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Colorful Fall Hikes in North Carolina (20+ Beautiful Places to Explore!)

Published by Carl Hedinger. Last Updated on March 16, 2024.

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There are so many things to add to your State trip bucket list, but there should always be a place for the most colorful fall hikes in North Carolina.

You may already have a few road trips planned, and so do we! After years of hiking in North Carolina, we’re happy to help you find some vibrant fall trails. This guide is a compilation of the most colorful fall hikes in NC that we’ve experienced.

Of course, Western North Carolina features prominently, thanks to those gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains, the Blue Ridge Parkway, amazing waterfalls, and more. Fall isn’t reserved for the mountains, though, so we’ve also included some colorful hikes in Central NC, too!

To keep you focused on enjoying those fall colors, we’ve organized this guide into the following sections.

Read More: Fall in North Carolina (Where to See Foliage + Great Fall Events!)

When to Find Fall Colors?

Fall Hikes in North Carolina
Roan Mountain.

In North Carolina, fall colors begin their peak at the end of September in higher elevations (ex. Grandfather Mountain and Mount Mitchell) through most of October in Western NC. Colors will continue in some lower elevation places in Western North Carolina (ex. Chimney Rock) through the beginning of November.

Watauga Online’s area fall color map offers insight from years of tracking the color patterns in Western NC.

Central North Carolina’s fall colors start in mid-to-late October (ex. Hanging Rock State Park) and will last through November in the lowest elevations (ex. Eno River State Park).

When discussing these fall hikes, we’ll include the following estimates for when the fall colors will start.

  • Late September (Last Week into October)
  • Early October (First Full Week)
  • Early-to-Mid October (Second Week)
  • Mid-October (Third Week)
  • Mid-to-Late October (Fourth Week)
  • Late October to Early November (Last Week into November)
  • November (First and Second Week of November)

For each of these fall hikes, we’ve added one of the following estimated times when the fall colors start.

Read More: The North Carolina Travel Map (with 1000+ Great Places Included!)

Pre-Hiking Reminders

In order to best experience these hiking trails, we recommend that you arrive early. Here are a few more important reminders before you head out:

  • Be Patient: A variety of factors (including rain, extreme temperatures, severe weather, etc.) could impact hiking conditions and area roads. Drive safe, bring proper clothing and footwear, and take your time while en route to these trails and fall colors.
  • More Safety: We’ll occasionally add an extra note of caution but will remind you here that safety is your responsibility when enjoying these hikes. If you’re bringing a dog along for your hike, many parks warn that they must be kept on a leash.
  • Leave No Trace Reminder: While visiting the best of our fall hikes in North Carolina, we ask you to PLEASE leave no trace. Pack in, pack out, and please do not ever litter in our beloved public spaces.

If you’d like to lend a helping hand, bring a grocery bag of your own and pick up any trash that you see!

Read More: 50+ Great Things to Do With Kids in Asheville (and Nearby!)

Fall Hikes in Western North Carolina

Since it’s important to time your hike, we’ve also included an educated guess of when to visit each for peak fall foliage.

Remember that our estimated dates are just that – an estimate. Weather and other factors could cause fall colors to arrive early or late.

Keep reading for all of the hikes in Western North Carolina, or click to navigate directly to a specific area.

Read More: Western North Carolina Map (400+ Wonderful Places Listed)

Chimney Rock State Park

Fall Colors Start: Late October to Early November
Trail Map

Chimney Rock stairs

There are some really cool hiking trails in North Carolina’s Chimney Rock State Park.

  • The Outcropping Trail (0.4-mile loop) will get you to the top of Chimney Rock itself. There is an elevator that will get you there, too.
  • Exclamation Point Trail (0.6-mile loop) is one of the park’s hardest, but it’ll take you to epic autumn views from the edge of Exclamation Point at 2,480 feet.
  • Skyline Trail (1.1 miles) starts from Exclamation Point and will take you even higher to Peregrine Point at 2,640 feet for an even better perspective of the blazing colors below.

These trails are more challenging but provide amazing views of vibrant leaves down into the Hickory Nut Gorge.

If you’d like an easier hike, the Hickory Nut Falls Trail (1.4-mile loop) will take you to the base of the 404-foot namesake waterfall.

Read More: 75+ Fun Day Trips from Asheville (Within a 2-Hour Drive)

Cradle of Forestry

Fall Colors Start: Mid-to-Late October
Trail Map

Fall Hikes in NC Cradle of Forestry near Asheville

The Cradle of Forestry sits off US-276 of the Forest Heritage Scenic Byway, not far from the Blue Ridge Parkway and one of the best fall hikes near Asheville. There’s even a Cradle of Forestry Overlook (Milepost 410) awaiting you if you turn right onto the Parkway toward Mount Pisgah, where you can get panoramic views of fall colors.

This place was the first of its kind in North America to exercise “practical forestry.” When it’s open from April 21 to November, you can visit and explore many hands-on exhibits for all ages and learn about forestry yourself!

There are also trails, a cafe, and a gift shop to enjoy here.

Read More: 75+ Great Hikes Near Asheville (Within a 2-Hour Drive)

DuPont State Recreational Forest

Fall Colors Start: Mid-to-Late October
Trail Map

Fall Hikes in North Carolina DuPont State Forest Triple Falls
Triple Falls.

With over 10,000 acres, there are 80+ miles of hiking trails in North Carolina’s DuPont State Forest that are perfect for the cool fall weather.

We’ve hiked and ridden our bikes through this park to take in the seasonal colors. You can ride a horse on some of the trails, too.

  • A three-waterfall hike (3-mile loop) will take you to Hooker Falls, Triple Falls, and High Falls. You can leave from the Hooker Falls Access or the High Falls Access, but arrive early no matter where you choose.
  • Bridal Veil Falls is a 2.2-mile hike (or bike ride) from the High Falls Access, and Lake Julia (and its spillway) are two nice stops along that gravel path.
  • The Wintergreen Falls Trail is a 3-mile roundtrip hike that leads to a beautiful 20-foot waterfall.

Read More: 50+ Beautiful Waterfalls Near Asheville (Within 2 Hours)

Grandfather Mountain

Fall Colors Start: Early October
Trail Map

The Epic Grandfather Mountain Mile High Swinging Bridge

Grandfather Mountain is a perfect spot for taking in spectacular nature views in early fall. Home to 12 miles of trails managed (for free!) by North Carolina State Parks and another section (about 720 acres), it is protected by the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation.

Some of the most difficult (yet rewarding and visually stunning) hiking trails in North Carolina are found here.

  • The 228-foot-long Mile High Swinging Bridge (Tickets Required) is easily accessible by car and elevator. You can also park below and hike to it (0.7 miles).
  • From the bridge, you can reach the advanced Grandfather Trail (2.4 miles) via the Underwood Trail (0.5 miles). The Grandfather Trail leads to Calloway Peak, which is the highest of Grandfather Mountain’s four summits, where you can take in colorful views of the valleys.
  • The Grandfather Trail also connects with the Profile Trail (3.6 miles), which is another tough hike in the park. It will take you to the Profile View and Foscoe View.

If you hike all the way to the end of the Profile View or decide to start there, treat yourself to a nice meal at the Pedalin’ Pig. It’s one of the best restaurants in the area!

Read More: 20 of the Best Day Trips from Boone (Within a 2-Hour Drive)

Gorges State Park

Fall Colors Start: Mid-October
Trail Map

North Caroina State Parks Rainbow Falls Pisgah National Forest Gorges State Park

Gorges State Park spans 7,709 acres through Transylvania County and is where you’ll leave to access the 150-foot Rainbow Falls (1.5 miles). Start from the Grassy Ridge Parking area in Gorges State Park and follow the orange-blazed trail.

To reach Rainbow Falls, you’ll actually leave Gorges State Park and enter Pisgah National Forest. Along the way, you’ll pass Hidden Falls, which is a nice spot to take a break and enjoy the tranquil water views. There’s no denying it, Gorges State Park is gorgeous!

Read More: 25+ Beautiful Waterfalls Near Brevard (Within 1 Hour)

Graveyard Fields

Fall Colors Start: Late September
Trailhead Info

Graveyard Fields Hike NC Boardwalk

Find peak fall color in early October at Graveyard Fields. This popular trail is one-of-a-kind in that there is not one but two waterfalls at this BRP stop!

The “graveyard” moniker refers to the mound of tree stumps left here after a massive windstorm in the past and the vast empty spaces caused by a devastating fire in 1925.

From the Graveyard Fields parking lot, you can take two hikes that both end with waterfalls.

  • More people opt for the shorter 0.3-mile hike to Lower Falls. It’s one of our favorite kid-friendly waterfalls in NC!
  • The Upper Falls is reachable via a 3.3-mile loop that passes through berry bushes and boardwalks. Whichever hike you choose, you’re guaranteed to pass by beautiful autumn sights!

Read More: NC Blue Ridge Parkway Hikes (30 of the Best Trails!)

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Fall Colors Start: Mid-October
Trail Map

Tom Branch Falls Deep Creek Trail NC
Big Creek Trail.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States, and it straddles the Tennessee and North Carolina border.

America’s favorite national park is especially popular during the fall when the poplars and beeches provide spectacular views of autumn colors. With hundreds of miles to hike on the North Carolina side, it’s hard to choose our favorites, but here we go. 

  • Clingmans Dome Observation Tower is one of the shortest GSMNP hikes but definitely worth it for the autumn views of the Smokies. It’s open year-round, but the road that leads to it closes from December 1 to March 31. Throughout the year, you can reach it via both the Appalachian Trail and the Mountains to Sea Trail.
  • Deep Creek is one of the most incredible fall hikes in North Carolina, just outside downtown Bryson City. This trail will take you by three waterfalls (Tom Branch Falls, Indian Creek Falls, and Juney Whank Falls) along either a 2.4-mile route or a 5-mile version. If you have warmer temperatures when visiting in the fall, you can take advantage of tubing and swimming in the area.
  • Mouse Creek Falls sits on both the North Carolina side of the border, but you’ll need to cross over into Tennessee on I-40 to reach its trailhead. It’s a moderate 2-mile climb (4 miles roundtrip) on the way to the falls, and you’ll pass the beautiful Midnight Hole along the way, where you can take in the fall colors.

Read More: Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in Bryson City (Everything You Need to Know to Have a Great Time!)

Lake James State Park

Fall Colors Start: Middle-to-End of October
Trail Map

Lake James State Park near Marion NC

Sitting at the base of the most rugged terrain in North Carolina, Lake James State Park offers wonderful cool water to mix with the changing fall foliage.

There are also several really awesome opportunities for hiking here!

  • The Paddy’s Creek Trail (1 mile) is a popular hike along the shores of Lake James, where you can get a closer look at the various shades of leaves.
  • For a great look at the lake and the Linville Gorge, check out the Lake Channel Overlook (1.5 miles).

Read More: 20+ Amazing Things to Do in Marion (and McDowell County)

Linville Gorge Wilderness Area

Fall Colors Start: Early October
Trailhead Info

Hiking near Morganton NC Linville Falls

The 12,000-acre Linville Gorge Wilderness Area has some of the best fall hikes in North Carolina. From the deepest gorge in the Eastern US, Linville Gorge, to the 90-foot Linville Falls, there is no shortage of things to see here during peak fall foliage season.

  • Speaking of Linville Falls, there’s a two-mile roundtrip hike that offers three unique views of the waterfall. The Linville Falls Visitor Center has plenty of parking and amenities, such as restrooms, picnic tables, and a gift shop.
  • If you are up for a more difficult hike, The Plunge Trail (1.4 Miles) takes hikers to the base of Linville Falls and is absolutely incredible.
  • Some of the most popular hikes include Hawksbill Mountain (2.2 miles roundtrip), Short Off Mountain (9 miles roundtrip), and Table Rock Mountain (2.2 miles roundtrip) on the East Rim.
  • Away from the Linville Falls Visitor’s Center and up a curvy, sometimes treacherous road is Wiseman’s View. From the parking lot, it’s a short walk (0.2 miles) that’s wheelchair-accessible and home to some of the most beautiful and colorful fall views you’ll find of North Carolina’s mountains.

Read More: 30+ Awesome Things to Do in Morganton and Around Burke County (Hikes, Food, and More!)

Max Patch

Fall Colors Start: Early October
Trail Map

Max Patch NC views

Max Patch Trail is a short and easy hike that leads to a beloved 4,600-foot bald mountain along the famed Appalachian Trail. Beautiful 360-degree panoramas of the surrounding mountains (including Mount Mitchell!) and in Tennessee.

This peak is perfect for a picnic, but it’s especially important to leave no trace at Max Patch. The ecosystem has suffered from overuse and is still in the recovery stages.

Read More: 25+ Great Lakes in North Carolina (+ Our Top 5 Picks)

Moses Cone Memorial Park

Fall Colors Start: Early-to-Mid October
Trail Map

Hikes near Boone

The awesome Moses Cone Memorial Park near Blowing Rock once served as a summer retreat for Moses H. Cone and his wife, Bertha. Flat Top Manor is the park’s main attraction, but there are several hiking trails here to enjoy during the fall season.

  • Bass Lake Trail: This 0.8-mile loop makes for a leisurely walk through nature.
  • Flat Top Mountain Fire Tower Trail: This trail is longer at 5.6 miles roundtrip, but the views of Blowing Rock are so worth it. Starting from Flat Top Manor, this hike starts off in an open mountain field with beautiful views of the valley below. The hike is a steady 5-mile round trip that ends at an observation tower.

Read More: 14 Delicious Blowing Rock Restaurants for High Country Travelers

Mount Mitchell State Park

Fall Colors Start: Early October
Trail Map

Fall Hikes in NC Mount Mitchell State Park

Mount Mitchell is the highest point in Eastern North America, and the state park that manages it sees hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. Views from its peak are unparalleled in autumn, with colors as far as the eye can see.

You can reach the top after enjoying one of the best road trips in North Carolina (Mount Mitchell Scenic Drive).

Of course, there are plenty of awesome fall hikes on North Carolina’s tallest mountain. They range from the shorter Summit Trail (0.15 miles) and Balsam Nature Trail (0.75 miles) to the more difficult Mount Mitchell Trail (6 miles).

Read More: 10 of the Best Black Mountains Hikes near Burnsville (Mount Mitchell, Crabtree Falls, and More!)

Roan Mountain

Fall Colors Start: Early October
Trailhead info

Carvers Gap at Roan Mountain with kids

Taking a scenic drive up to Roan Mountain is one of the best ways to enjoy fall in NC. Hiking this collection of mountaintop balds and rocky outcrops is eaven better.

Our first hike of Roan Mountain was in mid-October during peak leaf season. While I thought that the grassy bald wouldn’t be an ideal location during Fall, I was proven wrong.

Hike east from the Carvers Gap entrance, and after 2-1/2 miles, you’ll reach Grassy Ridge Bald. Along the way, you’ll be treated to some of the most beautiful fall views of North Carolina’s portion of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Read More: 25+ Awesome Things to Do in Burnsville and Yancey County

Rough Ridge Trail

Fall Colors Start: Late September
Trailhead Info

Rough Ridge Trail Fall Hikes in NC

Despite the name, Rough Ridge is one of the loveliest hikes along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

It’s certainly the shining star of the Tanawha Trail, which includes Beacon Heights and Boone Fork Trail (home to Hebron Falls, aka Boone Fork Falls). It is one of the first places in North Carolina where leaves change colors because of the elevation.

You can choose your own route to the top, but the most direct way is to park at milepost 302.8. This route is 1.5 miles roundtrip, but be prepared as the trail changes by more than 480 feet in elevation relatively quickly, so be prepared for a fast steady incline.

Read More: Amazing Hikes near Boone and Blowing Rock (45 of the Best!)

Stone Mountain State Park

Fall Colors Start: Mid-October
Trail map

Stone Mountain Falls Waterfalls in North Carolina

Stone Mountain State Park (near Elkin and Wilkesboro) gets its name from the massive dome that looms so large over folks who see it while walking on the Stone Mountain Loop Trail (4.5 miles). Take in all the fall colors at the base of the dome.

You can also see the 200-foot Stone Mountain Falls on this path, but before that, the restored 19th-century era Hutchinson Homestead awaits. Folks come to climb the actual mountain in the cool fall season, and we’ve spotted rappellers from the homestead before.

For a bonus swimming hole on warm autumn days, check out Widow’s Creek Falls, which is a short drive from the Stone Mountain Loop’s two accesses!

Read More: 25+ Beautiful Waterfalls Near Boone (within 2 Hours)

Wesser Bald Fire Tower

Fall Colors Start: Mid-October
Trailhead Info

Wesser Bald Fire Tower tower view

Wesser Bald Fire Tower is a well-known Appalachian Trail landmark, and if you’re driving from Franklin or Bryson City, the 30-foot-tall decommissioned fire tower is less than an hour away.

From the parking area, you can reach Wesser Bald Fire Tower via a short, steep hike of about 0.7-0.8 miles.

From the former lookout tower’s observation deck, you can enjoy stunning 360-degree views of the Smoky Mountains, the Little Tennessee River Valley, and iconic landmarks like Fontana Lake.

Read More: Wayah Bald Tower (and the BEST Mountain Views in Franklin)

Central North Carolina Fall Hikes

You can enjoy these fall hikes in North Carolina’s center from the middle of October onward into November. Remember, to reference our estimated dates, check our section on when to find fall colors.

Keep reading to learn about all of the central North Carolina fall hikes, or skip ahead to find one near you.

Read More: 50 of the Best Day Trips from Raleigh (Fun Getaways!)

Hanging Rock State Park

Fall Colors Start: Middle-to-End of October|
Trail Map

Hanging Rock Trail Views from the Top

Not far from Winston-Salem and also within a day trip from Greensboro, there are over 20 miles of hiking trails in North Carolina’s Hanging Rock State Park, where you can see spectacular views of autumn colors.

Our favorite trails include:

  • Hanging Rock Trail (1.3 miles)
  • Cook’s Wall (2.2 miles)
  • Moore’s Wall Loop Trail (4.7 miles)

The views from any of the park’s “Five Peaks” are wonderful. We prefer scoping out the colorful scenery from Moore’s Knob (via Moore’s Wall) and Cook’s Wall.

Read More: 50 of the Best Day Trips from Durham

Eno River State Park

Fall Colors Start: Late October
Trail Map

Fall Hikes in NC Eno River State Park

Hiking in North Carolina’s Eno River State Park is one of our favorite FREE outdoor things to do in Durham and such a great autumn escape.

Cox Mountain Trail (3.75 miles roundtrip), Cole Mill (1-mile roundtrip), and Buckquarter Creek (1.5 miles) are a few of our favorite Eno trails.

If the weather is still warm in early fall, you can head to Cox Mountain or Few’s Ford to dip your feet in the river. You can also visit the Eno Quarry to enjoy the peaceful water views and fall foliage.

Note: Be careful and stay safe when heading to Eno Quarry, as the water is 70 feet deep and underwater hazards are very well documented.

Read More: Hiking Near Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill (25 of the Best Trails for All!)

Lake Norman State Park

Fall Colors Start: Late October
Trail Map

Lake Norman State Park water

Lake Norman State Park (near Mooresville and Statesville) protects a portion of NC’s largest artificial lake. You might even see someone famous while riding your boat here in the fall season.

Hiking the 6.2-mile Lake Shore Trail is a must, but many come to Lake Norman State Park to bike the 30-mile Itusi Trail.

In the fall, bikers will be surrounded by fall foliage. Designed and maintained by the Charlotte-based Tar Heel Trailblazers, this is a must for any biker.

Visiting this park and its trails are among our favorite ways to enjoy Lake Norman.

Read More: 25+ Best Day Trips from Charlotte (Within a 90-Minute Drive)

Morrow Mountain State Park

Fall Colors Start: Late October
Trail Map

North Carolina State Parks Morrow Mountain State Park

Morrow Mountain is about an hour outside of Charlotte and another great day trip if you’re staying in the city. Drive to the top for a breezy fall outing, and there are also 15 miles of hiking to make a day of it.

The aptly named Fall Mountain Trail (4 miles) and the Mountain Loop Trail (0.8 miles) are among the most popular to check out the changing of the seasons.

Views of the fall color are spectacular from the huge paved area that serves as the peak.

Read More: 4 National Forests in NC (Things to Do + Why We Love Them!)

Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area

Fall Colors Start: Late October
Trail Map

Eno River Trails Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area

Occoneechee Mountain in Hillsborough (near Chapel Hill) is one of the most overlooked fall hikes in North Carolina. The Overlook Trail (0.1 miles) connects to the Mountain Loop Trail (2.2 miles) and will take you to a nice peak to see fall colors ablaze.

From there, you can see the Eno River below. Also, you can walk down around an old quarry and stare up at the colors surrounding the peak.

This place is special in many ways.

Another reason is the animals and tree species that you’ll see, which are typically found in the mountains.

Read More: 41 North Carolina State Parks Sites and How to Enjoy Them All!

The Most Colorful Fall Hikes in North Carolina (Our Top 5)

We made some tough decisions when picking our favorite fall hikes in NC. Nevertheless, here’s what we think are the best of the best:

  1. Rough Ridge Trail (Bonus for Sunrise)
  2. Hanging Rock State Park (Moore’s Wall)
  3. Max Patch
  4. Linville Falls (Plunge Basin)
  5. DuPont State Forest (High Falls Loop)

We also discussed these fall hikes during this episode of NC Travel Chat.

Ready for these Colorful Fall Hikes in North Carolina?

The fall colors come and go so quickly, but there are so many great fall hikes in North Carolina to enjoy them.

We hope you’re able to enjoy at least a few of these wonderful trails, and when you do, we’d love to hear about your experiences. You can let us know in the comments and don’t forget to share your fun in our North Carolina Travel Facebook Group.

Beyond NC Fall Hikes (More Travel Guides)

We’ve created more NC travel guides beyond these amazing fall hikes. Here are some more ways to enjoy autumn in this wonderful state!

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