Fall leaf photo

“Leaf” It All Behind with an Affordable Road Trip to Jackson County, NC

The signs of Fall are everywhere: bright yellow school buses, football games, just a hint of coolness in the air, and – best of all – slight color changes in the leaves.

The Jackson County, North Carolina area has one of the longest leaf seasons in the U.S., spanning from early October through mid-November. The area gifts almost two months of nature’s spectacular show, so there’s plenty of time to plan your own Great American Road Trip.

Whether you’re traveling on two wheels or four (or more!), taking in the sights and deciding where to stop on your road trip is a big bonus. After all, you can’t do that on a plane. The journey becomes the destination, and it’s all part of the adventure!

Budget conscious? Looking for insiders’ tips? We’ve got you. The charming towns of Cashiers, Cherokee, Dillsboro, Sylva and places in between all have hidden gems that don’t cost a fortune. Here’s your checklist with tips for an affordable Fall adventure in Jackson County, N.C.!

Travel During the Week

Not only is there less traffic on the roads, but most accommodations also offer lower rates for weekday travel. Leaf peeping is incredibly popular on the weekends, so stand apart from the crowd and book a stay Sunday through Thursday.

Take the Roads Less Traveled

Jackson County is nestled between two amazing destinations managed by the National Park Service: Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Both will take you to some of the highest peaks in the region. In fact, the highest point on the Parkway – Richland Balsam Overlook – is in Jackson County – at Mile 431.4, to be exact. Experience 6,047 feet above sea level and take in the view. (Tips: If traveling to the peaks of the Parkway or in GSMNP, bring layers, as there is a noticeable difference in temperature from the lower points. And remember to check the pet policy within the part of GSMNP you are visiting. Dogs should always be leashed.)  GSMNP does not charge an entrance fee, and parking is only $5, making it an affordable stop on your adventure. Learn how to get a parking pass here.

NC 281 Fall Leaf Color

If you’re looking for a road less traveled, consider beautiful N.C. Hwy. 281, a 36-mile, two-lane mountain road that runs north-south through Jackson County, connecting the communities of Tuckasegee and Lake Toxaway. The road meanders through the Nantahala National Forest, passing by wide vistas and several serene lakes – Cedar Cliff, Bear Creek, Wolf Creek and Tanasee Creek. Detour off N.C. Hwy. 281 to Balsam Lake and stretch your legs along Robinson Trail, which loops around the lakeshore. Cell service may be limited, so download the route in advance. Pack a picnic and enjoy Autumn’s glory!

Take In Some History

How often do you get the chance to visit an archaeological site featuring a petroglyph that dates back thousands of years – for free? Judaculla Rock is associated with the Cherokee legend of Tsu’kalu (Judaculla), a slant-eyed giant. Etched with symbols and hieroglyphics, the soapstone boulder dates to 2000 B.C.

Judaculla Rock is in a grassy area off Caney Fork Road, a community of farms with a rushing creek located off N.C. Hwy. 107. It’s an easy stop if you’re heading south to sightsee along N.C. Hwy. 281, and the perfect place to take in postcard-perfect Fall scenery.

Go To Market

Fall is harvesting time and what better way to enjoy the season than to stop by a farmer’s market? You’ll find pumpkins, squash, cornstalks, homemade goods and more at these places:

Cashiers Green Market – Homegrown, hand-picked and handmade goodness awaits each Wednesday from 2 to 5 p.m. at The Village Green Commons. The vendors who set up underneath the pavilion are required to produce within a 125-mile radius of Cashiers, so the items are guaranteed local and fresh. The Green Market takes place each Wednesday from 2 to 5 p.m., April through October.

Cashiers Farmers Market – A Cashiers tradition for decades, this market will take you back to the country stores of yesterday. It’s especially vibrant during Fall! Look for the bins of pumpkins, bright flowers, wooden posts, wide porch – and its two beloved, friendly golden retrievers – at the Cashiers Crossroads (N.C. Hwy. 107 and U.S. 64). Don’t miss the delicious food at On the Side BBQ, located in the same space.

Jackson County Farmer’s Market – This outdoor market happens in downtown Sylva each Saturday morning from 9 a.m. until Noon from April through October. Park off Railroad Avenue and stroll among the displays of locally grown and produced food, handicrafts and artwork.

Bike Along the River

Tuckasegee River Greenway

Autumn’s leaf canopies are especially beautiful along a glistening river. The Tuckasegee River Greenway offers one mile of paved trail running parallel along the riverbank, making it an idyllic spot to stroll, run or bike, under a canopy of shade. Kids will love its bike park, adjacent to a small playground and a viewing deck. The Greenway is also ideal for those with mobility issues and those who use a wheelchair. The greenway is accessed by Old Cullowhee Road, between Sylva and Cullowhee.

Get Stuck in a Rut

Early Fall is breeding season – known as the rut – for the elk who roam the Cherokee area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Between mid-September and late October, the distinct mating call of the male elk, or bulls, echoes across the meadows. In addition to this bugling, you’re likely to hear the clash of antlers as the bulls challenge each other. This excitement takes place near the Oconaluftee Visitors Center.

While you’re there, visit the Mountain Farm Museum, a unique collection of farm buildings from throughout the park that depict how Appalachian families may have lived in the area 100 years ago. Be sure to say hello to the pigs and the horses!

Conveniently, parking tags, which are required for all vehicles parking for longer than 15 minutes, may be purchased at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center.

Autumn Adventure Awaits!

No matter where you venture during your road trip, help preserve Jackson County’s beauty and cleanliness by following the Leave No Trace™ guidelines.  When it comes to booking your lodging, the sooner, the better is the guideline, as Fall is a popular season.  Be sure to plan stops at our amazing and unique restaurants during your journey. Seasonal beauty awaits, so plan your trip to Jackson County today!

Featured photo courtesy of @sikder_amit on Instagram

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