Go Off the Beaten Path in North Carolina This Fall

Jul 26, 2019

In a state with four national forests to its name, epic fall foliage comes as no surprise. But here’s what you may not know: Some of the best leaf-peeping ops lie well off the tourist trail, as do several other amazing experiences you won’t want to miss in North Carolina—that is, once you know they exist. From awesome-in-autumn beach escapes to eye-popping art installations meant to be climbed, here are six of the least expected, most memorable experiences you can gift yourself this coming season.

The fall foliage road less traveled

Let’s be clear: North Carolina’s famed fall foliage lives up to its rep, wherever you go to leaf-peep in the state.

Blue Ridge Mountains near Brevard

But if you’d like to give your fellow foliage lovers the slip and have a dazzling display (almost) to yourself, head for Three Top Mountain in the North Carolina High Country. The 5,035-foot summit—named for a trio of rocky outcrops—is the peak (literally) of a 2,308-acre game land protected by the Nature Conservancy that remains gloriously off the radar (shhh!). Just beyond the iron gate in the parking lot, you’ll find an approximately 4-mile roundtrip trail that's steep in parts—and rugged throughout—but worth the effort for the stunning ridgeline views.

Fall fun in a summer hot spot

No less than Orville and Wilbur Wright felt the lure of autumn in the Outer Banks—ideal proving grounds for the fabled flying machine. And thanks to the brothers’ 1903 success, anyone with access to an airport can now easily reach this group of barrier islands off the North Carolina coast—all dramatic dunes, gorgeous beaches and adorable towns—where fall brings sunny days, thinned-out crowds and a whole array of activities the Wrights would never have imagined.

Bodie Island Lighthouse in Nags Head, Photo Credit: Visit North Carolina

The Lost Colony Wine & Culinary Festival (Sept. 28) is a favorite, not only for its fresh local delicacies, wines and craft beers, but also for its location: Roanoke Island, home to the very first (and long vanished) British colony on present-day U.S. soil. To say nothing of the stunning views of Roanoke Sound.

Another great option is the Outer Banks Seafood Festival (Oct. 19) in Nags Head, where you'll find live music, cooking contests and all manner of local specialties. To give you an idea: Last Year's People's Choice-winning restaurant—Basnight’s Lone Cedar Cafe—will be serving everything from Wanchese bacon-wrapped scallops with pepper jelly to North Carolina jumbo lump crab dip with crostini. For its part, last year's Judges' Choice designee—Proof Bakery—will be back with its award-winning shrimp-stuffed pretzels, a beloved fixture of the festival (more than 1500 sell annually). Another fun fact: That black-and-white lighthouse you'll see on all the festival T-shirts? It's the famed Bodie Lighthouse, here since 1872, and now open to/climbable by the public—the better to work off all those shrimp-stuffed pretzels.

Kiteboarding at Kitty Hawk Kites Kiteboarding Resort, Photo Credit: Visit North Carolina

Fall breezes also make for ideal kiteboarding conditions, so you’ll get an ethereal bonus spectacle if you visit this time of year: dozens of kaleidoscopic sails just offshore when you’re strolling the area’s beaches—or scaling the East Coast’s tallest sand dunes in Jockey’s Ridge State Park. Kitty Hawk Kites has the area’s most extensive collection of all things airborne (kite, wind art, glider gear, etc.). Not coincidentally, neighboring Kill Devil Hills is where the Wright Brothers first took flight—what with those favorable breezes—and it’s now home to the Wright Brothers National Memorial.

Almost as monumental? The famous made-to-order Duck Donuts, which originated in the Outer Banks (the town of Duck, actually), where you pick your own coatings, toppings and drizzle to spectacular effect.

Wildlife in the wild

The 152,000-acre Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is a favorite for paddlers, and fall is prime time to enjoy the area’s residents from the water. (There are the four wildlife trails, with color-coded markers to guide you through remote waterways—plus guided canoe tours.) But even if paddling isn’t your thing, you’ll find biking and walking trails, too.

Canoeing at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in East Lake, Photo Credit: Visit North Carolina

However you choose to get around, you’ll be surrounded by 250 or so local bird species—Eastern screech owls and endangered red cockaded woodpeckers among them—to say nothing of the ducks, geese, and tundra swans headed south for the winter.

The refuge is also home to world’s only population of red wolves and a particularly dense population of black bears. (For the best chance of spotting a bear, try at dusk in one of the six farmer’s fields within the refuge.) And for wildlife photography fans, there’s an exceptionally rare bonus: a free mobile blind—kind of a portable cabin that’s the next best thing to an invisibility cloak—that shields your presence from wary subjects and allows you to capture close-ups and animal behaviors you might otherwise miss.

The coolest climb-able art

Drop in at the house party—technically it’s a “participatory rooftop”—at the North Carolina Museum of Art (through Oct. 31). The temporary outdoor exhibit by artist Heather Hart, whose other works have fast become Instagram favorites, lets you have a totally personal interaction with an epic piece of art: Scramble to the top of a partially submerged rooftop sculpture while piping your own music through the house’s speaker system (there’s a little plug-in area inside).

Photo Credit: North Carolina Museum of Art

If you don’t have tunes in mind (or are worried your phone will accidentally cough up the most embarrassing ones you own), the artist herself has offered a playlist. The exhibit, called “Southern Oracle: We Will Tear the Roof Off” was inspired by Hart’s carpenter father, her family history in North Carolina, and the legendary musician George Clinton (a North Carolina native himself).

While you’re there, don’t miss what’s happening inside this renowned Raleigh museum. Some of the most notable upcoming exhibits include Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection (Oct. 26-Jan. 19)—and the first-ever solo show of works by Scott Avett, of Avett Brothers fame (Oct. 12-Feb. 2).

One of the most fun—and least known—forms of fishing

Into the world of fusion sports—paddleboard yoga, anyone?—comes kayak fishing, whose popularity has ballooned in recent years. Called a “frontier sport” because it’s still in its early days, this one lets you set your own pace, access waterways that bigger boats can’t—and catch great fish in the process.

Kayak Fishing in Beaufort, Photo Credit: Visit North Carolina

Lovely little Oriental, NC, is one of the best places to try—and autumn is one of the best seasons: September brings spawning old drum (to the delight of trophy seekers from across the US and the world); Oct. 1 is opening day for stripers, and the entire month sees speckled trout return to the area creeks. (To say nothing of the flounder that hang out year-round.) Put otherwise, even novices are unlikely to strike out. But even if you’re not interested in fishing, kayaks are a great way to explore this gorgeous corner of North Carolina’s Inner Banks, where the wildlife-rich Neuse River intertwines with several creeks, and boating season runs year-round.

A trip down memory lane

Fans of The Andy Griffith Show—or simply of nostalgic time-travel—convene each fall in the town that’s said to have inspired Mayberry: Mount Airy (Griffith’s birthplace). Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, this year's Mayberry Days Festival (Sept. 23-29) promises to be epic, with appearances at autograph sessions by at least a dozen cast members, not least Betty Lynn, who played Barney Fife's lady love, Thelma Lou. Speaking of Barney, we'd be remiss if we didn't note that his daughter—or more accurately, Don Knotts' daughter, Karen—will also be on hand to regale you with tales of her dad. Then there are all the concerts, comedy shows, contests—and naturally, a parade. 

Wally's Service Station in Mount Airy, Photo Credit: Visit North Carolina

But even if you miss Mayberry Days, there’s plenty to love in the quintessential Southern small town, first founded as a stagecoach stop in the 1700s, and still home to an old-timey lunch counter and barbershop. Get a selfie with Sheriff Andy Taylor and his son, Opie (who, of course, grew up to be Richie Cunningham, then Academy Award-winning director Ron Howard) at the statue of them on Rockford Street. Also be sure to stop by the Andy Griffith Museum, home to the largest single collection of the star’s artifacts and memorabilia.

Ready to experience fall in a brand-new way? Start planning your North Carolina getaway now.

This year, Travelzoo is falling for the South. Check out our picks for the best eye-popping autumn colors, entertaining festivals, charming small towns and mouth-watering foodie finds.

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