Or you can roam and experience the mountains amid a blaze of colors. Make the smart choice and head out on these four leaf-looking excursions.
The only shame in calling yourself a leaf-looker is if you simply park yourself in the backyard and watch the leaves put on a show.
Start: Bryson City End: Lake Santeetlah Miles: 42 The Route: Stray from U.S. 74 for a loop along N.C. 28 to U.S. 129 in Graham County, where the vibe is cultured, yet rugged. Bordered by Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the drive is enveloped by Nantahala National Forest. Along the way, you can check out local art, stellar views, challenging biking trails, and cast a line at Lake Santeetlah, all in fall’s splendor.
Stop One: Stecoah Artisan Trail
The first stop on this self-drive tour is Mud Leaf Pottery on U.S. 28, about 10 minutes west of Bryson City. The trail flows through its namesake valley and offers opportunities to visit the studios of Graham County potters, glass blowers, and wood turners. Look for the signs on the road designating participants, or pick up a map at Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center (stop three). One of the highlights is Yellow Branch Farm and Pottery where you’ll find hand-thrown stoneware and farmstead cheeses, including the much-loved
basil. www.yellowbranch.com; www.stecoahvalleycenter.com/artisans.html
Stop Two: Tsali Recreation Area
Rated one of the top 10 places to ride in the United States, Tsali is a mecca for mountain bikers and holds 39 miles of trails that also welcome horses. The four challenging loops wind through rugged landscapes made even more scenic by Mother Nature in fall. The 11-mile Right Loop offers connector trails to shorten the trek, while the 11.9 mile Left Loop includes creek crossings. Both routes and the Mouse Branch Loop (9 miles), which follows old logging roads, trace peninsulas for great views of Fontana Lake. Expect wildlife sightings. If you’re exhausted after the ride, pick a campsite next to the trailhead. You can’t beat hot showers, bathrooms, and a place to sleep for $15 a night. www.main.nc.us/graham/hiking/tsali.html
Stop Three: Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center
Housed in a 1926 stone schoolhouse in the community of Stecoah, the center strives to preserve Appalachian culture. A gallery showcases the works of more than 100 local artisans. You’ll find everything from hand-knit scarves to original oil paintings. Plan your trip accordingly and you can catch a class in a traditional Appalachian art forms such as wool rug braiding and farm basketmaking. Stop by for the Harvest Festival and Antique Tractor show October 14-16. Balsam Range plays Saturday night. www.stecoahvalleycenter.com
Stop Four: Fontana Dam and Shuckstack Fire Tower
Stretching 2,365 feet across the Little Tennessee River, 480-foot Fontana Dam is the largest dam east of the Mississippi. Glistening Fontana Lake boasts 240 miles of nearly undeveloped shoreline, which makes it a pristine spot for canoeing, kayaking, and fishing. Many say it’s one of the top smallmouth bass fishing lakes in the country. To set out for a challenging hike, park at the dam and walk 3.6 miles along the Appalachian Trail to Shuckstack Fire Tower for unsurpassed views of the foliage at an elevation of 4,020 feet. The spur trail to the tower is marked by a T-shaped white blaze.
Stop Five: The Mountview Bistro at Fontana Village Resort
Nestled in Nantahala National Forest, this bistro offers alfresco American cuisine made with local fare. Pair tender steak with a fresh salad topped with housemade croutons. Savor wine in the cool air on the veranda. That’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the distance. After lunch, Fontana Marina will outfit you with a canoe or kayak rental for a paddle on the lake. (Prices start at $25 for two hours.)
Stop Six: Tapoco Lodge
Positioned on 120 acres on the banks of the Cheoah River, this adults-only, all-inclusive retreat provides panache for the adventurous traveler. With fly fishing guides on call and five miles of hiking trails, the lodge’s rustic sophistication is ideal for the outdoor enthusiast who also likes to be pampered. Choose from suites, cabins, and riverfront or mountain view rooms. For a casual lunch, pick a table on the riverside patio at Slickrock Grille. Enjoy kayaking and rafting before returning to the lodge for a superb five-course dinner complemented by an extensive wine list at Jasper’s Restaurant. (Singles from $134) www.tapocolodge.com
Stop Seven: Santeetlah Marina
Thirteen miles south of Tapoco Lodge on U.S. 129, Santeetlah Marina provides essentials such as pontoon rentals, bait, and fishing licenses. The state-record largemouth bass and walleye catches were made here recently, and the lake is brimming with bass, trout, and other native fish. With your catch in the cooler, head back through Robbinsville to Bryson City under a canopy of colorful deciduous trees.
• Head to Fontana Village Resort for Fall Hike Week, October 16-19. Explore Great Smoky Mountains National Park with a guide and discover the spectacle of a full moon rising during a trip to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.www.fontanavillage.com
• The leaves may be fading and falling, but there’s still plenty of beauty to see during Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center’s biannual drive-about of studios and galleries, November 25 & 26, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. www.stecoahvalleycenter.com
What a catch
• Bass, including largemouth, smallmouth, striped, and white, are plentiful at Santeetlah and Fontana lakes. These terrific fighters are prized by sport fisherman and will often become airborne. Both lakes also boast walleye, trout, bream, and crappie. www.fishingnotes.com
— Lockie Hunter
Start: Brevard End: Franklin Miles: 57 The Route: Drive this stretch of U.S. 64 and you’ll cross the Eastern Continental Divide, cruise through some of Western North Carolina’s most remote resort towns, and hit roadside waterfalls and postcard-worthy mountaintops for a well-rounded adventure.
Stop One: Gorges State Park
After rising out of the French Broad River Valley from Brevard and crossing the Continental Divide, detour south on N.C. 281 to Gorges State Park, and hike
Rainbow Falls Trail for 1.5 miles to the
namesake 150-foot cascade. Here, the Horsepasture River drops dramatically
over a sheer granite wall that’s shrouded in vibrant autumn colors.
Stop Two: Whiteside Mountain
Get back on U.S. 64 and head to Cashiers. Grab a grape Nehi, pimento cheese, and crackers at the Cashiers Farmers Market before traveling west to the turn-off for Whiteside Mountain, N.C. 168. Summit this 4,900-foot peak via a two-mile loop inside Nantahala National Forest. Whiteside is known for its 700-foot cliffs and rocky mountaintop with long-range views of Georgia and South Carolina.
Stop Three: Downtown Highlands
Refuel in the outpost of Highlands, a resort town that shrinks from 20,000 summer residents to just a few thousand during the winter. Sample the blue cheese hush puppies at the new Rooftop Terrace at Old Edwards Inn for lunch with a view. If you’ve got the time, take advantage of the world-class spa. Pop into art galleries on Main Street, and grab a cup of freshly roasted coffee at Mountain Fresh. www.oldedwardsinn.com;
Stop Four: Lake Sequoyah
Sequoyah is a shallow, calm lake just west of Highlands. A small waterfall tumbles into a secluded cove on the east end of the lake, and steep slopes and beautiful homes rise from the water’s edge. If you have a boat, there’s a public access ramp on U.S. 64. Otherwise, head to nearby Highlands Canoe Rentals (1536 Franklin Road; (828) 526-3126).
Stop Five: Cullasaja River
Between Highlands and Franklin, the Cullasaja cuts a dramatic gorge packed with waterfalls, giant boulders, and steep cliffs. U.S. 64 takes you through the heart of it all. Drive your car beneath Bridal Veil Falls, then park and take the short walk to Dry Falls, an 80-footer that passes over a cave. Consider casting a line below Bust Your Butt Falls six miles west of Highlands. The Cullasaja is a delayed harvest stream, but receives very little attention. Fall offers some of the best fishing for anglers.
— Graham Averill
Start: Asheville End: Black Mountain Miles: 59 The Route: Head east on U.S. 74 to 64 through bucolic Fairview, past fields of grazing cows. You’ll know you’re closing in on the gorge when the road begins to twist and turn through the fall display. Once there, the outdoor excitement is plentiful in Chimney Rock and Lake Lure.
Stop One: Hickory Nut Gap Meats
Pack a cooler and make a stop at Hickory Nut Gap Meats off Sugar Hollow Road in Fairview. The farm sells grass-fed cuts of meat, pastured pork, poultry, and organic apples, eggs, and pumpkins at this shop, which is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in October. Stick around to wander the corn maze. www.hickorynutgapfarm.com
Stop Two: Bubba O'Leary's General Store and Outfitters
Before you head to Exclamation Point, the highest vantage in Chimney Rock State Park, stop at Bubba O’Leary’s General Store & Outfitters on Main Street in downtown Chimney Rock. Pick up a comfy fleece pullover by Lolë or Merrill, a pair of Prana flannel-lined jeans, and wool socks, because it can get chilly at the top. If you’re staying in the gorge, buy a Classic Games Compendium, which holds hours of distraction for the kids with jacks, yo-yos, marbles, pick-up sticks, and dominoes. The River Walk along the Rocky Broad is nearby. www.bubbaolearys.com
Stop Three: Chimney Rock State Park
The view of Hickory Nut Gorge and Lake Lure from the top of Chimney Rock never fails to thrill, especially when the valley is awash in fall’s fiery palette. You can climb the hundreds of stairs to the top (and skip your workout for the day, guilt-free), or step into a harness for a climb with Fox Mountain Guides, which offers walk-up, beginners trips on Vista Rock just below the Chimney on weekends during the fall. www.chimneyrockpark.com; www.foxmountainguides.com
Stop Four: The Esmeralda Inn
Double back along U.S. 64 to The Esmeralda Inn for lunch. Request a table on the deck, where you’ll have a view of the impressive, landscaped grounds and Chimney Rock’s face. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot a peregrine falcon diving and soaring above. Try the Oregon tuna panini or the Old Faithful BLT with a fried green tomato. www.theesmeralda.com
Stop Five: Lake Lure Marina
Two miles east on U.S. 64, you can set adrift in a canoe from the Lake Lure Marina. Your boat will cut ripples through the amber, burgundy, and gold reflections of the forest. Or board a pontoon and hear the history of this scenic, man-made lake completed in 1927. At the height of fall, “it looks like Picasso lost his mind,” says one captain. Tours leave on the hour. www.lakelure.com
Stop Six: Lawter's Fruit Stand
Keep traveling east and stop around the bend at family-owned Lawter’s Fruit Stand, in business for 67 years, to find a delicious souvenir like raspberry-jalapeno jam, scuppernong cider, Bone Suckin’ Barbecue Sauce, or the best-selling apple butter.
Stop Seven: Arbor Cabins at Lake Lure
After a day outdoors, rest your head at the charming 1926 log abode at Arbor Cabins at Lake Lure. This cheery house features a fireplace, kitchen, private patio, and hot tub. Wake up to rainbow eggs, fresh-baked breads, and other breakfast goodies.
Stop Eight: Canopy Ridge Farm
The newest thrills in the gorge can be
had on Canopy Ridge Farm’s six zip lines. The nearly 1,000-foot Zip Zilla gives leaf-lookers an exhilarating perspective.
Stop Nine: Black Mountain Rag
Rather than going back to Asheville, take N.C. Scenic Highway 9 at its junction in Bat Cave. It’s called the Black Mountain Rag for the twists and turns, and ups and downs that mimic the rhythm of a rag. Once in Black Mountain, grab a pie and pint from Pisgah Brewery on the patio at My Father’s Pizza to celebrate the journey. www.myfatherspizza.com
Mark Your Calendar
• The biannual Lake Lure Arts & Crafts Festival, October 15 & 16, is just another reason to make your way to the gorge in the fall. Artists working in leather, jewelry, pottery, and metal bring their wares to market. www.lakelureartsandcraftsfestivals.com
• Step out for educational events at Chimney Rock State Park this month. Off the Beaten Path is a guided, fall ridge hike on October 15. You’ll learn why the leaves change color and how to identify trees. This hike is moderate to strenuous. And during the Shutterbugs Nature Photography Workshop, October 29 & 30, noted WNC lensman Jeff Miller will impart a wealth of tips on capturing outdoor images.
Plenty of films have been shot in the gorge, including The Last of the Mohicans and Dirty Dancing. But The Esmeralda Inn has a permanent tie to the flick starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. When the inn was rebuilt after a fire, the lobby floor was constructed with wood reclaimed from the gymnasium where the pair shot scenes. So when you cross the lobby, you’re following in Johnny and Baby’s graceful footsteps.
— Rita Larkin
Start: Wilson Creek Wilderness Area End: Edgemont Miles: 43 The Route: Begin and end this fall drive on a spiderweb of isolated gravel roads through a big piece of nowhere—the Wilson Creek Wilderness Area of Pisgah National Forest. The color lasts from mid-October to almost mid-November, thanks to nearly a vertical mile of elevation. Rugged wilderness gives way to the posh oasis of Blowing Rock, before you set out for the next leg of adventure, which completes a loop of the proposed Grandfather National Scenic Area.
Stop One: Wilson Creek Wilderness Area
From N.C. 181, about 13 miles north of Morganton, take Brown Mountain Beach Road north and in five miles, turn left through Wilson Creek Gorge. Stop often for short trails to pristine swimming holes, great trout fishing, and class IV rapids popular with kayakers on this National Wild and Scenic River. Just beyond the gorge, at Wilson Creek Visitor Center, buy a map and peruse photos from the early 1900s logging days when nearby Mortimer and Edgemont were bustling timber towns, before the forests vanished and floods came, putting a halt to the prosperity.
Stop Two: Mortimer and Edgemont
Stop at Betsey’s Ole Time Country Store in Mortimer for a soda (or a stay in owner Bruce Gray’s spotless stucco tepee by a trout pond). The only two pre-flood structures left in town are Betsey’s and a 1933 Civilian Conservation Corps building, now a U.S. Forest Service workshop at Mortimer Campground. If you camp, the expert Thorp’s Creek mountain bike loop starts beyond the last tent site. Drive on to Edgemont by turning left onto N.C. 90. The old train depot here isn’t open, but on weekends, the 1915 landmark Coffey’s General Store is, and holds more logging days memorabilia. Backtrack on N.C. 90, and in 8 miles take Anthony Creek Road to Globe Road through tiny Globe (the rippled region surrounding the town is referred to as “The Globe”). Some of this national forest below Grandfather Mountain is being proposed by conservationists as the Grandfather National Scenic Area.
Stop Three: Canyons and The Rock
Follow winding Globe Road. When steep, dusty gravel ends on Main Street in Blowing Rock, turn right, away from downtown, and head to Canyons for a brew on the porch. You’ll spy Grandfather on the horizon and The Globe far below. Want to really see how high you’ve gotten? Turn right from Canyons and visit The Blowing Rock, a classic roadside attraction a mile away with a breathtaking perspective of where you’ve spent the day. www.canyonsbr.com;
Stop Four: Westglow Resort and Spa
You’re up in first class autumn now, so book a room at Westglow Resort & Spa, just ranked second among Top Destination Spas by Travel & Leisure magazine. Have dinner at Rowland’s in the historic Greek Revival mansion of artist Elliot Daingerfield (1859-1932), and raise a toast to sunset-silhouetted Grandfather Mountain in the west.
The lifestyle of wellness and exercise resonates at the resort. A guide can lead you along Daniel Boone Scout Trail up Grandfather Mountain or on a 26-mile mountain biking excursion along the South Fork of the New River in Todd. But you don’t have to leave the grounds for classes such as Zumba, Pilates, and yoga.
Stop Five: Grandfather's Doorstep
You could cross the parkway’s iconic Linn Cove Viaduct, or you can experience the Grandfather area as it was before the parkway and take U.S. 221 South. The winding stretch known as Old Yonahlossee Road, an 1890s stage coach route, carried folks from Blowing Rock to Linville. Stop by Blue Moon Station to browse for antiques in this 1853 chestnut log cabin. (Compelled to cross the viaduct? From Blue Moon, take Holloway Mountain Road north to the parkway and head south.) Trip the odometer at Blue Moon, and take U.S. 221 past Nose End Rock at 6.3 miles, and pull off in the next open curve. The viaduct is above and to the left. To the right, Grandfather’s Calloway Peak (5,946 feet) sheds the first drops of Wilson, Creek, which gushes below.
Stop Six: The Honey Man
Staying on U.S. 221, pass under the parkway toward the Grandfather Mountain attraction (or go into the park for views from the top and the swinging bridge) and pull left into Floyd Landon Gragg’s roadside stand (about 9.5 miles from Blue Moon). He’s been selling local honey, jams, cider, and crafts here since the 1950s. Ask him to show you his classic 1927 Gibson Granada Flying Eagle banjo. He’s an accomplished mountain musician and sells CDs of his tunes.
Stop Seven: Back Down the Mountain
From U.S. 221 near Grandfather, hop on the parkway south at Milepost 305. Here you can check out the view of Table Rock, Hawksbill, Grandmother, and Grandfather mountains from the short Beacon Heights Trail, or continue on to Lost Cove Cliffs Overlook (Milepost 310). Turn left off the parkway on Old Jonas Ridge Road (N.C. 1518 ) at Milepost 311.2. Keep left on Forest Road 464—Mortimer Road then the Pineola Road—as you dive back onto gravel routes and wildly wooded ridges.
Stop Eight: Hike It
This ride passes some of the state’s best short hikes (all on the left roadside). The Big Lost Cove Cliffs Trail is a 2.6-mile round-trip to great views. Take the one-mile Darkside Cliffs Trail for even better vistas of Grandfather. Hunt Fish Falls is next. The 1.6-mile round-trip is a steep drop to a great waterfall swimming hole. Back at the junction with N.C. 90, go left to return to Coffey’s General Store in Edgemont. Now that you’ve looped the proposed Grandfather National Scenic Area, take your pick of winding roads home—no doubt you’ll want to stop at the first car wash you see to spray off the dust.
— Randy Johnson