Beautiful fall foliage along the Rough Ridge hike on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Western North Carolina

There are no shortage of dazzling fall color hikes in Western North Carolina. Every year, thousands of tourists flock to the region to enjoy one of the country’s longest fall seasons. In the beginning of October, the trees in the higher altitude mountain areas begin to transform into a medley of brilliant colors, while the lower altitude areas begin to see foliage in mid-late October. The Blue Ridge Parkway is the perfect place to enjoy the colors of the season, although it can (understandably) get super crowded this time of the year. It’s best to plan an early morning hike, or better yet, visit on a slower weekday. Rough Ridge, a super popular summit overlook hike at Milepost 302.8, is one of the more popular destinations.

Rough Ridge overlook

Great views from the Rough Ridge summit trail along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Western North Carolina

This popular mountain overlook is located about an hour and a half outside of Asheville and about a half hour from the Boone region. The easy access on the Parkway makes it a perfect daytrip from either city. If visiting from Asheville, the drive is a bit long, so it’s recommended to combine this hike with others in the vicinity (Flat Rock, Beacon Heights) to justify the time commitment. Or, you can always add on a side trip to Boone or Blowing Rock.

Besides offering tremendous views of the mountains, the hike is well known for being one of the premier leaf peeping destinations in WNC. Because the colors change early at this high of an elevation, a bit of early leaf peeping can be enjoyed in late September-early October. If you love the fall season, this just gives you more time to enjoy beautiful autumn weather and colors!

The hike to Rough Ridge

Hiking the Rough Ridge trail on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Western North Carolina

The summit of Rough Ridge sits at an elevation of 4773 feet, meaning this area is typically cooler in the summer, sees fall foliage earlier, and is much colder as the winter approaches. Note that portions of the Parkway shut down due to storms, ice or snow (check the website for closures). Rough Ridge is a short section of the lengthy 13+ mile Tanawha trail. While the summit trail clocks in at under a mile each way, it’s fairly steep and you will definitely get in a good workout.

Fall color along the Rough Ridge hike on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Western North Carolina
Fall color on the Rough Ridge trail along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Western North Carolina

The first overlook is located at just under a quarter of a mile. After a moderate hike through the woods and a walk across a boardwalk (built to preserve the fragile ecosystem), mesmerizing mountain vistas await you. From the first overlook, you can see Grandfather Mountain, Table Rock Mountain, and the Lynn Cove viaduct. You can continue on further to several other more dramatic lookouts. The views are not much different and the hike is uphill and a bit challenging – it all depends on how much of a workout you would like to get in. If you do continue on, the total hike is roughly a mile each way, but remember that it is steep and wear good hiking shoes!

The boardwalk along the Rough Ridge trail on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Western North Carolina
Fall color along the Rough Ridge trail along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Western North Carolina
Beautiful leaf peeing along the Rough Ridge trail on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Western North Carolina
The peak of fall along the Rough Ridge trail on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Western North Carolina

The views are truly gorgeous, both when the leaves are green in the spring and summer months, and even moreso when the vivid fall color arrives. Rough Ridge is one of the favorite short hikes on the Parkway, both for locals and tourists. It’s completely free to enjoy – the only thing you have to worry about is finding parking! If you are one who prefers less hassle and less crowds, there are many more peaceful options to consider. For more solitude, consider hiking the Richard Balsam summit trail or Devil’s Courthouse.

Location & Parking details

The shortest access to the summit is via the Rough Ridge overlook at MP 302.8. Dozens of cars pack both the lot and road, making this one hard to miss. It’s best to visit very early and on a weekday. The trail begins right at the parking lot. At the first sign, you will want to turn left and follow the Tawanaha trail. Keep making your way through the lovely forest until you reach the first observing area. Make it a quick out-and-back hike or continue on up to the summit for a more dramatic view.

What to do nearby

Beacon Heights trail – This easy trail is located just 5 minutes away from Rough Ridge, making it a great add on choice, esp if you are coming from Asheville and looking for more to do. The hike is short at just 0.3 miles out-and-back, yet offers mesmerizing views of the mountains. As a bonus, it sees a lot less traffic than Rough Ridge. Another beautiful fall color destination! MP 305.2

Flat Rock trail – This short loop trail (under a mile) takes you to an overlook with enchanting views of the mountainous area including nearby Grandfather Mountain. This hike sees little traffic, and thus, is a great alternative if parking is full for Rough Ridge. MP 308.3

Grandfather Mountain – This state park is one of the more popular tourist attractions in North Carolina. The mountain sits at an altitude of 5946 feet, making it the highest peak on the Eastern escarpment of the beautiful blue Ridge mountains. The highlight of the park is the Mile High Swinging Bridge which offers 360 degree views of the mountains.

Downtown Blowing Rock – Small, yet quaint downtown is home to a number of boutique shops and cafes.

Beautiful mountain scenery via the Beacon Heights trail along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Western North Carolina
Fall foliage along the Flat Rock trail on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Western North Carolina
The Mile High Swinging Bridge at Grandfather Mountain in Western North Carolina
Blowing Rock, North Carolina downtown