The Best Places to See Fall Foliage in the South

Oct 1, 2019

Down south, fall is its own thing: It’s not as cold as the north, football is everywhere and so is pecan pie (mmm, pie). Apart from those ‘Bama running backs, though, everything moves a little slower here—and fall foliage is no exception. But when it does come—oh, boy. It’s a whole other kind of crimson tide, with amber thrown in for good measure all the way from West Virginia down through Georgia and South Carolina (Sorry, Florida, you’ll get your due come winter). To help steer you, we’ve picked out seven of the best spots, where you generally have through November to catch the show. So crank up the country and hit the road.


West Virginia: Sandstone Falls

With Country Roads cranking to ensure peak mountain mama vibes, make your way to gorgeous Sandstone Falls, where you’ll walk a well-kept boardwalk under a canopy of red and yellow maple leaves, past streams and moss-covered rocks, to the mammoth, 1,500-foot-wide cascade. Get the best Gram at the very end of the boardwalk, where tree-covered mountains—aglow with brilliant fall colors—hug the river. Feeling adventurous? Step off the boardwalk and follow a path down to the riverside beach beneath the falls for a Zen moment among the stone stacks.

 

If you love a Dairy Queen (and if not, we don’t know you anymore), follow the road a few miles to the old railroad town of Hinton, where you’ll find one of the world’s most unusual DQs (oh yes, there’s a historic downtown to check out as well). Order up a Blizzard and hang in the riverside dining room, where the huge windows are perfect for peeping fall colors, obvi. You’ll also find a cozy fireplace and unsanctioned menu items. In fact, folks drive from all over to taste these rule-breakers’ special-recipe chili dogs.


Alabama: Lake Lurleen

One of the main fall colors you’ll spot in Alabama? Crimson, of course—which adorns players and fans of the the University of Alabama’s legendary football team. And you could easily spend your time here watching the Tide roll into its massive home stadium in Tuscaloosa (no judgements). 

But if you came here in search of multiple colors, head to the shoreline of nearby Lake Lurleen. The change of seasons is subtle but striking in Alabama, so you’ll find pops of color along this glittering, 250-acre lake and in the surrounding 23 miles of hiking and biking trails. If you’d rather be out on the water, rent a fishing boat to angle for bream, catfish, and largemouth bass—or just rent a paddleboat and check out the brilliant scene.


Virginia: Skyline Drive

If there were a hall of fame for fall-color drives in America, this beloved National Scenic Byway would have been one of the first inductees. At 105 miles long, the road runs the length of Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park and provides 75 (whut?!) scenic overlooks for sweeping views of the Shenandoah Valley to the west and Piedmont to the east. Golds and greens? Check. Magnificent pops of red and orange? Check and check. The whole drive takes about three hours (unless, of course, you stop at all 75 overlooks), so you should have plenty of time to hit up Showalter’s Orchard for pick-your-own apples and fall-in-a-glass cider.

 

Along the way, keep an eye out for the most famous local celebs: Shenandoah’s black bears, who make for a dazzling sighting from a safe distance. Just drive carefully: Like wild turkeys and deer, black bears are known to wander into the road as often as leaves blow across on a breeze.


Georgia and Tennessee: Blue Ridge Scenic Railway

Let someone else do the driving for you on a four-hour trip along the Toccoa River and through the Chattahoochee National Forest. Your ride? A vintage train, where you should opt for an open-air coach if you want to breathe in the crisp air. And if you forget your extra-hold hairspray? Not to worry—there’s also a closed car.

 

The 26-mile journey starts in Blue Ridge, Georgia, and winds through the Appalachian foothills toward the state line, where you’ll spend a two-hour layover in the sister towns of McCaysville, Georgia, and Copperhill, Tennessee—enough time to explore on foot and grab lunch. Locals swear by the Rum Cake Lady, where you can get shockingly authentic Cuban cuisine (and rum cakes aplenty). And if the humidity-depleted fall air is leaving your skin sapped, head to the Copper Mine Candle Co. for something called a lotion candle—a warm, molten moisturizing treat. Seems weird, feels good (and smells great).


Kentucky: Bernheim Arboretum

What if we told you there were a magical place with both shimmering orange leaves and sweet brown liquor? Welcome to the Bluegrass State, where the Bourbon Trail also offers a bounty of natural scenery. Using Louisville as a starting point, don’t leave without exploring the Bernheim Arboretum—a 16,137-acre research forest and nature preserve, with 40 miles of hiking and biking trails that offer unparalleled access to fall colors.

 

The preserve’s annual ColorFest (Oct. 19-20) offers a typical menu of hayrides and mazes; gourd-flingers can delight in a giant pumpkin slingshot. There’s also something more unexpected: Massive forest giants, made of recycled local wood by Danish artist Thomas Dambo. And lest you forget how near you are to the sweet boozy stuff (like, right next door to the Four Roses Bottling Facility), bear in mind that the preserve’s land was endowed by Isaac W. Bernheim, the distiller of the popular bourbon brand I.W. Harper.


South Carolina: Congaree National Park

Though Spanish moss dripping off live oaks is indisputably gorgeous whenever, we’re guessing you don’t think of it in a fall foliage context. But as the weather turns cooler, the moss shifts from greenish-gray to a delicate silver, and the ethereal result is worth seeing in Congaree National Park. Mind you, the live oaks themselves don’t change color, but the park is also home to plenty of trees that do.

 

In fact, not only are the trees here colorful, they’re big—really big. This old-growth hardwood forest boats some of the tallest (and oldest) trees in the nation, including one of the largest concentrations of National Champion Trees (yep, it’s a thing). The largest recorded living specimen of a tree species in the U.S. is designated a champ, and this place has plenty of winners. See them by hiking some of the 25 miles of trails or by taking an easy stroll through the floodplain along a 2.4-mile boardwalk.


Arkansas: The Arkansas and Missouri Railroad

Ozark clearly doesn’t want for fan (hi, 2019 Emmys), but if it did, we’d suggest one tweak to Netflix: Show the namesake area in autumn, when both sides of the Arkansas-Missouri border go completely eye-popping with color. And the second train ride on our list is a particularly easy way to see what we mean. The three-hour, 70-mile round-trip aboard the A&M Railroad travels from Van Buren to Winslow through the bluffs and valleys of the Ozarks’ Boston Mountains.

Book a Silver Feather ticket for access to the glass-ceilinged upper deck and amazing overhead views (think Monet on something psychedelic). And the ride in plush, vintage rail cars offers an especially breathtaking treat: You’ll cross three not-for-the-faint-of-heart steep trestles that overlook the rugged forest below—and come with a finely honed repertoire of nerve-soothing jokes, courtesy of the conductors.

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