Do you feel it? The cool air is beginning to make its descent. The golden sunsets and long shadows are welcoming autumn to our mountains. If you haven’t broken out your flannels, sweaters, and blue jeans yet, the date to do so is swiftly approaching. September 22 brings more than just cooler air and pumpkin spice. In our mountains, the highly anticipated arrival of autumn means that a magnificent color transformation is on its way.
Thanks to the variety of tree species found in our Western North Carolina Mountains, and the wide range of elevations, a myriad of fall colors will begin to wash over our vistas toward the end of September. If you can’t get up and go just yet, you’re in for a treat as Jackson County typically has the longest leaf season in the country giving you ample time to plan your fall adventure. Although fall brings leaf lookers from near and far, we’ve created a guide to help you find “your adventure off the beaten path.” Making Jackson County, NC, your home base for leaf looking, especially during the week, gives you the best lodging rates, no waits, and little traffic to navigate.
No Crowds During the Week
It is true – being in the right place at the right time!
Right Place: Our mountain towns of Cashiers, Cherokee, Dillsboro, and Sylva are in the middle of the most. You’ll have the best access to regional attractions, with lodging prices a quarter of the cost of surrounding cities. Make Jackson County your home base for leaf looking.
Right Time: The best time to visit, especially during the fall, is throughout the week. Weekdays are less crowded, meaning you’ll enjoy no wait at your favorite restaurants or attractions. Although our lodging rates are among the best in the region, during the week you’ll enjoy the best deals giving you more mountains for your money.
Known as America’s Most Celebrated Motor Route, the Blue Ridge Parkway runs 70+ miles through Jackson County’s northwest border, offering sweeping views of the surrounding mountains. Some lesser-known (yet equally awe-inspiring) overlooks include the Roy Taylor Forest Overlook, Bear Pen Gap, Haywood-Jackson Overlook, Yellow Face Overlook, and Woolyback Overlook. Here, you’ll enjoy endless views with more room to spread out.
Jackson County borders the North Carolina entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Starting in Cherokee, this beloved park is known as the Crown Jewel of the Smokies, especially in the fall. Our side of the park is significantly less crowded than our neighbors in Tennessee, meaning you’ll spend less time in traffic and more time enjoying some of the best views in the country. More than just leaves, mid-September – October you’ll find the densest population of elk as they make their descent into the lower elevations. The Oconaluftee Visitor Center field is a prime elk viewing spot. Enjoy a pleasant view of these magnificent creatures with the orange and gold backdrop of the leaves. Pull over in the visitor center parking lot and stretch your legs at the Mountain Farm Museum. The 18th-century farm located on the property replicates a simpler time in the Smokies making it a true family favorite.
Natural Social Distancing
With 494 square miles of natural social distancing, everyone has space to spread out and avoid the crowds. While many hikes and trails are loved by visitors, there are a few that are certainly “off the beaten path,” yet equally rewarding.
The Richland Balsam Trail is located along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Known as “the best smelling” trail on the parkway, it loops 1.5 miles through a spruce-fir forest and elevates to one of the highest points on the Parkway. The best view along the trail is enjoyed at the trailhead, where hikers are greeted with ample parking and an amazing view of the mountains below. Make sure to bring a jacket, as the elevation from this trail keeps it about 10 degrees cooler than in Sylva.
Discover a Jackson County hidden gem; the Wet Camp Gap Trail. This trail offers a short, 30-minute hike each way along a grassy gap on Rich Mountain. With only a 60-foot elevation change, many hikers opt to extend their trek an additional half-mile west to Gage Bald. Although parking is limited, you won’t likely encounter any other hikers, perfect for those who are looking to enjoy an off the beaten path adventure.
Panthertown Valley is known as the Yosemite of the East for its boundless natural beauty. With over 30 miles of multipurpose trails, over a dozen waterfalls, and wide trails, you’ll find plenty of room to spread out and enjoy a crowd-free adventure. Although this trail system is “off the beaten path,” we always recommend you stay on the path and get a map here, or at Highland Hiker in Cashiers. Among the many trails in Panthertown, Schoolhouse Falls is a favorite in the Valley due to its iconic cascade. Depending on how much of a workout you want, there are actually two ways to explore it. From the Cold Mountain Trail Head, it’s a moderate 1.2-mile trek. Along this route, make sure to check out the 45-foot tall Greenland Creek Falls along the Greenland Creek Trail. More active adventures will want to start their adventure at the Salt Rock Gap Trailhead. This makes the hike a little over 2.5-mile (5-mile round trip), with more options to explore the Valley. Along this route, make sure to stop at Salt Rock to witness the grandeur of the Valley below and check out two of Panthertown’s smaller Granny Burrell and Frolictown Falls along the way.
In Sylva, Pinnacle Park’s West Fork Trail is a strenuous yet rewarding 7-mile roundtrip trek. The view from the summit during the fall is second to none, as you can see the surrounding Plot Balsam Mountains displaying golden views surrounding Sylva in the distance. Although relatively popular, the trails are large and allow for ample room to socially distance.
If you’re looking to try your hand at something new, how about taking on a different kind of trail: the Western North Carolina Fly Fishing Trail®! Our outfitters and guides have the expertise to help you reel in the catch of the day. Check out our Map, highlighting 15 prime spots to spread out and enjoy the streams all to yourself.
More Mountains for Your Money
As the leaves change, typically so do regional room rates. We’ve got you covered! With the best-priced lodging in the region, especially during the week, you can enjoy an off the beaten path adventure and more mountains for your money. Download our FREE Visitors Guide to plan your leaf-peeping adventure, as the crisp cool breeze of fall begins to take over. From cozy cabins to boutique hotels, vacation rentals, pet friendly options, and more, we’ve got the perfect lodging option for every lifestyle and budget. Make Jackson County your central hub for regional exploration and enjoy the best of the fall mountains for the best rates.
Header Photo Courtsey of @stephenwenzelphotography