Road Trip: Fall Colors Through Three National Parks in the Southeast

Posted By Jason Barnette on Wednesday, October 4, 2017

National Parks, Road Trips

Did you know it’s possible to drive 621 miles from Front Royal, Virginia to Townsend, Tennessee without ever leaving a national park property? The Skyline Drive, Blue Ridge Parkway, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park are connected in a way just begging for the ultimate road trip through the southern Appalachian Mountains. Autumn is one of the best times of the year for that epic road trip with stunning displays of fall colors, exciting destinations, and beautiful scenic views.

This road trip is designed to help you enjoy the spectacle of the fall colors through these three national parks. While driving this route you will pass lots of local attractions and towns that would make a great stop but maybe just not this time of year. If you were to try to do everything along this route it would take you until the next autumn to finish it!

Shenandoah National Park

105 miles

Shenandoah National Park is a popular getaway for people from Northern Virginia and the Capital Region. The 200,000-acre national park is linear in design; the park follows the route of the Skyline Drive offering stunning vistas, exciting hiking opportunities, and endless fun.

The fee for a personal vehicle is $25, motorcycle is $20, and an individual hiking or walking into the park is $10. All fees are good for seven consecutive days.

Shenandoah National Park Website

Front Royal, VA

Less than two hours from Washington, DC is the gorgeous small town of Front Royal. Right in the heart of some of the best outdoor recreation in the state Front Royal also has a beautiful downtown area, lots of local shops, and some great locally owned restaurants.

This would be a great town to spend the night before beginning your adventure through the three national parks to Tennessee. Check out the local bed & breakfasts, grab something to eat, and enjoy the quaint country life of the town.

Visitor Center – 414 East Main Street, Front Royal, VA | 800-338-2576 |

1Mile 4.6 - Dickey Ridge Visitor Center

The adventure on the Skyline Drive begins at this very nice visitor center. Hop in to get your National Parks Passport stamped, pick up some maps, chat with a ranger about activities and weather conditions in the park, and browse through the gift shop for books, clothing, and souvenirs.

There are also restrooms, brochures, and a nice scenic view to get your day started.

2Mile 17.1 - Range View Overlook

This scenic overlook provides a sweeping panorama of the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s a great stop for a few minutes but there are no trails or other exhibits so you’ll be back on the road in no time.

3Mile 20.8 - Hogback Overlook

This long overlook is in the curve of the Skyline Drive facing north. From here the Virginia mountains spread out across the horizon and look spectacular during sunset. If you look closely enough you can see the Shenandoah River in the valley far below.

The Appalachian Trail crosses the Skyline Drive at either end of the overlook. The AT crosses the road dozens of times, but it’s unlikely you’ll see any thru hikers in the autumn months.

Mile 22.1 - Matthews Arm Campground

This is the first campground from the north you will come across, so you may not want to stop after just twenty miles on the Skyline Drive. This campground has almost two hundred sites and can accommodate RVs. The campground includes a camp store, laundry facility, and showers.

Rates are $15 per night, first come, first served.

Mile 41.7 - Skyland

The Skyland lodge is situated in one of the most beautiful parts of the Shenandoah National Park. With 179 guest rooms there is a good chance a spontaneous trip will find a vacancy, though the lodge can fill up on weekends during the peak of fall colors. Skyland includes multi-unit lodges, rustic cabins, and modern suites.

The Pollock Dining Room serves farm-to-table meals made with local ingredients in a gorgeous dining hall with views of the Shenandoah Valley. The Mountain Taproom is the local bar at Skyland serving special cocktails each and every evening.

Although Skyland is just forty miles into the trip through the three national parks this would be a great place to actually spend the first evening and night. If you want to keep moving the Big Meadows Lodge is ten miles further down the Skyline Drive.

Visit to book your stay in advance.

4Mile 48.1 - Spitler Knoll Overlook

Another of the top scenic overlooks on the Skyline Drive, this one has a great view of the Shenandoah River as it runs through Page Valley. This overlook is long and peaceful in the curve of the road as it winds around the mountain peaks.

5Mile 51 - Harry Byrd, Sr. Visitor Center

This visitor center near the center of the Shenandoah National Park is a great place to stop, stretch your legs, and learn about the local history. A small museum inside the visitor center explains how the national park was created and built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, along with a few other local tales.

The visitor center also has some nice restrooms, an information desk with maps and brochures, and a small gift shop with typical items you’d find at a national park.

Mile 51.2 - Big Meadows Lodge & Campground

This gorgeous mountain top lodge has 25 rooms in the main lodge along with 71 additional rooms in rustic cabins, multi-unit cabins, and suites. The Big Meadows Campground is located beside the lodge and cabins area. The campground includes about two hundred sites for RVs, campers, and tents.

The Spottswood Dining Room has large picture windows so you can enjoy a beautiful view with your meal. The New Market Taproom is a great place to get a drink or two to end your day.

The lodge fills up quickly during weekends in October so book your stay as early as possible or visit during a weekday if possible. Visit to book your stay.

Mile 79.5 - Loft Mountain Campground

This is one of the larger campgrounds in the national park, but it’s still primitive with no water or electric hookups. There are just over two hundred paved sites for RVs, campers, and tents, and then about two dozen tent-only sites.

The campground includes a camp store for last-minute items and restroom facilities with showers.

The Appalachian Trail loops around the campground and makes for a nice day hike during a multi-night stay. The AT connects to a few other trails.

6Mile 81.2 - Big Run Overlook

This overlook offers a gorgeous panorama view of the nearby mountains leading toward a valley. With very few trees and an easy pull-off this is a great overlook for RVs and campers.

The Doyles River Trail parking lot is just across the Skyline Drive from this overlook. The short trail leads to a cabin and crosses over the Appalachian Trail.

7Mile 83.5 - Dundo Overlook

This overlook offers another sweeping panorama view of the local mountains. You can also learn about Jackson’s Valley Campaign here. It’s a smaller overlook than some of the others but with no trees it offers an uninterrupted view.

8Mile 92.6 - Crimora Lake Overlook

This is one of the most beautiful overlooks on the entire Skyline Drive. The uninterrupted panorama view of the local mountains is stunning just about any time of the year. It also makes a great place to watch the sunset throughout the year and if you can find just the right conditions it is a beautiful thing to watch.

Waynesboro, VA

Waynesboro is a nice town straddled by the Blue Ridge Parkway and Shenandoah National Park. This makes it a popular overnight destination for travelers in the area.

The town has a lot of hotels and bed & breakfasts for an overnight visit and you won’t go hungry with the fantastic local restaurants in the area. After you’ve eaten and rested be sure to check out the historic side of the city at the Waynesboro Heritage Museum. You’ll find lots of wineries, breweries, and distilleries in this area of Virginia with many of them just a few miles away from the city’s center. The Shenandoah Beerwerks Trail is an interesting trail of local craft breweries between Harrisonburg and Buena Vista with about a half dozen in Waynesboro.

Waynesboro Tourism:

Blue Ridge Parkway

469 miles

The Blue Ridge Parkway is not considered a national park but rather a national scenic byway. Despite the technical terms the Parkway still offers just as much as parks: scenic overlooks, hiking trails, campgrounds, and beautiful memories.

There are no fees to access the Parkway, and there are plenty of easy on/off intersections along the drive.

Blue Ridge Parkway Website

9Milepost 5.8 – Humpback Rocks Visitor Center

The first visitor center from the north is at a place called Humpback Rocks. The small visitor center has a nice gift shop, a National Parks Passport stamp, a small museum, and restrooms. It’s a great place to pick up a Blue Ridge Parkway map and ask a ranger for some tips and suggestions for your drive.

The Farm Area is located at the end of the parking lot and features a nice set up of what farming in the mountains was like in the 1890s. The 0.25-mile Mountain Farm Trail takes visitors through the exhibit that includes a small house and several gardens. This trail starts out as a paved path at the parking lot but becomes a flat and comfortable gravel path after passing through a rustic fence.

The Humpback Rock Parking Area is just down the Parkway from the visitor center. Visitors can hike there via the Mountain Farm Trail or drive. From there there is a short connector trail to the Appalachian Trail leading south to Humpback Rocks.

10Milepost 10.7 – Ravens Roost Overlook
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This overlook is the first that will be certain to take your breath away. Vehicles park facing outward toward the Shenandoah Valley and Torrey Ridge. The sweeping panorama view will be difficult to leave once you arrive. There is a small bronze plate on top of a stone rock at the overlook showing the location and name of various mountain tops from this point of view.

A path at the end of the parking lot leads to a rocky outcropping, lending to the overlook’s name: this is typically a place where ravens will roost. The beautiful view here is amazing almost all year long but it can get chilly during the fall and winter months with a near-constant wind.

Read More: 7 Days of Fall Colors on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Wintergreen Resort

If you stop at the Wintergreen Resort just off the Blue Ridge Parkway you may not leave again. This mountain top resort is a one-stop destination for everything you would need for a fantastic getaway: comfortable rooms, outdoor activities, fine dining, and a spa.

Visitors can choose between condos, homes, and guest rooms when booking a stay. Guest rooms include a kitchenette along with the bedroom. Condos vary from small one bedroom units to large five bedroom units perfect for large families. The rental homes vary from three bedrooms to six and offer more amenities in the home than the condos. All condos and homes are fully equipped with full kitchens, washer and dryers, and linens.

The resort offers a lot of activities throughout the year ranging from day hikes to zip lines, golf and tennis, and family outings. During the peak of fall colors you can enjoy a round of golf through vibrant colors or relax in the day spa.

Wintergreen Resort Website

11Milepost 34.4 – Yankee Horse Parking Area
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This small pull off doesn’t look like much from the Parkway but that’s because the best is hidden in the forest. Look for a sign and a short path from the edge of the parking lot leading into the woods. The path leads to a reconstructed section of an old logging railroad across a small wooden bridge. A short path leads to Wigwam Falls, a short waterfall hidden from the parking lot. It’s a great place to stretch your legs and enjoy a short and simple hike.

12Milepost 69.1 – James River Visitor Center

At just 650′ above sea level the bridge crossing the James River is the lowest point on the entire Blue Ridge Parkway. The visitor center has information about other stops on the Parkway, maps, and brochures. The restrooms are usually pretty good, too.

There are a few trails to enjoy while here. The Trail of Trees is an interesting place to walk through and the James River Canal Trail is a short walk across the river to a restore canal lock. If you’re really up for a hike the Otter Creek Trail returns up the mountain to Otter Creek Campground; it’s a 3.5-mile moderately strenuous trail with amazing views along the way.

Natural Bridge, VA

The small town of Natural Bridge is a haven for interesting and unique attractions in the Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains. Natural Bridge State Park is now a state-maintained property featuring a massive stone bridge, six miles of hiking trails, and a visitor center with gifts and exhibits. Visitors can get close to some amazing wildlife with two attractions in the area: the Natural Bridge Zoo and Virginia Safari Park. If you’re up for a strange but interesting adventure you could try finding Foamhenge, a recreation of Stonehenge but much lighter.

If you’re looking for a place to stay try the Natural Bridge Hotel. This historic hotel and conference center is located in the middle of the small town, features amazing rooms, and even has dining on site so you don’t need to leave once you arrive.

Natural Bridge Tourism:

13Milepost 78.4 – Apple Orchard Mountain Overlook

At 3,950′ Apple Orchard Mountain is the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia. Consider that the lowest point is less than ten miles north and you get a sense of the steep climb on the Parkway from the James River Visitor Center to this parking area.

The view here is absolutely amazing and makes a great place to say “I’ve been there” some day.

14Milepost 86 – Peaks of Otter
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There is so much to do at the Peaks of Otter it’s no wonder it is one of the most popular Blue Ridge Parkway destinations in Virginia.

The Peaks of Otter Lodge is a wonderful place to spend a night or two. The lodge is located on the edge of Abbott Lake and features a grand view of Sharp Top Mountain. The lodge includes 63 rooms all with a view of the lake.

The Lake View Restaurant is a popular dining destination for locals and guests alike. The full service restaurant features delicious meals throughout the day with stunning views of the lake and mountain.

The Peaks of Otter Campground is located on the opposite side of the lake from the lodge. The campground has 141 sites with 53 of them designed for RVs and campers. A large picnic area nearby also gives you place to enjoy a quick meal.

There are several trails to enjoy at the Peaks of Otter. The easiest is the 1-mile Abbott Lake Loop Trail that provides amazing views around the lake. The 1.8-mile Johnson Farm Loop Trail takes visitors to the historic Johnson Farm to see what life on a farm was like in the late 1800’s. The 3.3-mile Harkening Hill Trail is a moderately strenuous hike across a ridge to a beautiful viewing area at Balance Rock. The 1.5-mile Sharp Top Trail is a strenuous route that challenges even the best of hikers as it ascends the side of Sharp Top Mountain to a stunning 360-degree overlook at the summit. Adventurous hikers can also tackle the 4.4-mile Flat Top Trail as it winds through a beautiful area back to the Fallingwater Cascades Parking Area.

Just a quarter mile down the Parkway from the lodge is the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center. This small building has lots of information about destinations on the Parkway and restrooms for those needing a quick pit stop. The gift shop sells books, clothing, and souvenirs.

15Milepost 115 – Virginia’s Explore Park
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Virginia’s Explore Park is a county owned and operated park just off the Blue Ridge Parkway with dozens of hiking trails, acres of forest and rolling hills, a few historical buildings, and a visitor center. The visitor center has restrooms and information about the Parkway and Roanoke. There is a small gift shop with clothing, souvenirs, and maps.

The short connector road between the park and the Parkway has a few nice overlooks. The overlooks have views of the local rolling hills and nearby mountains.

Roanoke, VA
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Roanoke is an exciting, beautiful place to visit while exploring the Blue Ridge Parkway or even better it’s a great place to spend the night.

Stop at the Virginia Museum of Transportation to see an amazing collection of real trains on tracks and discover history of planes and automobiles. Take a walk through the Harrison Museum of African American Culture and then visit the Booker T. Washington National Monument. Learn some new facts about science at the Science Museum of Western Virginia. When you stop by the visitor’s center be sure to take a tour of the O. Winston Link Museum to see some amazing photography from the region.

Visit the Roanoke Star atop Mill Mountain then take a walk along one of the many trails. Stop off at the Mill Mountain Zoo to see red pandas, bobcats, farm animals, and more. Do some shopping for antiques or discover a local farmer’s market. Black Dog Salvage is a very popular antiques and salvage dealer and the Roanoke City Market comes alive with local arts, crafts, and produce on the weekends.

Spend an evening (or more) sampling the goods at a local winery or brewery, then head downtown for some amazing dining. Are you a fan of college football? Head over to Beamer’s 25 for some amazing food and draft beer in a restaurant owned by former Virginia Tech football head coach Frank Beamer.

When you’re ready to lay your head down for the night Roanoke has you covered. There are plenty of hotels, campgrounds, B&Bs, and cabin rentals in the area. Book a room at the historic Hotel Roanoke right in the heart of downtown for the easiest access to everything.

16Milepost 120.3 – Roanoke Mountain Road
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Roanoke Mountain Road is a one-way 4-mile loop road. Along the road there are two scenic overlooks. The loop eventually returns to the Parkway about a quarter of a mile from the beginning. The road is steep and curvy so RV’s and campers are not allowed.

The Mill Mountain Overlook is the first of two overlooks on Roanoke Mountain Road. This overlook faces in the direction of Roanoke but the city is hidden behind Mill Mountain. A small parking area has room for about a dozen vehicles and the overlook near the rocks pictured above is comfortable for about ten people at a time.

At the highest point of the loop road is the Roanoke Mountain Overlook. The road becomes two-way for a short section leading to a loop at the overlook. There is a large parking area and a short hiking trail. The overlook faces southwest away from the city but you can still see the suburbs below, especially after dark.

17Milepost 169 - Rocky Knob Recreation Area
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This large recreation area is a great place to stretch your legs or spend some serious time exploring nature. It’s a great place to see the fall colors in the cooler autumn months.

The visitor center has restrooms for a quick stop and there is usually a ranger or park employee inside to help answer questions. There are three large picnic areas spread throughout the 4,000-acre park.

Rocky Knob Cabins is the only cabins for rent on the entire Parkway. They were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and today offer a rustic and quaint way to spend a night or two on the Parkway.

The campground has 81 tent sites, 28 RV sites, and 72 picnic sites. It’s a primitive campground with no water or electrical hookups but generators are allowed during the day.

The recreation area has a few amazing hiking trails ranging from casual to strenuous, but all with gorgeous views of the fall colors. The 10.8-mile Rock Castle Gorge Trail is a local favorite as it loops around recreation area into a deep gorge and across a couple of creeks. The 3-mile Black Ridge Trail is an easier loop trail located at the visitor center that offers a pretty good view from Black Ridge. The 2.6-mile Smart View Trail is an easy loop around the Smart View Picnic Area and is the most level of all the trails.

Just past peak at the famous Mabry Mill it was still a gorgeous day for a walk in late October.
18Milepost 176.1 - Mabry Mill
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The Mabry Mill is perhaps the most iconic destination on the entire Blue Ridge Parkway. Within site of the parkway as you drive past it is a popular place on weekends during the peak of fall colors. The large parking area is often full but fortunately there is an overflow just behind the restaurant.

Mabry Mill is so much more than just the mill and pond, though. A short trail leads up a set of stairs and across the aqueduct that feeds water to the wheel. It then winds through and around several smaller buildings, an old wagon, and past a still in the forest. Sometimes on autumn weekends the mill will be open so you can peak inside.

The gift shop at the main parking lot has just about anything you could want that features the iconic mill: postcards, photos, clothing, mugs, calendars, and so much more.

The Mabry Mill Restaurant is open Monday-Thursday 7:30a.m.-5p.m. and Friday-Sunday 7:30a.m.-6p.m. Stop in for some wonderful country cooking in a comfortable atmosphere. The wait can get a little long during the peak foliage but it’s worth the wait.

19Milepost 213 - Blue Ridge Music Center

You wouldn’t know it just by driving along the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway but this is the heart of folk music. Nearby Galax hosts the annual Old Fiddler’s Convention, an epic weekend of music featuring fiddles, banjos, and guitars, displaying the musical heritage of the region.

The Blue Ridge Music Center was established to preserve and display the heritage with a nice gift shop, information, and live performances throughout the year. A small museum displays all kinds of musical instruments along with the history of folk and bluegrass music.

The music center also has some restrooms and information if all you need is a quick pit stop. But as soon as you hear the iconic sound of a banjo or fiddle you’ll want to stay awhile.

Blue Ridge Music Center Website

Galax, VA

The City of Galax is a small city in Southwest Virginia but it has so many hidden treasures that makes it worth a stop off the Parkway if not an entire night spent right here.

The downtown area is small, quaint, but full of wonderful local shops and eateries. Barr’s Fiddle Shop is an iconic shopping destination, especially during the Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention each year. Right next door Chapters Bookshop is a great place to browse through new and used books and gifts. If you happen to be in town on a Saturday be sure to check out the small but thriving farmers’ market at the corner of Main and Washington Streets.

Speaking of farmers’ markets you might want to take a short fifteen minute drive to the Southwest Virginia Farmers’ Market. This massive indoor market is open seven days a week and located right beside the interstate. You’ll find everything from arts & crafts to fresh local produce, and autumn is a great time of year to grab a peck of apples.

If you haven’t had enough walking yet head over to the New River Trail State Park. This linear park is built around a trail meandering alongside the New River. The southern end of the park is near downtown near an old train caboose. The walk immediately whisks you away into the quiet woods and crosses the river for the first time less than a mile from the parking area.

Downtown Galax has a lot of great local eateries. Scoots has been around for awhile now and the locals love it. Their sandwiches and burgers are amazing, and they make almost all their sauces in house. Be sure to try one of their pies made fresh daily. The Twisted Fork offers sandwiches and pastas in a comfy downtown setting. Bare bulbs hang over wooden tables in booths and beautiful artwork adorns the walls of this little eatery. Creek Bottom Brewing isn’t downtown but it’s only a few minutes away and literally down by the creek. They have a tasting room, pub, and restaurant for your enjoyment. They have a pretty good menu of burger, pizza, and stromboli, and they usually have about a dozen beers on tap. For dessert try the Dairy Bar at the end of Main Street overlooking Felts Park (the site of the fiddlers’ convention).

When you’re finally ready to sleep there are a few nice bed & breakfasts in the area and some good hotels. The better hotels are outside of town along Highway 58 near the interstate, but that’s only a 20-30 minute drive from the Parkway.

Visitor Center – 110 East Grayson Street, Galax, VA | 276-238-8130 |

This covered shelter is hidden away along the loop trail at Cumberland Knob.
20Milepost 217.5 - Cumberland Knob
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The Cumberland Knob Recreation Area is the first stop on the Parkway in North Carolina. It’s a small recreation area but it packs a punch with some gorgeous views, restrooms, two covered shelters, and a short hiking trail. The hiking trial winds up a short hill to the second covered shelter before winding back toward the parking lot. The first covered shelter is located at the parking area and makes for a great place to have family gatherings on the weekends.

Be sure to stop at the visitor center to get help planning your time on the Parkway.

Milepost 239.2 - Doughton Park Campground

This large campground is a good place to spend a night while exploring the initial parts of the Parkway in North Carolina. The campground has 110 tent sites and 25 RV sites. It’s primitive so no electrical or water hookups.

The incredible view of fall colors from Wildcat Rock in Doughton Park.
21Milepost 241.1 - Doughton Park
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Doughton Park is a large, gorgeous park along the Parkway with enough to do to keep you busy for an entire day. This milepost is the main entrance into the park that includes hiking trails, picnic areas, a scenic overlook, and lots of large fields to play in.

Just as you enter the park turn right to drive through a series of parking areas past picnic tables, shelters, and restrooms. A large field on the left is open for playing catch with the kids.

Driving straight ahead from the entrance ends at a small parking area and a set of steps leading up to Wildcat Rock. This scenic overlook is one of the most breathtaking on the entire Parkway. Bring a chair and something to drink because you’ll be staying for awhile.

There are also a few trails to hike in Doughton Park. The 7.5-mile Bluff Mountain Trail is a moderate trail connecting Brinegar Cabin to the Basin Cove Overlook. The 4.4-mile Cedar Ridge Trail is the most strenuous trail in the park with a nearly 2,000′ drop in elevation. The 6.5-mile Grassy Gap Fire Road Trail is a combined hiking/horseback riding trail but the old fire road is plenty wide enough for both. The 3.3-mile Basin Creek Trail is only accessible from the Grassy Gap Fire Road but it’s one of the most gorgeous in the park as it winds alongside cascading waterfalls.

Read More: Stunning Views From Wildcat Rock on the Blue Ridge Parkway

22Milepost 258.6 - Northwest Trading Post

The Northwest Trading Post is a visitor center, restroom facility, and arts & crafts store all rolled into one. The visitor center is great for finding information about the local section of the Parkway. The crafts come from locals and include photography, paintings, woodworking, jewelry, clothing, and so much more. It’s a great place to stretch your legs, use the restroom, and do a little shopping.

West Jefferson, NC

West Jefferson is a hidden gem in the North Carolina mountains and a place you won’t soon forget after a visit. Just a few minutes from the Blue Ridge Parkway the town makes a great day trip stop for a meal or some shopping, or book a room at a vacation rental or the comfortable Holiday Inn Express.

From Highway 16 you’ll drive through Jefferson, exiting off Highway 221 onto Main Street. Follow the signs and soon you’ll be driving into the heart of West Jefferson along 2nd Street. Park anywhere; it’s free in this small country town and there are plenty of spaces.

Stroll along Jefferson Avenue hopping from one local shop to another. Stop by Browse About Book Exchange to search through their stacks of used books and get a great deal (I won’t tell you how they price their books, but instead I’ll just say it’s the best deal I’ve ever gotten at a used book store). Browse local woodworking, photography, quilts, and clothing through one shop after another.

If you get hungry you can grab a quick bite to eat at Candy Shack Cafe where they have simple food like hotdogs, ice cream, and more candy than you could eat in a single day. If you want to sit down for a full meal try Black Jack’s Pub & Grill or Boondocks Brewing Tap Room & Restaurant.

Visitor Center – 1 South Jefferson Avenue, West Jefferson, NC | 866-607-0093 |

23Milepost 272.5 - E.B. Jeffress Park

This small park is hiding a secret and if you don’t know to stop here you might just miss it! A fairly easy 0.8-mile trail starts out across a ridge before descending to a creek and crossing over on a primitive foot bridge. At the end of the loop is the stunning Cascade Falls, a hidden waterfall tumbling over the rocks.

The trail includes two scenic overlooks of the falls. The first is directly beside the top of the falls, close enough that after heavy rains and melting snow the ground is usually soaked. A second overlook is a little further down but does not have as good of a view.

Boone, NC

Boone is one of the most popular mountain towns of North Carolina and for good reason: there’s something to do every season of the year. Start with lodging: there are lots of bed & breakfasts, cabin and cottage rentals, hotels, resorts, and campgrounds in the area.

After you’ve found a place to stay, try looking for something to do. The options are endless. Besides the Blue Ridge Parkway there is Tweetsie Railroad, High Gravity Adventures, Horn in the West, and Mystery Hill. If you would rather explore some local artwork there are plenty of fantastic galleries, or you can stroll through downtown looking for some other places to shop.

When you’re ready to eat there are plenty of options for great local food. The locals love places like Coyote Kitchen, The Local, and Lost Province Brewing Company. Speaking of breweries, Boone has not been ignored during the explosion of local breweries across the country. Appalachian Mountain Brewery, Booneshine Brewing Company, and Peabody’s Beer & Wine are a few of the options to enjoy a nice beverage.

Visitor Center – 815 W. King Street, Boone, NC | 828-266-1345 |

View from The Blowing Rock attraction.
Blowing Rock, NC

Blowing Rock is a small, charming mountain town just off the Parkway. The town has boomed over the decades as a mountain resort destination that continues to expand, but the core area on Main Street is still local shops and restaurants. Blowing Rock Brewing Company is a great place to start an evening, right in the heart of downtown. Local restaurants like Six Pence Pub, The Village Cafe, and The Best Cellar will fill you up with great food. If you need a place to spend the night try Mountainaire Inn & Log Cabins for a fun experience, or The New Public House & Hotel.

Before you leave town be sure to head a little south along US 321 to The Blowing Rock. This attraction features a gift shop, hiking trails, and a couple of scenic overlooks facing the Blue Ridge Parkway. You’ll also learn the history behind the name of the town while enjoying views of nearby Grandfather Mountain.

24Milepost 292.7 - Parkway Craft Center
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The Parkway Craft Center is a large gift shop and visitor center located inside the beautiful Flat Top Manor at Moses H. Cone Memorial Park. The gift shop features the artwork of many regional artists including everything from jewelry to photography and interesting wooden puzzles. The park also features 25 miles of gentle carriage trails winding around two lakes. It’s a great place to stop to stretch your legs, use the restrooms, and do a little shopping.

25Milepost 295 – Julian Price Memorial Park
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Julian Price Memorial Park features a large picnic area, campground, lake, and miles of hiking trails. The picnic area includes a shelter and restrooms just off the Parkway. The large lake, Price Lake, has a 2.7-mile loop hiking trail and rental boats and kayaks; visitors are also allowed to bring their own kayak or canoe to get on the water.

One of the best views of the lake is just off the Parkway where a bridge crosses over the dam. There is a concrete path alongside the lake and when you look across the calm water you’ll see Grandfather Mountain.

26Milepost 302.8 – Rough Ridge Parking Area
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Rough Ridge is a gorgeous bald knob with amazing views high above the Parkway of Grandfather Mountain and the Linn Cove Viaduct. The parking area leads to the Tanawha Trail as it quickly ascends the knob. There is also additional parking along the Parkway to the south of the parking lot, just before the bridge, with fantastic views facing southeast.

27Milepost 304.4 – Linn Cove Viaduct Visitor Center
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The curving bridge hanging off the side of a mountain is one of the most iconic views of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The viaduct is more than just a unique, curvy bridge, though. The visitor center has a nice gift shop and small museum with a video and scale model showing the construction of the bridge. There are restrooms as well.

But one of the neatest things about this stop is the Tanawha Trail. At the far end of the parking lot a trail leads underneath viaduct before zigzagging to an elevation above the bridge. The trail connects Julian Price Memorial Park with the Stack Rock Overlook for an exciting hike, but the portion under the viaduct is only about two miles roundtrip.

Additional Reading: “That” View of the Linn Cove Viaduct on the Blue Ridge Parkway

28Grandfather Mountain
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This private attraction is home to the Mile High Swinging Bridge and makes for one of the most captivating side excursions off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Gift shops, a museum, restaurant, fudge shop, and animal habitat are just a few things to enjoy here. The winding road to the top provides a stunning view and several picnic areas give visitors a place to enjoy a packed lunch. There are several hiking trails for day trips but no overnight parking is allowed here.

Additional Reading: A Day at Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina

29Milepost 316.3 – Linville Falls
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Linville Falls is one of the most spectacular waterfalls on the Parkway and certainly the most popular. Visitors will find a nice visitor center and restroom facility at the trailhead leading to five different views of the waterfall. A picnic area along the river provides a quiet escape for a packed meal with the family. There is an additional waterfall on a short trail from the visitor center, and a second parking area long the river for a quiet escape.

During the peak of fall colors this will be one of the busiest places on the Parkway. Parking will be scarce and the crowds huge. Arrive early if you want to beat the crowds and have the place to yourself. The least-visited overlook at the waterfall is Erwin’s View with a 1.6-mile roundtrip hike and an 800′ ascent to get there. A bit strenuous, but worth it.

Read: 5 Ways to View Linville Falls on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina

30Milepost 320.7 – Chestoa View Overlook
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Chestoa View is easy to miss as you drive along the Parkway; the overlook is hidden off the road beyond a small parking area. A short five minute hike takes visitors to one of the most stunning views at a scenic overlook on the Parkway. From here the view looks north along the Linville Gorge toward Grandfather Mountain in the distance. A 0.6-mile loop trail to another scenic overlook faces Table Rock Mountain.

Milepost 334 - Switzerland Inn

The familiar architecture of the Switzerland Inn will be only one way this mountain resort will stay fresh in your mind. Centered around the Main Lodge are several multi-unit buildings, cottages, and houses along with scenic trails and a firepit. Along with the day spa you might just find a reason to stay here for a few days to enjoy the fall colors.

The Chalet Restaurant provides breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day of the week. The Fowl Play Pub has a unique menu with special drinks to finish off your evening.

31Milepost 339.5 – Crabtree Falls
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Crabtree Falls is another stunning waterfall along the Parkway, but this one is only reached by a more strenuous hiking trail than Linville Falls. The 2.5-mile loop trail is steep at times, rocky, and uneven. The first mile is a near-constant descent into the thickly wooded area which can only mean a long hike back.

But the hike is worth it for the gorgeous view at the base of the waterfall. The fall colors only add to the splendor of the moment. After returning to your car you’ll be glad you took the hike, as long as you didn’t forget your camera in the car.

32Milepost 355.4 – Mt Mitchell State Park
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Mt. Mitchell is the highest point east of the Mississippi River. The mountain is located inside Mt. Mitchell State Park, the only park in the country accessible exclusively via the Parkway. The mountain peak features an observation tower with beautiful panorama views in all directions. It’s a fairly strenuous climb and although it’s paved the entire way I wouldn’t recommend trying to climb this in a wheelchair. Keep in mind the top of this mountain will reach peak colors about a week or two before the lower surrounding areas.

The parking lot at the top has a nice gift shop, a small museum, and some restrooms. There are some pretty good views from this parking lot just in case you can’t or don’t want to reach the summit.

The park also has a very nice restaurant with stunning views of Mt. Mitchell through tall windows. The food is pretty good and the menu can change depending on what they have in stock that day. There is another small gift shop at the restaurant.

A stormy autumn sunset from the parking lot at the Craggy Gardens Visitor Center.
33Milepost 364.4 – Craggy Gardens
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Craggy Gardens is one of the most popular destinations from Asheville and is a beautiful place for a hike almost year round. Come in the late spring or early summer to catch the rhododendron in full bloom across the mountain peaks of the gardens.

Visitors can park at Craggy Pinnacle and enjoy a short hike to the top for stunning views across the mountains, or use the parking area at the visitor center for a view through the valleys. A short trail leads away from the south end of the visitor center to Craggy Knob, a bald mountain top with a covered shelter and amazing views of the Pinnacle and surrounding landscape.

Sunsets from Craggy Pinnacle are stunning year round with an uninterrupted view across the local landscape. If you can’t make it up there in time the view from the parking area beside the visitor center can be pretty awesome, too.

34Milepost 382 – Southern Highland Folk Art Center

This impressive facility on the north side of Asheville is home to the Southern Highland Craft Guild. The Folk Art Center features artwork by hundreds of local artisans, three galleries, a library, and an information desk for the Parkway. Daily craft demonstrations are held in the lobby during the peak seasons so at the very least stop by to see some local artists at work.

Asheville, NC

Asheville has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country is recent years and the Blue Ridge Parkway is a big part of that. The city is known for world-class food at southern country prices and has more craft breweries per capita than any other city in the country. Arts and crafts abound on nearly every corner and you won’t have to go far to find great places to spend the night.

The Inn on Biltmore Estate is one of the poshest places to stay in the south or if you’re a solo traveler you could stay at Sweet Peas Hostel downtown. The Biltmore Village offers some great shopping and dining, and the nearby Western North Carolina Farmers’ Market is open seven days a week.

A bonzai tree with a backdrop of gorgeous fall colors.
35North Carolina Arboretum
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Just off the Blue Ridge Parkway near the French Broad River the North Carolina Arboretum is a gorgeous destination to explore any season of the year. The arboretum calls itself a campus with acres of beautiful gardens, miles of hiking and biking trails, and educational programs.

The Baker Exhibit Center is the main building for visitors on campus. The center has an information desk at the front door with friendly staff to help you plan your visit to the botanical garden. Upstairs is the Connections Gallery gift shop with lots of beautiful arts & crafts from locals. A rotating exhibit space on the second floor has special features throughout the year.

But the real fun is outside among the gardens and nature. The Heritage Garden, Quilt Garden, and Stream Garden are immediately out the back of the second level of the exhibit center. It’s an easy walk along concrete paths. A bit further down is the Bonzai Exhibition Garden with beautiful bonzai trees on display and a winding path. The Plants of Promise Garden is a series of winding trails beside the Education Center. But these are only a few of the gardens available, and the easiest to access, so you could have much more to explore.

The campus features a dozen hiking trails ranging from easy half mile hikes to strenuous full mile hikes. Some of the trails like the Azalea Collection Trail, Carolina Mountain Trail, and Wesley Branch Trail are for foot traffic only; other trails are open to bikes as well. These trails wind around the mountainous terrain, through gardens, and connects with other trails outside the property.

The half dozen biking trails are all less than two miles and range from easy to difficult. Most of the trails are on gravel surfaces and friendly for families looking for an exciting way to get outside for the day.

100 Frederick Law Olmsted Way, Asheville, NC | 828-665-2492 |

Milepost 408.6 - Pisgah Inn
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Mount Pisgah is one of the most beautiful and active areas of the Blue Ridge Parkway to explore. The lodge, campground, restaurant, and scenic overlooks combine for a chance to see and do it all with a few nights’ stay. The high elevation of around 5,000′ means the fall colors will arrive early here so be prepared.

The Pisgah Inn was built in 1964 but the building has withstood the test of time, and elements, and remains a gorgeous place to spend some time. The lack of air conditioning in the rooms is a testament to the fact it rarely gets hot at this elevation even in the middle of summer. All of the rooms include a private porch or balcony with a secluded view of the gorgeous mountain landscapes.

The inn includes a dining room that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day of the week during the open season. Open to guests and visitors alike the dining room offers a stunning view to go along with a great meal.

Located right beside the Parkway is the Gift Shop and Country Store. This store has staples like food, snacks, drinks, and ice as well as locally made arts & crafts.

The campground is across the Parkway from the inn and includes 70 tent sites and 67 RV sites. It’s the highest campground on the entire Parkway and offers some of the most breathtaking views and seclusion. Parts of the campground can be reserved online but most of it is first come, first served.

A nearby picnic area gives you a place to spread out a blanket on those warm autumn days and enjoy a meal outside. Almost across the Parkway at Milepost 407.6 is the entrance to the Mount Pisgah Overlook and Buck Springs Lodge Overlook. The Mount Pisgah Overlook is atop a tunnel on the Parkway and includes a trail leading to the summit of the mountain. The Buck Springs Lodge overlook faces the opposite direction and includes a short half-mile trail to the former site of a hunting retreat for Vanderbilt.

Looking Glass falls is beautiful in the late evening with fall colors surrounding it.
Brevard, NC
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Brevard is a beautiful mountain town with a vibrant downtown and lots of outdoor recreation in the area. It’s a great stop to make while exploring the Blue Ridge Parkway because it’s only about forty minutes away from the Parkway near Pisgah Inn.

The local tourism authority is called the Land of Waterfalls for a reason: there are dozens of waterfalls around the Brevard area. The Land of Waterfalls website has a good list of them along with information on where to park, length of the hike, and a few photos. Some of the easiest waterfalls to access include Slick Rock Falls and Looking Glass Falls in the Pisgah National Forest, Connestee Falls just outside Brevard, and Hooker Falls in DuPont State Forest.

Speaking of DuPont State Forest, it is a fantastic area for all-day outdoor recreation. Bicycling along Staton Road is a popular activity. Kayakers will head out on the river just after heavy rainfalls. Hooker Falls is a wonderful swimming hole in mid-August at the base of the short waterfall in shallow waters. Hiking to Triple Falls and High Falls are popular activities, but there are many more miles of trails through the state forest. Bridal Veil Falls is one of the most spectacular but requires a bit more hiking to reach.

Pisgah National Forest has plenty to keep outdoor enthusiasts entertained as well. Sliding Rock Recreation Area is infamous for the smooth rocks that have been turned into natural slides, landing visitors into a pool of water after a short slide. Hikers eager for a challenge can try the 5.3-mile hike to the top of Looking Glass Rock for a stunning view that unfortunately faces the wrong direction for the eclipse. The Cradle of Forestry in America is an interesting place to tour with an indoor museum and outdoor living history museum.

If you’re not keen about strapping on a pair of trail runners and sweating all day you can always stay comfy and relaxed in downtown Brevard. Walk along the beautiful Main Street past historic buildings, pay a visit to Silvermont Mansion, or take a walk through the O.P. Taylor toy shop. There is plenty of places to eat in the downtown area from breakfast until dinner. The Brevard Music Center will also host a special post-season event the weekend of the eclipse featuring music by Lyle Lovett and His Large Band.

One of the reasons Brevard is such a great place to visit is its central location to so much to do in the area. Visitors can embark on a day trip loop drive through the South Carolina Upcountry to visit destinations like Pretty Place, Caesars Head State Park, Table Rock State Park, and watch a stunning sunset from Sassafras Mountain. Heading out along Highway 64 will take you to PARI, a former NASA facility turned non-profit research center with a neat little museum and a large campus to explore, and Gorges State Park. The cozy and quaint towns of Cashiers and Highlands are a few hours’ drive from Brevard along a curvy, but scenic, highway that includes Bridal Veil Falls, Dry Falls, and the Rhodes Big View Overlook, a popular place to see the shadow of a bear during sunset in late October.

Downtown Brevard has a lot of great food including popular places like Magpie Meat & Three, The Square Root, and The Falls Landing. Rocky’s Grill & Soda Shop is an iconic eatery with a retro diner atmosphere and real soda fountain. Kiwi Gelato will be sure to satisfy your sweet tooth located just a few blocks from the heart of downtown. Just outside of the downtown area is Sora Japanese Restaurant and Pisgah Fish Camp with seafood better than some oceanfront restaurants.

Visitor Center – 175 East Main Street, Brevard, NC | 800-648-4523 |

36Miilepost 409.6 - Fryingpan Mountain Lookout Tower
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Fryingpan Lookout Tower is the tallest lookout tower in Western North Carolina at 70′. At an elevation of 5,340′ the view from the top is unbelievably gorgeous. During the peak of fall colors this is a popular place to visit and it can get pretty chilly at the top even on warm, sunny days.

The round trip hike is just 1.5 miles along a forest service road so it’s not too difficult although there is a steady climb on the way up. It takes about 30-45 minutes to hike each way but you’ll want to leave yourself plenty of time to enjoy the view from the top.

There is a small parking area at the end of Forest Service Road 450. These spots are frequently taken early during the fall colors, but you are allowed to park anywhere you want on the Parkway so long as all four tires are off the road.

37Milepost 418.8 - Graveyard Fields
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Graveyard Fields is one of the more unique and interesting destinations on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Hundreds of years ago a massive wind storm toppled nearly every tree throughout the area now known as Graveyard Fields. All that remained were the tree stumps that resembled tombstones, hence the name. But in 1925 a fire swept through the area, destroying the stumps, and the local flora has been slow to recover since.

Today the area has a few nice hiking trails to enjoy that leads to waterfalls at either end of the fields. The short 1.3-mile Graveyard Fields Loop is mostly flat and an easy hike connecting Second Falls and Upper Falls. The more strenuous 1.4-mile Graveyard Ridge Trail takes you high above the fields on the opposite side from the parking lot.

The parking area has a small restroom facility and an information board with a map so you can plan your trip through here. There won’t be much in the way of fall colors because of the lack of flora; it’s mostly rhododendron bushes which remain pleasantly green throughout the year. But the autumn months are one of the best times to hike the trail in comfort; the lack of shade makes it a brutal hike during the warm, sunny summer months.

Parking is often scarce at Graveyard Fields and nearby parking is difficult. Signs prohibit anyone from parking alongside the Parkway within about a thousand feet in either direction of the parking lot. But beyond that parking on the side is fine as long as you get all four tires off the Parkway.

Read More: Graveyard Fields on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina

The view of the Devil's Courthouse Overlook from the parking area. Can you see the tiny person at the very top?
38Milepost 422.4 - Devil's Courthouse
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Devil’s Courthouse is one of the most exciting hikes to one of the most stunning views on the entire Blue Ridge Parkway. The large parking area has a pretty good view itself, but the real view is from the top of the rocky outcropping seen from the parking lot.

The climb up to the overlook is a short 1-mile roundtrip but it’s a strenuous mile. The trail begins as a paved path but eventually becomes a primitive, rock-strewn trail. The ascent is pretty steep with a climb of a few hundred feet to the overlook at the top. But all the hard work to get there is definitely worth it.

The overlook is enormous with a three foot stone wall around the edge to keep everyone safe (please don’t climb over this wall, ever). The view from the top is incredible with a nearly 270-degree panorama across the local landscape. The sheer cliff drops off several hundred feet from the edge of the overlook which is exactly why you should stay behind the wall at all times.

Sunrise and sunset views both are pretty incredible from the overlook if you don’t mind doing some hiking in the dark. The 1-mile trail takes about thirty minutes to climb but it’s much quicker on the way back down.

39Milepost 431.4 - Richland Balsam Overlook
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At 6,053′ above sea level the Richland Balsam Overlook is the highest point on the entire Blue Ridge Parkway. A lone sign in a large parking area marks the significance and offers a chance for a selfie. But the view here won’t be the best during the fall colors for one simple reason: there aren’t many deciduous trees at this elevation. Most of the trees are evergreens so at least you’ll have that nice vibrant green contrasting the starkness of autumn.

The parking area has a fairly nice view, but it’s limited by the growth of trees at the edge of the overlook. Nearby Cowee Mountain Overlook actually has a much better view (and it’s my favorite overlook on the Parkway).

Adventurous hikers can take the 1.5-mile loop trail to the summit of Richland Balsam. The very top of the mountain stands at 6,410′ so it’s a steep climb, but then you get to say you’ve been higher than almost everyone else on the Parkway.

Read More: Richland Balsam Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina

40Milepost 451.2 - Waterrock Knob
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Waterrock Knob has beautiful views in all directions along with a short hiking trail and a visitor center. It’s definitely a great place to visit while the fall colors are peaking and works any time of day. Come early for a stunning sunrise or stay late for a sunset, either way you’ll be amazed.

The visitor center will have someone to answer questions and a small gift shop with souvenirs and clothing. The restroom facilities are pretty nice considering how remote this overlook is on the Parkway.

The parking area has great views in all directions. It’s a wide parking area with a grassy area in the middle and picnic tables around the edge. During the peak of fall colors the parking area will fill up early with locals who come up just to see the stunning colors fade across the sky.

The Waterrock Knob Trail is a 1.2-mile roundtrip hike to the summit of the mountain. It’s a steep climb of just over 400′ in elevation but the views are worth the effort. The first 1/4-mile of the trail is paved leading to a small overlook just above the parking area. The very top has a stunning view of the local landscape, but it’s not an uninterrupted view.

Cherokee, NC

Visiting Cherokee is all about culture, art, and outdoor recreation. Take a tour through history at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, experience the “Unto These Hills” Outdoor Drama, or learn about culture at the Oconaluftee Indiana Village. Do some shopping at Qualla Arts and Crafts or head over to the Talking Leaves Bookstore.

You can always try your luck at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort, or catch a show at the theater. Take a tour of the shopping pavilion or grab something to eat at Ruth’s Chris Steak House. If you get lost on the casino floor just look for the blue carpet; this represents the river running through the forest and will take you back to wherever you need to be.

Mingo Falls is one of the most beautiful cascading waterfalls in the region, and it’s easily accessible after a short fifteen minute hike. Soco Falls is another local waterfall just a few minutes outside town on Highway 19 toward Maggie Valley. If you want something more relaxed and laid back try the Music on the River series every Friday and Saturday; on the weekend before the eclipse Robert Wolfe & the Renegades will perform Friday night and Trippin Hardie Band on Saturday night. You could also enjoy amazing tales from Cherokee storytellers at the Cherokee Bonfire in Oconaluftee Island Park every Friday and Saturday night.

If you’re in the Cherokee area and ready for some food try Peter’s Pancakes & Waffles, or Paul’s Family Restaurant. Both are nice locally owned restaurants with great food. Almost any day is a good day to visit Granny’s Kitchen Restaurant for amazing buffet meals including southern cooking, breakfast, pasta, and more.

Cherokee is a popular destination with several nice hotels to choose from, including the Harrah’s Casino & Hotel. Located just outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cherokee is also a popular camping destination. The Cherokee/Great Smokies KOA features tent sites, RV sites, cabin rentals, a swimming pool, and several other amenities. Locally owned campgrounds include the Flaming Arrow Campground, Indian Creek Campground, River Valley Campground, and Adventure Trail Campground. Cherokee Campground & Craig’s Cabins offers tent sites and rental cabins just outside of town.

Visitor Center – 498 Tsali Blvd, Cherokee, NC | (800) 438-1601 |

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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Each year as the fall colors sweep across the country the Great Smoky Mountains National Park becomes one of the busiest places. Traffic backs up for miles and hotels book weeks in advance. But once you hit the trail toward a waterfall or reach Clingman’s Dome you leave all that behind as the peacefulness of nature surrounds you.

There are no admission fees into this national park but you’ll have to pay for the campgrounds. The towns of Cherokee, Bryson City, Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Townsend are great places to stay but hotels, cabins, and lodges book early.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Website

41Oconaluftee Visitor Center & Mountain Farm Exhibit
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The North Carolina entrance into the national park passes by the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. This visitor center is a great place to get information about the park and current fall colors conditions. There is a large gift shop with loads of books, clothing, and souvenirs, and a small museum to explore.

Just behind the visitor center is the Mountain Farm Exhibit. A short, level path leads through the exhibit of barns and buildings from a time before this area was a national park.

Evenings during the autumn months are a great time to see the elk grazing in the field beside the visitor center. It’s not always a given but at least half the week they will wander across this field as the long shadows stretch across the grass just before sunset.

Read More: Viewing the Elk at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Smokemont Campground

The Smokemont Campground is just up the road from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in North Carolina. This is one of two campgrounds in the park that is open all year (the other being Cades Cove).

This campground has 142 sites in a densely wooded area on both sides of the Bradley Fork River. There is a camp store with supplies and food, firewood is available each day, and there are plenty of restroom facilities. It’s primitive camping, though, with no water or electrical hookups and no shower facilities.

42Newfound Gap Scenic Overlook

The Newfound Gap Scenic Overlook is the unofficial “center” of the park at the highest point along Highway 441 and straddling both Tennessee and North Carolina. The overlook offers a stunning look to the southeast across North Carolina back toward Cherokee. In fact you can even see the road carved out of the mountain below.

There is plenty of parking in this enormous lot and even a few spaces specifically for RVs and campers. A retaining wall at the edge of the parking lot is a popular place to sit back and relax, and the concrete path in front of the wall is a great place to set up a camera for a few photos.

There is a restroom facility off to one end of the parking lot where the Appalachian Trail crosses the highway and disappeared into the woods. Another scenic overlook one this end of the parking lot offers a higher vantage point of the same scenery.

Keep in mind that the fall colors at this elevation will peak about one or two weeks before the lower elevations around Gatlinburg and Cherokee. It will also be significantly cooler.

Sunset on the observation deck at Clingman's Dome is unmatched.
43Clingman's Dome
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Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and offers gorgeous views from the top of an observation tower. The drive from Newfound Gap to the parking area is part of the fun with several scenic overlooks and hiking trails along the way. Once there you can decide what to do next because there is more than just the top.

The parking area has a pretty amazing view all on it’s own. In fact often times the observation tower will be obscured by low level clouds while the parking area will still bathe in sunlight.

The visitor center is a great place to get up to date info on the weather conditions and temperature at the dome. They’ll admit that anything can change instantly but they’ve also been doing this for a long time so they have developed a bit of a sixth sense about it. There is a small gift shop with books, clothing, mugs, and other souvenirs.

The hike to the top is a bit strenuous. It’s almost exactly one mile straight up from the visitor center. At each tenth of a mile a bench gives you a marker as well as a place to catch your breath. The path is concrete so it’s easy on your feet but your calves will burn.

The Appalachian Trail crosses the top at the base of the observation tower. Just a few minutes’ hike down the AT to the south there are a couple of nice campsites carved out by years’ of use. I’m not sure if you would really want to spend a night sleeping here in October but you would need a backcountry camping permit just in case you do.

The observation tower is a winding curve climbing up about another hundred feet to put you above the trees and front and center for a spectacular 360-degree view. The top of the tower is wide enough for about four dozen people and it’s partially covered. From here you can see in all directions to the horizon across the mountain landscapes of North Carolina and Tennessee.

Read More: Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

44Sugarlands Visitor Center

The Sugarlands Visitor Center is one of four primary visitor’s centers located throughout the national park. The visitor center is located at the intersection of Fighting Creek Gap Road and Newfound Gap Road just two miles from the edge of Gatlinburg.

The visitor center features a large gift shop, museum, restrooms, and vending machines. There are usually rangers and volunteers on hand to answer questions, help you plan a day of adventure, and help make reservations at the campgrounds.

Just behind the visitor center is the Fighting Creek Nature Trail. This 1.5-mile trail is an easy loop through the woods to the John Ownby Cabin. The trail is frequently closed because of black bear activity.

Another trail leads toward Cataract Falls. The round trip hike to the falls and back is less than two miles along a flat and easy to hike path.

45Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
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The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a one-lane, one-way loop road through a gorgeous section of the national park. There are plenty of hiking trails, waterfalls, historic buildings, and of course the Roaring Fork Creek.

Ogle Place  is one of the most frequently photographed during the peak of fall colors. The historic buildings spread out in a small field are surrounded by deciduous trees. There is a small parking area and it’s a very short five minute hike to get there.

Rainbow Falls is one of the most popular waterfall hikes in the park because of the rainbow sometimes created in the mist of the falling water. Keep in mind that autumn is actually a bad time of year to visit waterfalls because of the lack of water flowing over them (spring is always the best). The 5.4-mile roundtrip hike is strenuous with a 1,600′ climb in elevation to reach the waterfall.

Grotto Falls is another popular waterfall, especially in the warm summer months. The 2.6-mile roundtrip hike is a bit strenuous with only a 600′ climb in elevation. You’ll hear the waterfall echoing through the forest just before coming around the last bend in the trail to see it for yourself. The waterfall tumbles over a ledge into a shallow pool before spilling over into a small gorge. The trail crosses over the grotto and there is even a small section behind the waterfall!

Along the motor trail you’ll find lots of historic buildings like Jim Bales Place and Ephraim Bales Cabin. These old log homes are usually left open so you can walk inside and get a feel for what the real estate market was like in the 1800s.

Gatlinburg, TN

Gatlinburg is the unofficial Capital of Fall Colors in the South. No really they are. Hotels and resorts are booked sometimes a year in advance. People from Atlanta, Nashville, and Florida flood into the mountain town. Traffic is horrible and the lines are long. But you’re surrounded by some of the most amazing fall colors you’ll see in these mountains.

This town has a lot of different ways to enjoy the fall colors. If you want one of the best views of the colors surrounding the town take a ride up the Gatlinburg Space Needle. Take a drive along the Gatlinburg Bypass to find two hidden scenic overlooks with views of the entire town and Mount Le Conte in the distance. Take a ride on the Ober Gatlinburg or Gatlinburg Sky Lift for a slow tour over the colorful trees.

You can rent a Jeep Wrangler or four-seat ATV and tour the town with the top off and the doors…well there aren’t any doors. Go for a walk along Parkway and you’ll still see the fall colors in all directions along with the wonderful autumn decor the town and businesses put out each year.

If you book early enough you’ll be able to get a great rate in a great room right in the heart of Gatlinburg. When booking look for a hotel on River Road; it’s a side road that bypasses the traffic congestion on Parkway so it will be easy to come and go to your room. If you can’t find anything in town head toward Pigeon Forge on Highway 321 to find more accommodations but beware the potential traffic nightmare of getting back into town later.

One detraction of Gatlinburg has been the name brand takeover. You’ll find just about every kind of national chain restaurant in town and if that’s all you want then you are good to go. But if you want to try some local food head over to the iconic Pancake Pantry for a breakfast you won’t forget or stop by Crockett’s 1875 Breakfast Camp. Lunch is great at Blaine’s Grill and Bar and Cherokee Grill. For dinner try the Smoky Mountain Trout House or the Smoky Mountain Brewery.

Read More: Eating Local at the Pancake Pantry

Welcome Center – 1011 Banner Road, Gatlinburg, TN | 865-436-0519 |

Elkmont Campground

The Elkmont Campground is one of the most secluded and peaceful frontcountry campgrounds in the national park. Hidden down a side road off Little River Road about twenty minutes from Gatlinburg there is no cellphone reception and no distractions.

The campground has 220 campsites spread out across several loops on both sides of the Little River. There is a very small camp store for last minute items like makes s’mores and buying firewood. There are plenty of restroom facilities but like all the other campgrounds in this park there are no showers.

46The Elkmont Historic District
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It would be a shame to miss this beautiful and hidden section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Located beside the Elkmont Campground this historic district has a nice trail to hike, lots of old historic cabins, and Daisy Town.

The 4.9-mile Little River Trail is a roundtrip hike along the Little River to the small but beautiful Husky Branch Falls. Along the way you’ll pass a few remaining cabins that were used as retreats once upon a time, and the remnants of several more cabins.

If you’re not up for the hike you can spend your time exploring Daisy Town instead. The buildings along the narrow one-lane road were vacation rentals at one time but now are left unused as historical markers. The nearby Appalachian Club is still available for rentals for weddings and group events. Walk along the narrow road to view the rustic buildings and wonder what it might have been like to vacation here long ago.

Read More: The Hidden Wonder at the Elkmont Historic District

47Meigs Falls

Meigs Falls is the only waterfall in the park you can literally see from your car. A small pull off along Little River Road about halfway between Gatlinburg and Cades Cove brings you straight within view of the waterfall. The falls are a few hundred feet back from the road but it’s an easy view. The surrounding fall colors make it all that much more amazing to admire.

Read More: Meigs Falls in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Cades Cove Campground

This campground at the edge of Cades Cove is probably the most sought-after in the entire national park. With 159 sites it’s always a bit tough to find a campsite for a weekend, but weekdays you’re usually good. Similar to the Elkmont Campground this one stays open year round.

The campground has several restroom facilities but no showers, and there are no water or electrical hookups. There is a very nice camp store with all kinds of toiletries and staples as well as a deli that serves some pretty good sandwiches and burgers. A gift shop next door sells all kinds of clothing, jewelry, photography, and souvenirs.

48Cades Cove
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Cades Cove is without a doubt the most popular place to visit in the national park during the peak of fall colors. Or, really, almost any time of the year. And there is a very good reason for that: it’s stunning out there.

An 11-mile one-lane, one-way loop road explores the cove surrounded by towering mountains on all sides. When the fall colors sweep through the area it’s like walking through a kaleidoscope. While it’s easy to drive the road through the cove there are also many things to stop and do.

John Oliver Place is a neat historic log home to explore and one of the oldest structures remaining in the national park. The walk through the field to reach the cabin places you in a great position to admire the fall colors surrounding the home.

The Cades Cove Primitive Baptist Church makes a striking contrast during the peak of fall colors with it’s all-white paint scheme. The one-lane road getting down to the church can be a bit frustrating if people aren’t willing to pull over and share the road.

Just past the Cades Cove Missionary Church is a large parking area with the most commanding view of the cove. A large open field leads to groves of trees with mountains in the distance. The display of fall colors are at their best from this vantage point.

Abrahams Falls is another of the most popular waterfalls in the park, especially during the peak of fall colors. The 8.6-mile roundtrip trail will take a few hours to complete but it’s worth it as you get further away from noises and distractions and find yourself surrounded by the vibrant fall colors.

At the end of the loop is the Cades Cove Visitor Center and John Cable Mill. The visitor center has a very nice gift shop with clothing, books, and souvenirs. There is a nice restroom facility beside the visitor center. Hop on the concrete path to walk through the historic cable mill area with a large home, several smaller buildings, and the mill itself. The mill is usually operating on the weekends in October so you can see it up close in action.

The cove has a lot of historic homes to visit during your trek along the road. The Henry Whitehead House is gorgeous and secluded, Dan Lawson Place is the easiest to access, Tipton Place is the largest home in the cove, and the Carter Shields Cabin is one of the most gorgeous.

If you’re up for a little more action during the fall colors in the cove you can rent a bicycle at the store in the campground and bike all or parts of the loop road. On Wednesday and Saturday mornings the road is closed to vehicular traffic in the mornings so visitors can freely and safely enjoy a bike ride. You can also visit the Cades Cove Riding Stables for a horsedrawn carriage tour or some horseback riding along various trails.

Townsend, TN

Townsend bills itself as the “Peaceful Side of the Smokies” so what better place to end this epic road trip? This small town is the closest to Cades Cove and has plenty of lodging, eateries, and shopping to keep you busy for a few days.

Apple Valley Country Store and Cafe is an interesting place to visit even if all you do is window shop. The large retail store has a vast collection of gifts, souvenirs, arts, and crafts that speak volumes about the Smoky Mountains. Cades Cove Cellars is a great place to find some local Tennessee wine and enjoy free daily wine tastings. The Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center is a nice museum that delves into the history of the local Appalachian Mountains.

MTN Trax rents out street legal UTVs and offers guided off-road tours in the Townsend area, including Cades Cove. Rentals begin at $187 for two-seaters and guided tours start at $75 per person. Can you imagine driving the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road in an open-air UTV? But the greatest site under the mountains is Tuckaleechee Caverns. These awesome caverns are an exciting place to visit and make the perfect rainy day getaway.

If you want a little bonus place to see some more fall colors take a drive along the Foothills Parkway. This beautiful scenic drive is part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park along a ridge a few miles from Townsend. There are several scenic overlooks along the road on both sides so you can enjoy a gorgeous sunrise or sunset, or both! Be sure to visit Look Rock for a stunning view from a scenic overlook at the parking lot or take the short but moderately strenuous trail to the top of the mountain and climb the lookout tower for a view from the top.

A great place to have a first meal in Townsend is the locally owned Riverstone Family Restaurant; the fast and friendly service is second only to the good local cooking. Trailhead Steakhouse and Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro are a couple more great places to grab some good local food. The Apple Valley Cafe & Restaurant is a great place for breakfast or lunch with some amazing fried pies and desserts (along with actual food, too). If you have a comfy car try the Burger Master Drive-In for simple food that will leave you satisfied and full.

A few of the local B&B’s include the Chilhowie Inn just outside town and the Richmont Inn. The Dancing Bear Lodge in the middle of town has several cabins ranging from rustic to modern all with amazing views on the secluded property. Tremont Lodge & Resort is an overnight destination with lots of recently renovated cabins, campsites with full hook-ups, and three swimming pools. You can also pitch a tent or pull up an RV at the Townsend/Great Smokies KOA.

Visitor Center – 7906 E. Lamar Alexander Parkway, Townsend, TN | 800-525-6834 |

  • AdventureDawgs

    Love, love, love this info packed post! I think visiting our US National Parks is one of the best things you can do and this is the perfect fall roadtrip. Shenandoah is amazing, and fall is a great time to visit. If time allowed, I’d plan for a couple days there to add some hiking in. It’s good to stretch your legs from riding! They are also very dog friendly so the whole family can come along. Cherokee is such a cool town, I have many childhood memories there. We vacationed in the Smokies every year when I was growing up. I definitely need to check out the beerworks trail! We did the Brew Ridge Trail near Charlottesville a few years ago and it was amazing. Happy and safe travels my friend and I look forward to reading more!