Autumn is a spectacle no matter where it happens. The northeast has its own dramatic display of fall colors, as does the Midwest, and the Rockies as well. But in the Southeast, particularly in mid- to late October, North Carolina offers hikers and outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds some of the most rewarding mountaintop views in the country. With all 10 of the country’s highest eastern peaks (that is, east of the Mississippi) lying within or near the state’s border, North Carolina and its rolling natural landscape is well suited to leaf-watching, invigorating 6,000-foot-plus climbs, and magnificent panoramas of the Black Mountains. There are plenty of notable summits and overlooks throughout the region, so here are just three to consider for your next fall hiking trip:
Lying about 30 miles northeast of Asheville in western N.C., Mount Mitchell looms as the tallest peak east of the Mississippi at 6,684 feet. The stunning view atop Mount Mitchell can simply be a quick stop along the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway or made into a day hike or overnight camping trip. Just be sure to check the weather regardless of the length of your stay; the summit and surrounding mountaintops are often blanketed in clouds and fog.
As a day hike, the two mile-long Deep Gap Trail, which is accessed from the summit parking lot of Mount Mitchell, connects to the summit of nearby Mount Craig (6,647 feet). As the two largest peaks east of the Mississippi, Mitchell and Craig offer some of the most marvelous fall foliage views in the state. The observation deck at Mount Mitchell provides a fantastic opportunity to drink in the maples, oaks, birches, poplars, and dogwoods scattered throughout the mountain forest, and the exposed, rocky summit allows for wide, unobscured vistas of the valleys below.
As a camping excursion, the Black Mountain campground offers hikers the chance to climb Mitchell from a starting elevation of around 3,000 feet. The remaining 3,000-plus feet are left for hikers to tackle throughout the course of the 5.5-mile Mount Mitchell Trail, allowing plenty of opportunities for trailgoers to pause and enjoy being immersed among the poplars, birches, mountain ashes, and rhododendrons.
Hawksbill Mountain/Linville Gorge
Located in the Pisgah National Forest, Hawksbill Mountain and the Linville Gorge below offer leaf-watchers a stunning view of North Carolina’s fall foliage, the Linville River, and surrounding mountaintops such as Table Rock Mountain. At the summit of Hawskbill, the valley floor lies nearly 2,000 feet below, explaining how the Linville Gorge earned its nickname as “the Grand Canyon of the East.” A popular lookout point at the western edge of the gorge is Wiseman’s view, where a perch overhang provides hikers, photographers, and visitors with a memorable opportunity to capture an enormous swath of the vibrant Appalachian landscape.
Grandfather Mountain is home to the famous “Mile-High Swinging Bridge”—a 220-foot-long suspension bridge that hangs above an 80-foot chasm near the summit of Grandfather Mountain. Views from both sides of the bridge are some of the best in the state for taking in fall colors. Like Mount Mitchell, the summit is easily accessed by car, but the 12-plus miles of trails surrounding Grandfather Mountain are what makes it a must-visit for hikers.
The trail system at Grandfather Mountain contains a variety of exposed rock, wooden ladders, and hand-over-hand climbs that make for a unique and exciting outing. Trail features also include alpine meadows, cave-like escarpments, and climbing chutes. Though the trails may require some experience and an adventurous spirit, the mountain’s northern and western facing slopes offer unparalleled 360-degree views of the Black Mountain Range that are well worth the effort.
Image by Jeff Waraniak