Story by Randy Johnson
Fall tints trees all across North Carolina, but autumn’s allure is most colorful where suddenly chilly temperatures turn northern tree species to brilliant reds and yellows. People rightly associate that scenario with New England’s northern climate, where maples, birches, beeches, and other species flame in postcard colors.
Luckily, Vermont-like autumn color isn’t as far away as Vermont. The highest Southern Appalachian summits have been called an “arm of New England reaching deep into the South.” Eastern America’s loftiest peaks—northwest North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell, the East’s highest at nearly 7,000 feet—receive as much snow in winter as Buffalo, New York.
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In that kind of climate, where summers are cool and winters are snowy enough for skiing, there’s a brilliant autumn color season in between—even in North Carolina. Head high up enough in elevation, to the state’s most rarefied cool climate zones, and any New Englander would recognize the trees. They’d also be wowed by the color—red, orange, and yellow sugar maples, and fluttering golds and yellows of beeches and birches.
These are the colorful trees that dominate forests in northwest North Carolina, a corner of the state nicknamed the High Country. Motor almost any back road or portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway from late September to late October and all around, hissing breezes rustle colorful leaves. Spruces and firs mix in as dark green on the highest peaks. In Banner Elk, Blowing Rock, Boone, Linville, and the Village of Sugar Mountain, white pines wave in the wind like they do in New England.
Postcard Perfect Color
One glance at the fall photos in those postcard photos of the Blue Ridge Parkway’s famous Linn Cove Viaduct on Grandfather Mountain makes it obvious—High Country color rivals autumn anywhere in the world.
This fall is a great time see for yourself. The viaduct and the “missing link” part of the Parkway around Grandfather Mountain opened exactly 25 years ago this autumn (September 11, 1987). The famous scenic road that started in the NC High Country (near Cumberland Knob) in 1935, was also completed in the High Country after 52 years under construction. For many motorists, this key portion of the Parkway is the highpoint of “America’s most scenic road.”
A Region of Autumn Options
The Parkway—the most popular unit of the entire National Park System—is one road among many for exploring autumn color in the High Country. And scenic driving is just one way to do it. Many Parkway overlooks have easy, so-called “leg-stretcher trails” that lead to cascading waterfalls and inspiring viewpoints that will stretch your definition of scenic.
On Grandfather Mountain those views include the viaduct. One wheelchair accessible trail from the Linn Cove Visitor Center wanders right beneath it. Another easy hike to a stunning view on Rough Ridge shows the viaduct clinging to the mountainside.
Far above the Viaduct, the South’s most rugged trails climb ladders up cliffs and summits in Grandfather Mountain State Park. Beside the state park, the Mile-High Swinging Bridge leads the less adventurous (and even the wheelchair-bound) to eye-popping views. The drive to the bridge includes a highly-regarded nature museum and wildlife viewing habitats.
Cyclists have spectacular routes to autumn adventure, one reason the High Country was just named one of the nation’s “ultimate Ride hotspots” by a national cycling publication. A tour on almost any quiet country road will demonstrate why, after battling cancer, Lance Amstrong’s was inspired by training in the High Country to tackle the Tour de France. Boone’s brand-new Rocky Knob mountain bike park is an attraction. So is the Boone Greenway.
Skiing won’t be on the agenda till Thanksgiving, but scenic fall chairlift rides on Sugar Mountain whisk you a mile high for great biking and some of the area’s best autumn views. Hook your mountain bike to the attachments on the chair, and it’s all downhill, for adventurous riders on expansive grassy ski slope trails, or gradual, exhilarating and easy road rides in the Village of Sugar Mountain.
Autumn’s cool temps invite all kinds exercise, and that includes golf and tennis at their most scenic and invigorating. Tennis courts dot the Village of Sugar Mountain, and Sugar’s 18-hole golf course twists and turns through colorful forests with outstanding views of towering nearby peaks, among them Grandfather Mountain.
After you’ve played a few rounds, hiked a few trails—or just spent a breezy afternoon gazing at the view from a mountain cabin or condo—there’s pampering available. High Country spas have attracted raves from national travel magazines.
That’s just the start of the area’s sophisticated experiences. With three wineries, the High Country’s new wine trail permits inspired sipping. Your circular scenic route can start right at the entrance to the Village of Sugar Mountain and include winery tours and tastings in Foscoe, Valle Crucis, and Banner Elk.
And with art galleries, antique shops, artist’s studios, boutiques and specialty shops all along that same route, it’s easy to make culture the focus of fall travel. Long-known for the traditional music of local legend Doc Watson and others, the High Country is increasingly a place where an appreciation, and an experience, of mountain history anchors an enviable modern lifestyle in one of the country’s most attractive mountain resort areas.
Surprising Places to Stay
The beauty of the High Country comes through in its diverse settings, including an astounding assortment of accommodations and locations. The bigger towns have plentiful motel and hotel choices, and there are rural country inns and condos too.
The best-kept-secret strategy for choosing lodging in the High Country is to aim at accommodations that are in the center of everything—but delightfully off the beaten path. The newest such sweet spot is the Village of Sugar Mountain. Literally the High Country’s newest town—the Village of Sugar Mountain is a mountain, with recreation right on site, and fall color-filled vistas anywhere you look.
Homes, condominiums, and resort activities cluster on and around the soaring grassy ski slopes of the South’s largest ski area. The region’s greatest vertical drop plummets 1,200 feet from the view-packed peak down to the golf course.
Fall is a sleeper time to check-in to a ski town, where homes or condos are not just in the mountains—but on a mountain. In the Village of Sugar Mountain, all sizes of condos and homes range from towering summit settings, with some of the South’s most awesome views, to secluded spots, enveloped in neon fall foliage, where the sound of a rushing stream ebbs and flows with autumn breeze.
Sugar reflects the fact that even in a region of world-class outdoor resources like the High Country, it’s not necessary to spend time driving if you’re looking for a memorable autumn experience. During Sugar’s weekend-long Oktoberfest in mid-October, there’s great food, beer, and music, from Oom Pah to traditional mountain tunes, with award-winning Appalachian clogging and smooth dancing demonstrations.
Besides golf, tennis, and biking, there are colorful trails for walks and hikes. Or take the scenic chairlift to summit views, then wander down the slopes and paths for a “Sound of Music” moment. If you’re staying in a slope-side home or condo, you could walk home!
There’s enough to do in the Village of Sugar Mountain and the surrounding High Country area to fill a week—and Village lodging programs encourage that with a special fall package featuring five nights of lodging for the price of three. Even without two free nights of lodging, having your own home or condo, with a kitchen, private views, and other amenities, is as inexpensive as staying in a chain motel.
Whether you’re trying to keep your eye on the golf ball or the trail ahead, you won’t miss the neon colors of the surrounding forest. These woods are full of sugar maples—the trees that gave Sugar Mountain its name—and New Hampshire its fall colors.
Zero in on autumn in a ski village and great memories can be made without needing to see the season through the windshield. Best of all, world-class autumn color, and a special place to enjoy it, are as close as the Village of Sugar Mountain. From North Carolina’s biggest cities, it’s often just a few hours to the South’s biggest ski area and its mountain-sized town.
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Randy Johnson is the author of the nationally bestselling trail guides Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway and Hiking North Carolina. He’s written about the High Country, international travel, and skiing for national newspapers and magazines.