It’s easy to gawk at the latest über-hip hotel with suites that cost more than my car, or the newest cruise ship that’s the size of an NFL stadium. But none of these manmade wonders can compare with nature’s dazzling display of fall foliage in the mountains of western North Carolina, specifically around Asheville.
When to go:
Leaves start turning at the highest elevations first, and the highest points in the eastern United States are just outside Asheville. In early October, the leaves will be turning at Mount Mitchell and Grandfather Mountain. The fall colors will make their way down to Asheville in mid- to late-October, and then in early November it will reach lower elevations like Chimney Rock and Lake Lure. Check here for weekly fall color reports.
Asheville is about two hours west of Charlotte and less than four hours northeast of Atlanta. Flying into AVL can be pricey, so try GSP, which is about 65 miles south in Greenville, S.C.
Here’s a hot deal at the Waynesville Inn Golf Resort & Spa; book by Sept. 24 for stays through November.
Waynesville is a charming town, about 30 miles west of Asheville. Within Asheville itself, there are a handful of upscale hotels. Be sure to check back on Travelzoo for additional deals.
What to see:
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the 469-mile National Scenic Byway that twists and meanders its way from Rockfish Gap near Waynesboro, Virginia, to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Cherokee, North Carolina. It’s visited by about 20 million people per year, making it the most-visited part of the U.S. National Parks System. It should be especially busy this fall, when leaf-peepers will be out in force. If you’re able to spend a few days in Asheville, plan your schedule so that you can avoid the parkway on weekends.
In addition to the natural splendor, Asheville’s biggest attraction (quite literally) is the Biltmore Estate. Within its 175,000 square feet, America’s largest private residence boasts 250 rooms, including 34 bedrooms and 43 bathrooms. Its spectacular grounds were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the creator of New York's Central Park. The estate also features a winery that offers tours and a tasting room.
Each year during the holidays, Biltmore Estate is decked out with dozens of Christmas trees (including one 35-foot Fraser fir) and countless wreaths, garlands and poinsettias. This year, “Christmas at Biltmore” begins Nov. 5, which should overlap with the end of the foliage season.
Fall is also a great time to visit the North Carolina Arboretum and explore its 434 acres, including 65 acres of cultivated gardens, 10 miles of trails and one of the finest bonsai collections in America.
Where to get in touch with the great outdoors:
Especially on a crisp autumn day, hiking and mountain biking are fantastic ways to take in the foliage and the hundreds of waterfalls in western North Carolina; some of my favorites are below. One word of caution: never stand on the edge or enter the water just upstream from a waterfall. Tourists have been injured or even killed because they don’t understand the slipperiness of the rocks or the strength of the current.
DuPont State Forest: About 40 miles southwest of Asheville, this 10,000 acre forest has wide, well-maintained trails that are ideal for hiking or mountain biking. Triple Falls, which drops 120 feet, is about a seven-minute walk upstream from the parking lot, covering fairly steep terrain. High Falls, which drops 150 feet, is about 15 minutes further upstream, via moderate terrain. The smaller Hooker Falls, which drops 11 feet into Cascade Lake, is a six-minute walk downstream from the parking lot. If that’s a bit strenuous, take a 12-mile tour by shuttle bus to Triple Falls, High Falls, Bridal Veil Falls and Lake Julia during the Tour de Falls, which will take place on Oct. 16 and Oct. 17.
Upper Whitewater Falls: At 411 feet, some consider this to be the tallest waterfall east of the Mississippi (others would give this accolade to Crabtree Falls in Virginia, depending on how a “waterfall” is defined). Upper Whitewater Falls is about 60 miles from Asheville, near the South Carolina border. There’s a quarter-mile paved walkway from the parking lot to an upper overlook, then a 154 steps down to a lower viewing point. Admission to the parking lot is $2.
Gorges State Park: North Carolina’s westernmost state park is in Lake Toxaway, about 50 miles southwest of Asheville. It’s a moderately difficult three-mile hike from the parking lot past the aptly-named Turtleback Falls to the 150-foot Rainbow Falls and back.
Chimney Rock State Park/Lake Lure: You can either walk or take an elevator to the top of Chimney Rock, a 315-foot granite monolith. From there, you’ll see a breathtaking view of Lake Lure, where “Dirty Dancing” was filmed. The park, which is where many of the final scenes in “The Last of the Mohicans” were filmed, also includes the 404-foot Hickory Nut Falls. If you have time for a leisurely drive from Asheville, take the 20-mile trip down US-74 ALT E instead of I-26 to US-64. If you’d like to spend a night in Chimney Rock, The Esmerelda Inn (910 Main Street) was remodeled a few years ago and is absolutely gorgeous.
Craggy Gardens: This is at mile post 364, on the way to Mount Mitchell. Although it’s only about 17 miles northeast of Asheville, it’s 3,500 feet higher in elevation, so the weather will be significantly cooler. June and July, when the rhododendron are in bloom, are the best months to hike here. But the Craggy Pinnacle trail is easy enough for the whole family, and it’s just a 1.5-mile roundtrip hike. From Craggy Pinnacle, you’d get a 360-degree view of the mountains.
Mount Mitchell: With an elevation of 6,684 feet, this is the highest point in the eastern United States. Again, the weather here can be extreme; winds of 178 miles per hour have been recorded at the summit. Mount Mitchell State Park, which is 33 miles northeast of Asheville, has about eight miles of hiking trails. But from the parking lot, the walk to the summit (where there’s an observation tower) is short and paved.
Looking Glass Rock: This granite monolith is about 25 miles southwest of Asheville, and can be viewed from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Its name comes from the way the rock reflects sunlight. The climb to the top is moderately difficult, rising 1700 feet over 3.1 miles.
Where to eat and drink:
With all of this sightseeing and hiking, you’ll probably work up an appetite.
For breakfast, check out the traditional Southern cuisine at Tupelo Honey Café (12 College St.). I’m particularly fond of the enormous sweet potato pancake, topped with whipped peach butter and spiced pecans.
A great lunch spot is 12 Bones Smokehouse (5 Riverside Drive), which has earned quite a bit of acclaim for its blueberry chipotle ribs. I’m also a big fan of the jalapeno cheese grits. 12 Bones is on the banks of the French Broad River, in a funky warehouse-turned-arts district about a mile and a half from downtown. It’s only open 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, and the line can stretch around the building, so get there early (and hungry).
For dinner, go to Salsa’s (6 Patton Ave.) for Caribbean cuisine with a Mexican flair. The menu changes frequently, but everything is very fresh and often quite creative. No Day-Glo processed cheese slapped over greasy ground beef and canned refried beans here. At Salsa’s, you might feast on a local trout enchilada with pineapple chutney, slow-roasted pork with orange-fennel sauce or seared salmon empanadas with goat cheese.
Afterwards, sip handcrafted English ales and hear local musicians at Jack of the Wood (95 Patton Ave.). Meanwhile, the Bier Garden (46 Haywood St.) has 200 beers -- and, with 16 televisions, is a great place to watch a game. Or venture a mile and a half north of downtown to Asheville Pizza and Brewing Company (675 Merrimon Ave.), home of the award-winning Ninja porter, Houdini extra special pale, and the new Shiva I.P.A., which I haven’t had the pleasure of trying … yet. Oh, but I will -- now that’s a manmade wonder that I can get into.