The bright leaf colors of yellows, oranges, reds, and purples, even, are spectacular, no doubt, but driving the Blue Ridge Parkway this time of year, when we’re still so lush with greens of various shades and hues, cannot be beat. The crowds are fewer, so cruising along feels more relaxed, making it easier to take in the majesty of the ripe greens just beginning to glisten in patches of bright yellows, gold, orange, deep reds. From the convenient base camp of McDowell County, jump on the Parkway from Highway 221 North at Linville Falls, Highway 226 merging with the Parkway at the Museum of North Carolina Minerals, or by way of Highway 226A, just below Little Switzerland. And enjoy the ride!
Be sure to bookmark this page so you can remain up to date on where to go to find the best color.
Photo of Graveyard Fields - Sept. 2022
Fall Color Report: Week of September 25, 2023
According to our local leaf prognosticator, the Fall Color Guy, the higher elevations, above 3,500' are starting to pop. You'll find some sugar and red maples’ yellows, oranges and reds, and some of the brightest yellows of the fall are the plentiful birch trees.
A best bet for fall color this weekend is at Graveyard Fields. This popular spot along the Blue Ridge Parkway (milepost 418.8) is already in full transition. At an elevation of 5,120 feet, this is one of the first places where you can see a patchwork of colors. Hike the 2.3- mile loop trail to get a close up look at fall wildflowers, and discover a couple of waterfalls along the way. Head out early to get the best parking. Bring something warm as it is much cooler at this higher elevation than it is in McDowell County. You can also visit nearby Waterrock Knob and Black Balsam for stunning views of the surrounding mountains.
Weekend Activities Across The Blue Ridge
While temps are still nice and warm during the day, with just that slightest light breeze, a day trip to Lake James is an excellent way to keep the whole family entertained and I am not talking about screen time, I’m talking OUTSIDE time.
Lake James is the largest reservoir in the WNC mountains, straddling the borders of Burke and McDowell Counties. It’s also considered one of the “most pristine” lakes in the Southeast because of its watershed. There’s lake access via Lake James State Park during park hours and by Canal Bridge which is accessible 24 hrs. Swimming at the beach requires a small entry fee, and boating and fishing are free. For dirtbound adventure, take advantage of the free parking in Lake James State Park and hike or bike the multiple trails. NCparks.gov is where you can book Park camping reservations and see updates on trail status.
Speaking of biking trails, check out the 7.2-mile out-and-back Kitsuma trail starting at the Old Fort Picnic Area in Old Fort. Here’s a morning or afternoon of making memories and potentially terrific photos of the wildlife and lush forest surroundings. There’s great trail information about this one on alltrails.com, so be sure to check it out for prepared biking. Safety First!
Another great idea for an afternoon of learning new and strange things is exploring the subterranean world of Linville Caverns! Led by courteous and experienced guides, these 40 minute tours run throughout the day, about every 15 minutes, first come, during operating hours (closed Tues & Wed). But do your online research ahead of time because there is no internet access under Humpback Mountain! Also, make sure your phone is charged so you can capture all the photos your phone will hold!
While in the Linville area, you’d be cheating yourself to not also stop in the Linville Falls Visitor Center at Milepost 316.4, where you can park and access your choice of moderate or fairly challenging hiking trails to the three-tiered Linville Falls over the Linville Gorge, known as the “Grand Canyon of the Southern Appalachians”. This is possibly the most famous waterfall in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and you are sure to see the start of the season’s rich color changes during this adventure.
Expert Predictions for Fall Foliage in 2023
Every year, scientists, meteorologists, and travel guides do their best to predict when the leaves will begin to fade from green to the yellows, oranges, and reds that set our Blue Ridge Mountains ablaze. Different species of trees turn at varying times, and all are informed by their location, altitude, and the biggest factor of all - the weather.
“Fall Color Guy” Dr. Howard Neufeld, professor of biology at Appalachian State University, has been following and documenting the fall color season in Western North Carolina for 15 years. He said, "If I have to guess now, I’d say we might be 3-5 days late this year, because the long-range NOAA forecast calls for slightly elevated temperatures through November. Otherwise, all other conditions point to a good fall color season."
The Weather Channel is also predicting that leaves will change later than average due to warmer temperatures, specifically the low temperatures that encourage the color change.
Timing Your Trip to See Fall Color in the Blue Ridge Mountains
Due to our extreme variations in elevation and a wide variety of deciduous trees, the mountains of North Carolina experience one of the longest lead color seasons in the world. The Blue Ridge Mountains’ extended color season means that no matter when you plan your visit, you’re sure to spot some brilliant leaves — as long as you know where to look.
The fall color changes begin at the highest elevations in late September, soon after the first calendar days of fall. Look for early color at Grandfather Mountain or at Graveyard Fields on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Linville Falls often boasts bright pops of gold early in the season, so be sure to bring your camera.
Graveyards Fields, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway at Milepost 418.8, is the perfect place to experience the earlier changes. Grab your daypack and follow the 3-mile, round-trip hike to Graveyard Fields. Trek through the beautiful valley punctuated by fields and waterfalls.
Over the following weeks, color will make its way down the mountain slopes into the middle elevations. Early to mid-October is a great time to take a scenic drive along the Parkway, watch the leaves fall beside Crabtree Falls, stop for lunch at Little Switzerland or enjoy the 360-degree view from the summit of Mount Mitchell, the the highest point east of the Mississippi River. The only thing that can make your trip to its peak even better is taking in the view from one of the rocking chairs outside the gift shop. Many of the trees at Mount Mitchell are evergreens, but you can find color along the way to this popular destination.
During the month of October, take a relaxing scenic ride on the famous Blue Ridge Parkway. With numerous lookouts and vantage points along the route, the parkway offers sweeping views across the peaks and valleys of the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains.
Once the lower elevations start to experience the color change around mid to late October, plan a visit to the Pisgah National Forest. Maximize your leaf-peeping from the heart of the forest with more than 19 hiking trails. Mountain bikers, be sure to check out the single-track trail where you’ll fly through the flaming trees. The numerous waterfalls along the hiking and biking trails are spectacular this time of year.
Don’t leave the area without a visit to the awe-inspiring Linville Gorge. Located about 45 minutes outside of Marion and 40 minutes from the quaint little town of Little Switzerland, the gorge offers some of the best fall-color viewing in the area. The plentiful jagged rock formations are nothing short of majestic as they plunge 2,000 feet into the valley below to the Linville River. The blazing yellow, orange, and red trees lining the steep walls define autumn in the NC Blue Ridge Mountains.
By early November, the trees will be showing off along the main streets of Blue Ridge towns. Enjoy the autumn atmosphere as you browse shops, galleries and local restaurants in Old Fort and Marion. And don’t miss the beauty of fall reflected in the cool waters of Lake James.
Book Your Accommodations Early
Be sure to plan ahead for your fall getaway to the Blue Ridge. Old Fort, Marion, Nebo, Little Switzerland, or Linville Falls are the ideal base camp for all of your fall adventures in the mountains! This is one of the more popular times to visit the mountains and accommodations do fill up quickly. Book a place to stay at a local hotel, campground, cabin or vacation rental.