12 great leaf peeping destinations in the Carolinas
Fall is the most gorgeous time of the year in the Carolinas, particularly in the higher altitude Upstate South Carolina and Western North Carolina mountainous regions. Leaf peeping in the Carolinas should be number 1 on your bucket list come autumn. By the time October rolls around, the summer heat is long gone, the air is dry and crisp, and conditions are perfect for hiking, alfresco dining, and festivals. Tourist crowds have begun to dwindle down, thus making this the ideal time of the year to check out the charming downtowns of Asheville & Greenville, as well as the beautiful state parks surrounding the region.
As the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains dominate the landscape, you can expect a dazzling array of fall colors each autumn. The medley of colors ablaze over the rolling hills creates a picture-perfect setting for any outdoor activity. Fortunately, the area is loaded with amazing hikes, scenic drives, and waterfalls. With one of the longest fall seasons in the country, you have plenty of time to leaf peep and explore. Below are a few incredible Carolina leaf peeping destinations to add to your fall bucket list.
1. Caesars Head State Park
This beautiful park in Upstate South Carolinas’ Greenville County is one of the most visited in the state. The park’s immense natural beauty, particularly during the colorful autumn season, makes it a popular local and tourist draw. The drive into the park during the leaf peeping season is spectacular enough in and of itself to justify a visit.
Add in an incredible observation area (that sits atop an enormous granite outcropping) offering a bird’s eye view of the Blue Ridge Escarpment and miles of hiking trails, this might just be South Carolina’s nature oasis. The park is home to numerous trails, the most impressive being the 2.2 mile out-and-back trek to 400 foot Raven Cliff Falls. Enjoy the fresh air, a decent workout (this trail is moderately steep), and beautiful foliage until reaching a magnificent vista of the state’s tallest waterfall. Visiting Caesars is the perfect fall day out in the South Carolina mountains.
2. Paris Mountain State Park
This small, yet beautiful state park lies just north of Greenville. The park was named after the city’s iconic geographical feature, a 2000 foot mountain which provides a beautiful backdrop to this charming city. This park is beautiful anytime of the year, and even more importantly, attractively quiet as it is not a top tourist destination. Peaceful hiking trails, a serene lake, relaxing Adirondack chairs, and ample woodsy picnicking space add to the tranquil setting.
During the fall season, you will want to take a quiet walk along one of the hiking trails. Start with an easy scenic lakeside stroll via the Lake Placid Loop and then enjoy a lovely picnic amongst the colorful fall surroundings. Paris Mountain is the perfect fall destination for nature lovers, leaf peepers, and anyone else seeking a nice easy stroll through the wilderness during a beautiful time of the year.
3. Catawba Falls
One of the most stunning waterfall hikes in Western North Carolina (and there are many -over 200 in Transylvania County alone!) is also a top leaf peeping destination. Catawba Falls, a 100 foot tall multi level cascading beauty, is easily accessible via a moderate hike. During the fall, the colorful leaves lining the 1.5 mile out-and-back trail will make the trek feel much shorter and easier as you are bound to be preoccupied with the beauty.
Come autumn, the weather is perfect, the leaves are gorgeous, and the ending waterfall view is out-of-this world, especially when surrounded by gorgeous colorful leaves. Fortunately, this trailhead is one of the closest to Asheville (just 30 min), so a super easy daytrip if you happen to be staying in the area.
4. Falls Park
This lovely waterfall is the centerpiece of beautiful downtown Greenville. In recent years, this charming Main Street has drawn tourists from around the world. The tree-lined downtown district is lined with unique restaurants and shops, with plenty of alfresco dining options to enjoy during the cool fall months.
The natural oasis of this stunning downtown is Falls Park which features beautiful trees and serene walkways around a small, yet powerful waterfall. You will find plenty of places to sit and enjoy the soothing sounds of the waterfall, plus a beautiful bridge walkway. In autumn, the park and waterfall look especially beautiful when surrounded by the colors of the season. After you stroll enjoy brunch at Passerelle, a charming French bistro which overlooks the park.
5. Table Rock State Park
This quiet Upstate park is most known for its’ namesake mountain, 3000 foot Table Rock which serves as a picturesque backdrop for all hikes. Avid hikers come from all over to complete the challenging trek up Table Rock. However, you do not have to get as rugged to enjoy the beauty of this park.
Consider embarking upon the serene and relaxing 2 mile Carrick Creek trail. This heavily forested trail meanders through oak-hickory and hemlock forest and features tranquil views of small creeks and waterfalls. Views are even more enchanting come fall when a burst of color paints the forest. The beautiful scenery and isolated setting makes this park a dream destination for leaf peepers and nature buffs. Bonus – If you are coming from Greenville, the scenery along Hwy 11 is equally incredible.
6. Tom’s Creek
The hidden gem of Western North Carolina is a beautiful undervisited waterfall known as Tom’s Creek. This is quite surprising as the hike to get to this beauty is short and easy, and thus, doable by anyone in basic shape. A hike of just over a half mile leads you to this 60 foot wonder located within the lush Pisgah National Forest. The water cascades in 3 mesmerizing drops, the most impressive the lower near vertical 30 foot drop. The serene setting means you can photograph and enjoy this beauty all to yourself most days.
The beautiful mica embedded in the rocks adds another touch of beauty on sunny days. The mica shines in the sun giving the area a mystical appeal. During the fall, the forest is alive with beautiful colors. If you are lucky you may get to see a glimpse of bright foliage surrounding the falls.
7. Botanical Gardens at Asheville
This small free non-profit garden is a must visit by any first timer visiting Asheville. Take a lovely stroll and enjoy the natural plant life of the Southern Appalachia area. The garden has been in operation for almost 60 years and now houses 600 native plants. A few rare/endangered highlights include Oconee Bells, Swamp Pink, and Broad-leaved Coreopsis.
Autumn is the perfect time to enjoy a cool stroll and take in the pretty foliage. Surprisingly, the garden does not see big crowds this time of year. Take this time to enjoy a much appreciated peaceful nature experience. If ever you need a break from all the hustle and bustle in downtown Asheville, the Botanical Garden is the perfect relaxing escape.
8. Dupont State Forest
This large 10,0000 acre state forest in Western North Carolina is home to many waterfalls and hiking trails. The most popular is the Triple Falls trail which takes you past 3 wonderful waterfalls. The 2 larger falls come in at a whopping 125 feet. You may remember seeing the base featured in The Hunger Games.
You are guaranteed mesmerizing views anytime you visit, although hiking during fall leaf peeping season makes the journey even more awe-inspiring. Vibrant red, orange, and golden hues typically begin popping up in mid-late October. The dazzling medley of colors, the crisp dry cool air and brilliant cloudless blue skies – really this is fall at its’ best.
9. North Carolina Arboretum
The gorgeous North Carolina Arboretum is a must-see on any visit to Asheville. The world-class arboretum features a spectacular bonsai exhibit, over 10 miles of maintained trails, a beautiful quilt garden, and ongoing annual events. The best time to plan your visit is definitely during the beautiful autumn season. Asheville, and really all of Western North Carolina, is known for its’ spectacularly long and colorful fall season. At peak, you will be able to enjoy a colorful hike through the gorgeous Pisgah National Forest.
Begin your adventures on the gorgeous nature trail, featuring interpretative signs to help you identify the diverse range of native plants.
10. Blue Ridge Parkway
The iconic 469 mile drive passes through 29 counties in Virginia and North Carolina. Asheville is a great starting point for any outdoor WNC adventures including the beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway. As expected, the parkway is super popular once autumn rolls around, so much so that you can expect backed up traffic on weekends. Leaf peepers from all over the south are drawn to the region’s splendid beauty.
Color typically begins popping up in mid to late October, earlier in high altitude areas. There are too many fantastic stops along the NC portion of the route to mention them all, although Chimney Rock State Park, Linville Falls, Grandfather Mountain, Graveyard Fields, Rough Ridge, and Craggy Gardens are all must-do list contenders.
A brief video view of peak leaf peeping season along the Parkway (taken early morning on October 20, 2021 from Milepost 408 (Mt. Pisgah) to Milepost 422 (Devil’s Courthouse)).
See the full Blue Ridge Parkway map to plan your adventure.
11. The Omni Park Grove Inn
This beautiful resort is nestled in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. Amazing vistas of the mountains surround every inch of the property. Whether you are dining at the wonderful Blue Ridge Artisanal Buffet, taking a stroll around the grounds, soaking in the spa hot tub, or enjoying a drink on the terrace, you will be surrounded by the beauty of the Blue Ridge mountains.
Even if you do not want to shell out big bucks for a night here, do enjoy a wonderful breakfast at the Blue Ridge buffet. The food is wonderful and the views via the floor-to-ceiling windows are even more mesmerizing. Fall is the best time to plan your visit as the entire area is bursting with bright fall colors. Walk around the grounds, enjoy a cup of coffee outside and admire the beautiful fall scenery. Or, even better, embark upon the resort’s short, but scenic Sunset Trail.
12. Downtown Greenville & Asheville
Both of these charming Main Streets are well worth a visit on any vacation to the region. From foodie restaurants, to boutique shops, to annual events, to museums and cultural attractions, to local coffeehouses, there is something to do for everyone, anytime of the year. Both downtowns are lined with beautiful trees and especially gorgeous during the fall. Falls Park in Greenville is especially picturesque this time of the year.
Both downtowns feature plenty of al fresco dining, so you can enjoy the cool temps, sunshine, and dry air while also enjoying a great meal. Asheville highlights include The Battery Park Champagne Bar, Double D’s Coffee (enjoy a coffee in a unique double decker bus), High Five (great coffee & bagels), Wake Foot Sanctuary (amazing handmade foot baths), Downtown Books, Asheville Pinball Museum, and Mehfils (delicious Indian buffet).
Greenville highlights include the beautiful waterfall at Falls Park, the Greenville Museum of Art, Roost (farm-to-table restaurant with a great outdoor patio), Mast General Shop (outdoor gear plus old-fashioned gifts and candies), Sully’s Steamers (unique steamed bagel sandwiches), Methodical (renowned local roaster), and the Saturday Market (runs May through October).