Fall is a great time to visit the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests in western North Carolina to view leaves adorned in brilliant reds, oranges and yellows. When temperatures cool in autumn, chlorophyll starts to degrade allowing the hidden pigments of deciduous trees to provide a rich, colorful display. This rich display often starts at the highest elevation in late September and early October, gradually progressing to the lowest elevation by late October and early November. Peak season occurs around mid-October.
Fall in the Nantahala National Forest.
At high-elevation, above 4500 feet, red, crimson and orange colors are displayed among the sugar maples and mountain maples, yellow hues are displayed with beech and yellow birch, and red displayed with serviceberry, red oak and high-bush blueberry leaves as well as mountain ash berries. Fall flowering species at these elevations include yellows from skunk goldenrod and roan goldenrod, blues from wavy-leaved aster and eastern agueweed, and white wood aster. Red spruce, Fraser fir and Catawba rhododendron provide a backdrop of green evergreen foliage within many of the high-elevation areas.
Excellent places to view these colors are:
Cherohala Skyway in Graham County;
Wayah Bald and Wine Spring Creek area in Macon County;
Big Butt trail in the Mount Mitchell area of Yancey County; and
Roan Mountain in Mitchell County.
The road to Roan Gardens (from Carvers Gap) will close in early October. People can take in fall color by hiking the Appalachian Trail either direction or walking on the road.
Fall in Cheoah Point, Cheoah Ranger District.
At mid-elevation from 2500-4500 feet, the colors are just as brilliant although the individual species change. Prominent trees include tulip poplar (yellow), black birch (yellow), hickory species (red), sourwood (red), flowering dogwood (red), blackgum (scarlet) and numerous oaks (reds, yellow, scarlet). Evergreen trees such as pitch pine, table mountain pine and white pine as well as the abundant great rhododendron provide a green carpet interspersed with the deciduous trees. Prominent flowering species include many aster and goldenrod species, grass-leaved golden-aster, as well as a few sunflowers.
Excellent places to view these colors at mid-elevations include:
Chunky Gal Mountains from Standing Indian to Shooting Creek along US 64 in Macon and Clay Counties;
Along NC 28 and 143 within Graham County from Fontana Village to Stecoah Gap.
Within the Moses Creek drainage along Forest Service Road (FSR) 4651 in the Roy Taylor forest in Jackson County;
Along US 19E in the Poplar area of Yancey County from the Cane River to Spivey Gap; and
Along Curtis Creek Road (FSR 482) and US 70 in McDowell County, and the Harper Creek area in Avery County.
At the lowest elevation the deciduous colors are more dispersed and include many of the mid-elevation species. One addition is the scarlet of southern red oak and the tans and whites of more numerous flowering grasses such as little bluestem, Indian grass and plume grass.
Trips to view these colors include:
Joe Brown Highway in Cherokee County;
US 64 in eastern Clay County;
US 441 in southern Macon County;
NC 28 in Swain County near Fontana Lake;
US 25-70 in the Hot Springs area; and
Along NC 181 and the other forest roads in the Steeles Creek area in Burke and Caldwell Counties.
Visit nctrails.org to find trails for hiking, biking and more in western North Carolina.
Track the progression of fall’s colorful display in western North Carolina using one of our webcams: