Autumn is here, and soon peak leaf season in the southern Appalachians will have avid leaf-lookers flocking to see some of the most beautifully colored landscape around. The varied terrain and vegetation of the Appalachians is the secret to its unparalleled color display. There are several things to consider when planning your trip: When can you see the best color? Where are the best views? Where are the best accommodations and attractions along the route?
How to Find the Best Color
Peak leaf season, which is when the most vibrant colors can be seen, extends from late September into early November. Of course, there are certain times and even locations to see the best colors. If you hit the right places, you’ll see shades of orange, scarlet and bright gold. After the peak, you’re likely to see pretty, but less vibrant, shades of warm brown and cinnamon.
The first thing to consider is when you’ll be visiting. Leaves will start to change earlier in West Virginia and Virginia, with peaks from late September to mid-October. In mid to late October, you’ll find the fieriest shades in North Carolina and on the Tennessee border. The best place to see color in late October and early November is in northern Georgia. It’s also good to keep in mind that excessive cold and overnight frosts will speed up the process.
No matter which region you happen to be visiting, try different elevations to ensure that you capture the most favorable views. Leaf change begins at higher altitudes and descends. So, wherever you are, be sure to take advantage of the region’s highest peaks and its valleys.
Your best bet to see the most color and the best views in Virginia is in late September to early October. Skyline Drive runs through Shenandoah National Park and features 75 overlooks of Shenandoah Valley, which boasts some of the best color the Southern Region has to offer. Skyland Resort in Luray offers excellent accommodations; you can even find cozy cabins in the area.
The Blue Ridge Parkway
In October, the Blue Ridge Parkway will infuse your leaf-looking adventure with some of the attractions North Carolina is famous for, not to mention the best driving views. There are overlooks along the way to stop for some postcard-worthy snapshots.
Along the northern route, Blowing Rock and Grandfather Mountain are must-sees. As you head down the Parkway, one of the prime local attractions is the Apple Orchard at Altapass, which boasts beautiful scenic views, live local music and homemade apple cider. The orchard is located in Little Switzerland, a historic town well-known for its gem mining opportunities.
Other key points for overlooks are Mount Pisgah and Mount Mitchell, which is the highest peak east of the Mississippi. Mount Mitchell National Park offers a newly updated overlook with a 360° breathtaking view. You’ll also find a nature museum, gift shop and a restaurant with a patio overlook.
The Great Smoky Mountains
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park sits on the North Carolina and Tennessee border and starts at the end of the Blue Ridge Parkway. You’ll be able to catch some amazing views from Soco Gap on the way into the park, just off the Blue Ridge.
There are over 100 species of trees in the Great Smokies, which is the reason for the array of color that draws sightseers every year.
The area is home to popular vacation spots like Maggie Valley and Cherokee in North Carolina and Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg in Tennessee. These locations will likely offer the best accommodations. If you’re visiting the Great Smokies, keep in mind that there are no lodgings within the national park boundaries or along the route, so you’ll want to make arrangements ahead of time, especially in one these prime tourist towns.
If you’re heading out in late October or even early November, northern Georgia is best place to still see autumn shades in full swing. Some of the best routes are the Chattahoochee River Road and the Tallulah River Road. Chattahoochee River Road will take you into Helen, GA, just in time for Oktoberfest, the area’s most celebrated event, which starts at the end of September and runs through early November.
Getting the Most from Your Trip
While both West Virginia and Georgia offer opportunities for scenic drives and hiking opportunities, the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive are the best options for overlooks, mountain peaks and driving views. Peak season lasts for several weeks, so tourist traffic will be staggered. Yet, it’s still wise to make reservations several weeks out if you’re looking to stay in especially popular locations like Little Switzerland or Pigeon Forge. Hitting key areas may take a little planning ahead, but will be well worth the effort when your camera captures the stunning fall foliage of the Southern Appalachians.