Blue Ridge Fall Adventures
by Kimberly Button
Fall in the Blue Ridge Mountains is all about getting outside and enjoying nature’s explosion of color. Whether you hike, bike, stroll or drive, there are a variety of ways to enjoy Mother Nature’s stunning show. With elevations exceeding 3,000 feet, a northern boundary along the United States’ most visited national park, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and 70,000 acres inside Pisgah National Forest, McDowell County is the perfect destination to base your adventures. Explore our mountain communities of Marion, Old Fort, Little Switzerland, Lake James, and Linville Falls. From family-friendly soft adventures to expert-level trails that will test your endurance, there is something for everyone in our great outdoors.
Our waterfalls are gorgeous any time of the year, but photographers will especially love visits during the fall when changing leaves add a colorful frame to capturing the beauty of the rushing waters.
- Crabtree Falls Located along the Blue Ridge Parkway at Milepost 339.5 is one of the most popular destinations for waterfall hikes. The 60-foot cascade is the reward for a moderate hike just under 3 miles.
- Linville Falls, located at Milepost 316.3, is another Parkway favorite with three-tiers of rushing water. There are a variety of hikes and viewing spots to see the waterfall which range from easy to strenuous in intensity. If you are looking for a shorter waterfall hike that is easier for the entire family, be sure to visit the four-level Setrock Creek Falls, the long zig-zagging Roaring Fork Falls and Tom’s Creek Falls which are all less strenuous hikes that are 2 miles or less round trip. While Dugger’s Creek Falls is not as large as others in the area and doesn’t have a hike through the woods, it is a very short .03 mile trail that is perfect for visitors who don’t want to walk a far distance.
With more than 200 miles of trails among some of the highest peaks in the Eastern United States, there are plenty of destinations to enjoy, from family-friendly walks to strenuous treks for experienced hikers. Whether you choose to chase a stream, summit a mountain top or find solitude under a forest canopy, these are some of the most popular hikes to add to your bucket list.
- Point Lookout Trail Though the 3.6 mile trail isn’t a quick hike, it is paved and easy to navigate. You will get the chance to see a 19 th -century railroad tunnel, as well as views of Royal Gorge.
- Mount Mitchell While you can drive to the top of the tallest point east of the Mississippi River, hiking to the top is a badge of honor for outdoor enthusiasts. The 360-degree panoramic view among the spruce pines (don’t expect colorful leaves at this elevation) is your reward after the 5 ½ mile hike to an elevation of 6,684 feet.
- Linville Gorge This rugged destination known as the “Grand Canyon of the Eastern U.S.” has strenuous trails that reward experienced hikers with exceptional views.
- Old Fort Gateway Trail System New in 2023, the first portion of this 42-mile trail in Pisgah National Forest is open for hikers, equestrian use and mountain biking.
- Lake James State Park Family friendly trails can be found in the two recreational areas of this state park, including lakeside hikes. The Kids in Parks TRACK Trails adventures program gets children excited about their walk in the woods.
- Joseph McDowell Historical Catawba Greenway An accessible trail along the banks of the Catawba River, the 1.5 mile walkway also has river access for fishing, as well as canoes and kayaks.
Slow down and settle into the scenery when you go fly fishing on one of the many trout fishing streams that are full of wild brook, rainbow, and brown trout. New to fly fishing? Catawba Angler is a fly fishing and light tackle guide service that can bring you to the best spots and teach you the basics of this relaxing sport. The Mountain Gateway Museum lets you check out a rod and reel for the day to enjoy the area’s waterways. Old Fort is designated a state Mountain Heritage Trout Town, which means you can enjoy public fishing access. Other locations perfect for casting are Lake James, the Catawba River and several creeks in the area.
Get deep into the wilderness when you explore the miles of mountain biking trails in the area. Enjoy a challenging ride while surrounded by the forest’s changing colors whizzing by you.
- Point Lookout Trail rises 1,000 feet in elevation over 3.62 paved miles with unique views of a railroad tunnel. Kitsuma Peak and Copper Ridge Trails are rugged and steep, as well as the 26-mile Woods Mountain Trail with a 5-mile descent. Mountain Top Shuttles saves you time and energy with transport to the top of the trailheads and an exciting ride down the mountain.
Scenic Drives for Fall Foliage
One of the best ways that everyone can enjoy as much stunning scenery as possible is taking a scenic drive. There are several routes in the region that will bring you past panoramic vistas and mountain-top views.
- Known as “America’s Favorite Drive,” the Blue Ridge Parkway is a 469-mile roadway that weaves through the Blue Ridge Mountains with plenty of scenic overlooks to stop at along the way. Points of interest are noted by milepost numbers, rather than street names. Many of the most popular waterfalls and trails in the area are found along the Parkway, including Mount Mitchell (Milepost 355.4), the highest point in the Eastern United States and Grandfather Mountain (Milepost 305) with its Mile-High Swinging Bridge. Life is slower along this road, where the speed limit is 45 mps or less and the drive is the destination.
- The Diamondback is a 12-mile driving trail popular with motorcyclists and sports car owners. The 190steep climbing curves along Hwy. 226A are just as breath-taking as the scenery. There are plenty of hairpin curves along this drive but if you are up for the challenge, the adrenaline rush is worth it!
- The Lake James Driving Loop is an 86-mile scenic drive that starts on the Blue Ridge Parkway and winds through Pisgah National Forest while also passing by some of the most popular attractions in the area.
Spend a leisurely afternoon strolling through charming downtown Marion and enjoy the Founders’ Art Walk, an outdoor art display of six murals celebrating McDowell County’s cultural heritage of more than 175 years.
Be sure to visit the McDowell Arts Council Association with a local artisans gift shop and gallery exhibits. Take a photo with the train car at the Historic Marion Depot, constructed in the 1860s and the oldest surviving depot on the western rail line. In addition to a wide variety of locally-owned restaurants, you will also find five stops along the High Spirits Trail, a collection of tasting experiences at breweries, wineries, a meadery and a distillery.
Savor the delicious foods and drinks that are grown and handcrafted in and around our small towns. From the brewers, distillers and vintners along the High Spirits Trail to farms and restaurants that have spanned generations, there are plenty of options to fuel your adventures.
- Orchard at Altapass (Milepost 328.3) This 100-year old historic orchard grows more than 20 varieties of heirloom apples. Wander through the orchards to pick a peck and then get a slice of apple pie and a cold apple cider. Local mountain music is performed on the weekends and there are “heyrides” for the family.
- Mica Town Brewing The first brewery in McDowell County has two locations in Marion and Nebo. In addition to beers, Mica Town produces house-made cider and spirits.
- Copper Creek Distillery Using locally sourced ingredients and heirloom techniques, moonshine is created onsite in small batches. Try the Apple Pie Shine flavor to celebrate the flavors of autumn.
- Switzerland Café A stop along the NC Barbeque Trail with one of the largest wood-fired smokehouses in the state, the Applewood-smoked trout is not to be missed at this café and general store along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
- GoGo’s Start your day off right with one of a dozen cinnamon roll flavors (we suggest the Apple Cinnamon Rolls in the fall) at this Old Fort bakery making handcrafted treats using a family recipe.
- Fonta Flora Brewery Whippoorwill Farm Enjoy a western North Carolina draught beer on this former dairy farm that has acres of pastures surrounded by Lake James State Park.
- South Creek Vineyards and Winery The closest winery to Lake James, enjoy a glass of Bordeaux-style wine from this boutique winery after a day exploring the trails in the state park.
Cool, brisk mornings call for a hot pick-me-up and there is no better place to caffeinate your day than at the area’s locally-owned coffee shops.
- Ingenious Coffee Roasters in downtown Marion offers up a variety of beverages from their specialty coffee bar, including a big list of flavored coffees. Grab a cup to go or take a few minutes to relax and watch the coffee beans being ground and blended in the on-site production facility.
- Get a leisurely start to your day by enjoying an espresso at Little Switzerland Books and Beans while browsing three-stories of books. With more than 30,000 books available, you are sure to find something you love.
- Need to get some work done before starting the day? Catawba Vale Business Hub offers plenty of business-friendly space to work on your laptop while enjoying a cup of North Carolina-roasted coffee.
Mountain Glory Festival
Celebrate life in the mountains during one of the most beautiful times of the year at the Mountain Glory Festival in downtown Marion. More than 100 crafts and food vendors can be found along Main Street, as well as live music, children’s entertainment and a quilt show. This family-friendly event is a true small town celebration.
Check out our latest video on Youtube (below) for inspiration on your next Fall Adventure!