Cashiers NC Liz Alonso

Top Fall Hikes in the Smokies

As the leaves change colors and the crisp fall air approaches, the best time to hike is upon us. To help you take on the trails this fall, we’ve created a list of the best fall hikes in the Smokies. 2020 has been difficult for all of us and a fall getaway to the NC Mountains is just what you need to escape and hit the rest button.

Biologists predict a bright and vivid leaf season due to this year’s rainfall and a recent cold snap. Our leaf season spans five weeks from October – Early November, making it one of the longest in the country. Below, you’ll find a list of our favorite hikes in order of when the leaves change first.

With such a bright and vivid fall on the horizon, we recommend visiting during midweek. Midweek travelers enjoy the trails, roads, restaurants all to themselves and the most affordable room rates.

Foliage Favorites

Worth the Climb – Waterrock Knob

 Peak Leaf Color: October 1 – 14

Located on the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 451.2, this regional attraction is roughly a 40-minute drive from downtown Sylva via the Balsam Gap Parkway Entrance. Not only is the hike itself stunning, the scenic drive to the overlook is dotted with golden and lovely amber hues. Once you make it to the overlook, you’re greeted with panoramic views of the surrounding mountains, convenient facilities, and ample parking. The trail requires a short but steep vertical climb to the summit, ascending over 400 feet in only .6 mile. Once you reach the top, you’ll witness stunning views of the autumnal hues below. If you get up before the sunrise, Waterrock Knob sunrises never disappoint and you’ll typically find yourself above the clouds, blanketing the valleys below. If you’re not quite a morning person, make sure to stick around for a stunning sunset to the west. 


7-Mile Roundtrip Hike; Priceless Views – Pinnacle Park

Peak Leaf Color: October 8 – 14

Sylva’s Pinnacle Park offers nearly 1,400 acres of serene natural beauty. Known as one of the largest parks in a small town, Pinnacle’s “West Fork Trail” is a 3.5-mile one-way trek, ascending over 3,000 feet. This hike is not for beginners and is considered intermediate to advanced. This hike is best experienced in the fall as the leaves change and begin making their descent on the trail.

The crisp, clean, and cool mountain air makes the heart-pumping climb more enjoyable, and the views are sprinkled with fall’s golden amber hues. At the end of the trail, make sure to take a left into the Rhododendron and Laurel patch, meandering through the path to reach the summit (the Pinnacle). There you will be greeted with the iconic view of Sylva and the surrounding mountains below.

Tip: Make sure to pack a picnic lunch and not go before dark as this hike takes a full day and is dangerous to navigate at night.


Short Walk Great Payoff – Whitewater Falls

Peak Leaf Color: October 22 – 28

If you’re looking for one of the easiest hikes with the best view, then Whitewater Falls is the perfect option. Hop out of the car and stretch your legs on this quarter-mile paved path, to one of the highest waterfalls east of the Rockies (at 411 feet). Along this trail, you’ll witness sweeping views of neighboring South Carolina and Lake Jocassee, leading up to the falls itself. For the best view of the falls, continue right, down the 132 stairs to the viewing platform.

Tip: Make sure to bring $3, as there is a U.S. Forest Service parking fee.


Seasonal Favorite – Whiteside Mountain

Peak Leaf Color: October 22 – 28

Whiteside Mountain is a seasonal favorite for good reason. This two-mile loop trail ascends to the highest vertical cliffs in the eastern United States atop the oldest mountain in the world (at an estimated 360-490 million years old.) There is plenty of room to spread out while at the summit as it traverses a quarter mile along the ridgeline with stunning views beneath. The vistas stretch from Cashiers to South Carolina and seem to roll on endlessly on a clear day. Autumn views of the Highlands-Cashiers plateau are always a treat as the leaves begin to change in the valley below, creating a wonderful Whiteside experience.

Tip: Make sure to bring $3, as there is a U.S. Forest Service parking fee.


Elk Crossing – Oconaluftee River Trail

Peak Leaf Color: October 29 – November 4

Sometimes, a peaceful flat stroll along the river is just what you need. In Cherokee, the Oconaluftee River Trail delivers a flat and gentle 2-mile stroll parallel to the crystal-clear waters flowing from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This trail is a family favorite due to its gentle grade and a portion of paved path for people with wheelchairs. The trailhead can be found at the end of the Mountain Farm Museum, an 18th Century replica of an Appalachian Farmstead that the kids will love! The clear waters reflects the gold and orange leaves along the trail.  Keep your eyes peeled for the thriving elk population that call the Great Smokies home, as they are known to be spotted along this route, even crossing through the water at times.

Tip: Elk are the social distancing champions. Federal law requires people to stay 50 yards away. Take photos from a distance – no chances.


Historically Scenic – Mingus Creek Deeplow Gap Trail

Peak Leaf Color: October 29 – November 4

Mingus Mill, located in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, has been grinding cornmeal for over 150 years! Visitors from all around come to explore the mill and learn the area’s history, but rarely know about the Deeplow Gap Trail located at the end of the parking lot.

The Deeplow Gap Trail is a great 5.8-mile stretch for those who are really looking to have a serious hike! The trail offers a wide canopy of trees, creating a variety of vibrant hues during the fall. Make sure to stop by Mingus Mill after your trek!


Top it All Off

After a full day of hiking, it’s time to grab some dinner! Our charming downtowns are known for their unique non-chain dining establishments. If you’re looking to grab a pint (or two), there’s one more trail that is not to be missed- The Jackson County Ale Trail! In the fall, our breweries offer seasonal flavors that complement the changing leaves and temperatures, such as Innovation Brewing’s Apple Butter Brown or Pumpkin Chai, Balsam Fall’s BB2 Peanut Butter Cream Ale, or Lazy Hiker’s Imperial Pumpkin Ale. Once you’ve ended your outdoor adventure, get a full night’s rest in one of our cozy cabins, vacation rentals, or award-winning hotels. Wake up refreshed and find another trail that you’re ready to tackle! Plan your trip today!

Blog featured photo of Cashiers, NC courtesy of Liz Alonso

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