The Best Hikes to Enjoy Vibrant Fall Colors Before Winter

Fall hiking in the southern Appalachians is a rite of passage for many East Coast hikers, offering a mix of explosive colors, crisp leaf-laden breezes, and deep blue, cloudless skies.

With warm daytime temperatures perfect for hiking, and chillier evening breezes that require a light jacket and warm fire, October in Asheville is a perfect time to squeeze in a few hikes and catch the mountainsides aglow in golden, rust, and amber hues before winter settles in.

While the surrounding mountains offer thousands of trails from Pisgah National Forest, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, to Hickory Nut Gorge, Chimney Rock State Park, and Mt. Mitchell State Park, there are a few standout trails for enjoying autumn in the Blue Ridge.

  1. Black Balsam (1-10 Miles, Blue Ridge Parkway Milepost 420): For sweeping, unencumbered panoramic views, climb a short 0.5 mile through fragrant Balsam Fir trees from the Black Balsam parking lot along the 30-mile Art Loeb trail to the 6214-ft. summit — a natural grassy bald. With the ease of access, short hike, and 360 views – paired with the scenic drive up the Blue Ridge Parkway — Black Balsam tops most area hiking lists.

For those looking for more mileage, the trail continues mile after rolling mile along the Art Loeb trail to Tennent Mountain, through the Shining Rock Wilderness, and on to Cold Mountain (just over 9 miles – one way – from the parking lot). A bonus, the short hike to neighboring Sam’s Knob also begins at the Black Balsam parking lot for those looking for a “two-for-one” hike with views.

Great for: Hikers of all ages and abilities.

2. The Purchase (3 Miles, round trip, Exit 20, I-40): Sitting on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center – created by Congress to support ongoing research in the National Parks –atop the aptly named Purchase Knob (donated by author Kathryn McNeil to the Park). Hikers trek up a gravel road that leads to the science learning center, climbing through mountaintop meadow – replete with wildflowers and butterflies in late September/ early October – until reaching the building (complete with picnic tables and public restrooms) at the end.

Hikers starting their trek around sunrise can be treated to an “above the clouds” view of the rolling fog that gives the Great Smoky Mountains their name, and as the fog burns off, a panoramic view that can be enjoyed from a seat in the science learning center’s front yard – a well maintained pasture that looks out on some of the park’s most famous peaks.

Visitors have the option of taking a short side trail to their left on the way back down to visit the Ferguson cabin – the highest elevation historic cabin in the park. The hike up is moderate in elevation gain, but short and not technical.

Great For: Hikers of all ages and abilities.

3. Looking Glass Rock (6.4 Miles, round trip, Pisgah National Forest): Seen from almost every point in Pisgah National Forest and the entire stretch of Blue Ridge Parkway between Asheville and its terminus between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Cherokee Indian Reservation, Looking Glass Rock is an iconic towering beacon of granite that offers unparalleled views of the surrounding valleys and ridges.

While many prefer to climb the granite face of the rock via ropes, carabiners, and nylon webbing, the summit can be approached via the Looking Glass Rock Trail – a steady 3.2-mile switch-backed, uphill climb that ends on the face of the renowned monolith. The hike is also a major destination for birders looking for the native peregrine falcons that claim home to Looking Glass.

Great For: Moderate to more advanced hikers who can sustain a rigorous, 3.2-mile uphill climb.

By Whitney Cooper