Get Off the Road: See the South’s Fall Color

The best places to watch the seasons change by hike, bike, boat and more

Photo: Courtesy of Great Smokies National Park

The fiery-hued fall foliage that sets Southern mountain ranges ablaze this time of year offers spectacular scenery, no doubt. But why be content just to observe from a car window? This year, throw on a sweater, put the car in park, and head outside to experience the beauty of the South’s changing seasons up-close.

Hike: Mt. Sterling Trail
Mt. Sterling Gap, North Carolina
PEAK: Mid-to-late October

The payoff from this trip to Mt. Sterling’s summit is worth every bit of exertion. At 5.6 miles, the moderate-to-strenuous climb, near the Tennessee-North Carolina border, is the shortest route to the peak, where hikers will find a sixty-foot fire tower that was built in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. If you don’t mind heights (hey, you’re already 5,842 feet above sea level, what’s sixty more?), you can still scramble to the top for some of the most breathtakingly beautiful views in the Smokies.

Brian Stansberry

Bike: Swamp Rabbit Trail
Greenville, South Carolina
PEAK: Late October and early November

The foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains offer plenty of fall color, too. Following the Reedy River for twenty-one miles, this relatively flat trail is easy to tackle on a Saturday afternoon. Start in downtown Greenville—you can rent bicycles at both Reedy Rides and Pedal Chic—and continue to Travelers Rest, where a beer at Swamp Rabbit Brewery (located right on Main Street) is a well-earned reward.

From left: Photos courtesy of Greenville Country Park; Courtesy of Visit Greenville

Boat: Shenandoah Valley Fall Paddle Trips
near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
PEAK: Mid-to-late October

Folks at River & Trail Outfitters have been urging leaf-peepers to get off the road and onto the river for the last thirty years. The experienced company leads one-two-and three-day canoe and kayak trips down stretches of the history-rich Potomac and Shenandoah rivers as well as Antietam Creek. If you’re looking for thrills and chills (the water temperature is in the 50s), they offer fall whitewater trips, too.

Courtesy of Rivers & Trails

Stay: Len Foote Hike Inn
Amicalola Falls State Park, Georgia
PEAK: Late October

Lace up your hiking boots; you’ve got a five-mile trek from the top of Amicalola Falls to your bunk and a hot family-style meal at Len Foote Hike Inn, nestled the Chatahoochee National Forest. The well-marked trail is easy-to-moderate, winding past thickets of mountain laurel and rhododendron and across several creeks. Depending on your party’s pace, the trek takes between two and four hours to complete. Stop for photo-worthy vistas at the mile-four overlook. This time of year, most of the rooms are booked solid on weekends, but there are plenty of vacancies on weeknights if you need an excuse to play hooky from the office.

Courtesy of Atlanta Trails

Zip: Navitat Canopy Adventures
Barnardsville, North Carolina
PEAK: Mid-to-late October

Experience autumn’s oranges, yellows, and reds from a whole new perspective. Strapped into a harness, you’ll zip by red maples, dogwoods, and mountain ash, while soaring above the Blue Ridge at speeds of up to sixty-five miles per hour. The longest run is 3,600 feet and offers 360-degree views of one of the South’s prettiest landscapes. Nativat is located just twenty minutes north of Asheville with a second outpost at the Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Courtesy of Nativat