We made the choice to visit Cades Cove as suggested by our GyPSy Guide. As we took the turnoff toward the Cove, we were dismayed to see that the traffic on the main road out of Cade’s Cove was miles long (that is miles with an s)! And in the turning off…we were committed.

The Cove is a lush valley surrounded by mountains. As you enter the Cove, you follow a one-way road for eleven miles through the Cove, stopping to visit old homesteads along the way, view wildlife, see beautiful Fall foliage, and stop at a number of churches. 

We made a stop at a Baptist Church with a cemetery in the back. The church was very simple in style. As we walked through the cemetery behind the church, Chris commented to Kristen, our youngest, that this might be a good place for a bear sighting. Referencing the cemetery, she quickly responded, “Nah, this is all expired food.” Have to say this was the best joke of the year! 

As we tried to exit Cades Cove later in the day we drove 2 to 3 mph for miles. There was so much traffic! At least we got a good long look at all of the beautiful Fall foliage in the cove.

Finally, we turned on to the main road! The good news? The huge miles-long back up was gone that we noted earlier in the day.

Blue Ridge Parkway

If you are interested in the scenic route along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, the exit is before you get to the National Park entrance.

As I was taking pictures of the Fall foliage at one of the overlooks, an older gentleman stopped and gave some suggestions for great places to go for some good Fall color in the area. Since we were just driving and enjoying the view, we followed his advice and headed over to the Cataloochee Ski Resort above Maggie’s Village. 

We followed a steep road up the side of the mountain until we topped off at the resort. I got some great Fall foliage shots at the ski resort as well as at the lodge a short way down the hill.

Chris used his All Trails App to find hikes along the Parkway.

Waterrock Knob

We stopped at Waterrock Knob and then set off on a hike on the Waterrock Knob Trail. The hike took off immediately up and up and up. It was a workout. Chris and I hiked first to a lookout, though there wasn’t much to see as the clouds had descended around us. 

From there, he wanted to go “off the beaten path” and find a plane crash he had read about online. I wasn’t thrilled about the muddy conditions nor the slippery roots we had to carefully climb over and around. After about a half an hour of descending into the forest, AND when people said it was just going to get muddier, I told Chris he could go on without me. He kept on going to the crash site and got some cool pictures of the Fall foliage. 

I hiked back to the lookout and was rewarded with the clouds receding and some pretty awesome photographs. This is what puts the “Smoky” in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina! 

Additional Hikes Along the Parkway

Craggy Gardens Hike through a canopy of rhododendron bushes to an overlook. We imagine it would be pretty awesome in the Spring when the flowers are blossoming. 

Crabtree Falls A 1.3 mile hike down to the falls. The trail is riddled with tree roots, so you pretty much have to keep an eye on the path at all times. Combine that with some mud-soaked areas as water trickles down the side of the mountain and you will want to be careful. 

Linville Falls As we arrived here later in the day when we visited, the pathways were quite busy with tourists also checking the Fall foliage along with the waterfalls. We hiked up to a viewing area for the falls, hiked back down to a second overlook, and then down some more to the final viewing area. 

Chris had wanted to stop at the Viaduct and a hanging bridge on our way to Boone, North Carolina but the roadway was literally lined with cars for miles in either direction. 

We continued on to Boone, home of Appalachian (pronounced App-a-latch-en) State College. Boone was a cute little town. You might enjoy exploring Bass Lake just outside of Blowing Rock (close to Boone). 

Final Thoughts on Where to See Vibrant Fall Foliage in North Carolina

When I see a beautiful scene before me, my breath catches. And suddenly my husband knows that he needs to stop so I can take pictures.

I should have been hyperventilating all over the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and along the Blue Ridge Parkway! There was just one scenic, picturesque moment after another.

Fall foliage in North Carolina

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Linda
5 months ago

Love your blog, Jolayne! You provide so much great and practical info. I’m pinning this for the fall…we love in VA, so getting to enjoy the NC foliage would be an easy weekend trip!

Rosie
3 months ago

These places are stunning! I love fall foliage. Adding them to my list. And that app you used was nifty.

Maria
3 months ago

Wow, so beautiful! 😻 I haven’t been to North Carolina but will add it to the list!
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Mikhaela Alyssa Adarve
3 months ago

I wish I could go back in U.S. again. North Carolina has been part of my travel bucket list on what you can experience there. Will definitely add this list for my DIY Travel plan.

Krista
2 months ago

North Carolina seems like the ideal place to go if you love to be surrounded by the beautiful fall colours! I hope to visit the state this fall!

Vanessa Shields
Vanessa Shields
2 months ago

I love going leaf peeping in the fall! Well when I used to live in NY I was fortunate to drive much of the Northeast. I would love to explore North Carolina in the fall especially now that my aunt lives there. Do the vibrant colors usually start earlier or later than the northeast?

Hannah
2 months ago

The fall foliage in North Carolina looks beautiful! I’d love to see it in person! I love your photo of that little church – it looks adorable!

Renee
Renee
2 months ago

All of these places look like a great road trip destination to see the beautiful autumn colours.

Ildiko
2 months ago

I would love to drive to NC in the fall to see the gorgeous colors. The Smoky Mountains look spectacular at that time of the year. Thanks for sharing your hike and viewing tips.

Tiffany Smith
Tiffany Smith
2 months ago

I’ve heard that it can be busy out there. I want to go but I don’t know if I have the patience to wait in that long of a line of cars!

Brianna
2 months ago

North Carolina in the fall is simply the best! I was in Linville Falls last month and thankfully crowd free.

cosette
2 months ago

Such beautfiul pictures of the Fall foliage. Jealous that you got to see the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains NP in the fall. We visited both, but during summer time. It was beautiful, but would love to see it in the fall.

cosette
2 months ago
Reply to  Jolayne

I can only imagine. Your pictures are beautiful. To bad for the traffic jams inside Great Smoky Mountains NP.

Farrah
2 months ago

Ahhh, so pretty! Great Smoky Mountains National Park is definitely on my travel bucket list–I love how pretty all the fall colors are. Those photos are beautiful!

Megan
2 months ago

We are waiting for flights to come down in price because we would LOVE to get the the smokey mountains for the fall colors this year!

Angela
2 months ago

North Carolina is beautiful and you do a great job blogging about it. Kudos. We should collab on some southern USA destinations.

haley
2 months ago

I love this post. I’m moving to the East coast in 2 weeks, and can’t wait to see all the fall foliage for the first time ever!

Farrah
2 months ago

Great Smoky Mountains is definitely on my travel bucket list! The Blue Ridge Parkway is so beautiful too–I’d love to go there someday in the fall! Your photos are absolutely beautiful!

Shelley
2 months ago

NC is absolutely stunning in the fall! I have family in Asheville & love visiting during this time to drive the Blue Ridge… but I have discovered a few new places to check out on my next visit through this blog!

Nancy
2 months ago

Lots of great ideas here! I love Fall! Thanks for the detailed suggestions.

Ashlee Fechino
2 months ago

It has been a dream of ours to visit North Carolina during the fall. We will make it out someday. Thanks for the recommendations. Lovely article. Saving for later!

Carmina
2 months ago

There are so many things to see and visit in the USA that I feel I would need a whole year to travel in this country. I was planning something similar in Canada, but then guess what, COVID19 happened and had to cancel everything. However, I hope to be able to do something like this at some point. I love autumn and how nature transforms around this time of the year.

Destiny
2 months ago

I explored part of the Blue Ridge Parkway last year around fall, but there’s still so much I have yet to see in North Carolina! I didn’t even check out any of the hikes you mentioned yet, so I definitely need to go back

Linda (LD Holland)
2 months ago

We have such great fall colours at home in Canada that I sometimes don’t think of travelling to North Carolina for fall falling. But I really should! Especially since we have not yet been to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The fall looks like the perfect time for a visit. And so many other spots to visit on our stay.

Nina
Nina
2 months ago

Wow and I thought Canada had amazing fall foliage. This is such a stunning collection of NC spots!