Summer is coming to an end and believe it or not, that cool autumn air is right around the corner. Each fall our mountain towns of Cashiers, Cherokee, Dillsboro, and Sylva experience one of the longest leaf seasons in the country spanning from early October to mid-November. Plan your getaway now to enjoy the changing hue of the leaves in addition to the signature events, cool hikes, and seasonal flavors that can’t be found anywhere else.
To make the most out of your vacation, we strongly recommend visiting on weekdays to experience few crowds, little to no wait at your favorite restaurants, and better lodging availability (and prices!). While you’re here, please also be mindful of our beautiful environment and help us to keep our mountains ‘clean and green’ for generations to come. Learn how here.
Cool, crisp air, the crunch of falling leaves, and orange mountaintop views for miles – these are just a few of the things that make hiking during the fall an amazing experience. Jackson County is home to some of the country’s most sought-after trails that you certainly won’t want to miss. From leisurely strolls to an uphill calorie burner, we’ve got several hikes for all ages and abilities.
Waterrock Knob Trail – Located on the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 451.2, Waterrock Knob’s location on the parkway is made even better by the drive up to the trailhead, winding scenically along America’s favorite motor route. The hike can be accessed via the Waterrock Knob Overlook and is a short (1.2-mile roundtrip) but steep hike to the top. The views of the surrounding mountains reveal stunning vistas made even better by the red, orange, and gold hues of the fall trees.
Pinnacle Park – Sylva’s Pinnacle Park is another excellent option for those who want to kick it up a notch. Ascending over 3,000 feet along a 7-mile round trip trek, the views from the top are well worth the hike as you can see sweeping views of Sylva and the Plott Balsam Mountains that surround the town. Make sure to pack food and water and allow plenty of daylight for the hike down. It’s best to start early in the morning so you can enjoy a picnic at the top once the fog burns off.
Panthertown Valley – is home to over 6,300 acres of backcountry trails, campsites, and waterfalls. Due to the elevation, leaves tend to change color between the second and third weeks of October, creating stunning visuals, especially from vantage points like Salt Rock Gap. With numerous trails, we always recommend getting a map, whether at the Highland Hiker in Cashiers or online.
Whitewater Falls – Known as one of the tallest waterfalls east of the Rockies, Whitewater Falls requires only a quarter mile walk along a paved path to the viewing platform. Make sure to bring $3 along, as there is a US Forest Service parking fee at this location.
Remember: Only take photos for memories and take no chances when exploring waterfalls, meaning don’t try to stand at the top or climb in or around waterfalls. Please check our safety page here for more tips.
Whiteside Mountain – This 2-mile loop trail offers sweeping views of the valley below atop the highest vertical cliffs in the eastern United States. The cool air makes the hike to the top that much more enjoyable as you traverse a wide trail across the ridgeline canopied with the changing colors of the trees.
Viewing the colors of autumn can be as easy and enjoyable as a leisurely drive. Weekdays allow for the best opportunity to enjoy views all to yourself.
*Leaf colors depend on various environmental factors, including rainfall, temperature, and storms. Just as Yellowstone can’t guarantee wildlife sightings to visitors, we can’t guarantee leaf colors, but we hope you have an amazing trip. Some years there are more subdued pallets, but we love them all the same. There’s nothing like trekking through the forest mist and reconnecting with nature.
The Blue Ridge Parkway –Known as America’s favorite motor route, the Parkway spans 469 miles from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Cherokee, NC. Accessing the Parkway can be done via Cherokee at the entrance to the Great Smokies or Balsam Gap on US 74 East. More than 70 miles of the Parkway can be driven in Jackson County with less traffic on our stretch spanning south. Make sure to check out these overlooks along the way.
- Devils Courthouse Overlook (Milepost 422.4) – This overlook faces the iconic rock face of the iconic Devil’s Courthouse, complete with a hiking trail to the summit.
- Cowee Mountain Overlook (Milepost 430) – You’ll enjoy total panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. Cowee is a great place to pull up a chair and watch the sunset on a crisp fall night.
- Roy Taylor Forest Overlook (Milepost 433.3) – This overlook offers an “off the beaten path” experience as you likely will enjoy views here all to yourself. The best part is the short walk to the viewing platform hidden behind the trees.
- Waterrock Knob Overlook (Milepost 451.2) – Mentioned earlier for its short but sweet hike, Waterrock Knob also has a stunning overlook with east and west-facing views. Onsite amenities include picnic benches, ample parking, restrooms, and breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Shared with our neighboring state of Tennessee, this national park is one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the temperate world. With several overlooks along the way, the best part is the NC side of the park near Cherokee where wildlife such as elk, black bears, and wild turkeys can commonly be seen in the valley during the fall.
*The GSMNP and BRP issued mask mandates in August for their visitor centers and crowded trails. Please check their websites to know the current regulations before visiting. Visiting mid-week means fewer people on the trail and a better experience all around.
Motorcyclists – will enjoy their two-wheeled adventure off the highway and on the backroads. Our Motorcycle Guide highlights some of the best motoring routes for bikers spanning from the Tail of the Dragon up remote back roads where you can make the most out of every corner. Pick one up from our Visitor Centers or check out the routes here.
Shadow of the Bear
The Shadow of the Bear is a natural phenomenon that only occurs in Cashiers, NC. However, due to its popularity, we can only recommend viewing it on weekdays, as parking is minimal along the roadside that is heavily traveled with vehicles from Cashiers to Highlands. From mid-October – early November on clear days, the sun casts a shadow off Whiteside Mountain into the valley below, creating a bear-shaped shadow – a stunning visual made complete by the orange hues behind. The shadow can be seen as the sun is setting from around 5:30 – 6:30 p.m. along US 64 West at the Rhodes Big View Overlook. Even during the week, we encourage caution while watching, as this area can get crowded, and the road is congested with increased traffic to the site.
Which flavor reigns as the ultimate champion of fall; pumpkin spice or apple? Whichever you prefer, our non-chain coffee shops will be serving up the perfect seasonal beverage for you to enjoy! In Sylva, head to White Moon along Mill Street for something delicious while exploring downtown Sylva’s boutique shops. Other options include the Farmhouse on Main Street or City Lights Café on the corner of E Jackson & Spring Street just up the hill.
Coffee shops aren’t the only ones offering seasonal flavors; our breweries and restaurants also get involved. Innovation Brewing brings out the Apple Butter Brown Ale and the Pumpkin Spice Chai, while other breweries such as Lazy Hiker and Balsam Falls bring back their seasonal brews with limited availability. In Cashiers, Canyon Kitchen uses locally sourced ingredients that rotate seasonally, meaning that the dishes served are unique to the time of year they’re available. Check out our complete list of local restaurants.
With fall coming up quickly, many vacation rentals and hotels are booking fast, so don’t hesitate to snag your lakeside retreat, vacation rental or boutique hotel! We hope you’ll come to experience autumn like never before in Jackson County, and for extra tips on planning your getaway, check out our Trip Planner.
Header Image Courtesy of @joe_shively_photos