driving the winding mountain roads in the fall in jackson county

Follow the Blue Ridge Parkway to Fall in Jackson County

(Photo courtesy James Leithart)

When it comes to enjoying the beauty of fall’s vibrant colors, nothing beats a leisurely road trip through the mountains of Western North Carolina. The crisp, cool air, scenic views and peaceful serenity allow visitors to take in what many say is their favorite time of year. One of the best routes to explore the area’s brilliant autumnal hues is along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Jackson County.

Created in 1936 with the final 7.7-mile stretch completed in 1987, the Blue Ridge Parkway was constructed to link the Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Today, the road covers 469 miles, stretching from Virginia to North Carolina.

More than 40 miles traverse our county, including the highest section of the entire Parkway. As a result, the area attracts leaf lookers each year who come to take in the rich colors of autumn in the mountains.

2018’s rainy summer will bring out warm hazel tones, siennas and golden yellows throughout Jackson County beginning in September. Dr. Beverly Collins, biology professor at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, is predicting peak color around the fourth week of October and expects color to extend through early November.

Unlike portions of the Parkway farther north in the state, the section here is generally much less congested, making it more enjoyable to explore. Plus, because the Parkway speed limit is just 45 mph, with some areas seeing even lower limits, it’s easy to cruise along leisurely while taking in the scenic landscape.

There also are many roadside stops and overlooks that provide additional opportunities to admire the views. We would even recommend packing a picnic and bringing it along to enjoy along with the fall foliage that will surround you! Here are our favorite spots to visit along the Parkway to take in the county’s rich natural beauty:

  • Balsam Gap (Parkway entrance for those staying in Jackson County): Located at Mile 443.1, this overlook takes its name from the many balsam trees in the area. Balsam Gap is an ideal spot for the scenic picnic we mentioned!
  • Richland Balsam Overlook: Located at Mile 431.4, this overlook sits atop the highest point of the Parkway at 6,053 feet above sea level, providing gorgeous views of the mountains. There’s also a hiking trail for those looking to explore a bit farther.
  • Bear Pen Gap: At Mile 427.6, this spot offers visitors the opportunity to get out and enjoy a 2.5-mile round trip hike to Wet Camp Gap, which is a high-elevation grassy area with long-range views.
  • Waterrock Knob Overlook: Located at Mile 451.2, this roadside stop features a visitor information center and comfort station, as well as breathtaking panoramic views of the Great Smoky Mountains. A short walking trail takes visitors to the top of the knob, with plenty of overlooks along the way.

While the Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the best ways to check out nature’s breathtaking fall colors, it’s not the only way to do so. Check out our Leaf-Peeping Roadmap for additional inspiration for a fall road trip to see more gorgeous autumn color.

With so many opportunities to take in the natural beauty of the region, Jackson County is an ideal destination for leaf lookers. The quaint and historic mountain towns of Dillsboro, Sylva, Cashiers and Cherokee are filled with accommodations and dining options for all tastes and budgets – it’s easy to put together a trip that fits your needs. Given fall is a very popular time to visit, we would recommend booking early! To start planning your trip, download your copy of our visitor’s guide today.