As summer fades to fall, millions of tourists will begin flocking to western North Carolina. Temperatures are perfect for getting outdoors to enjoy one of the most magnificent displays of nature – the changing leaves in the Great Smoky Mountains.
By late September, the colors will start to pop on the ridges, especially above 5,000 feet. Throughout October and early November, the display will work its way down the mountains into the Nantahala Gorge.
If you’re coming to our area to watch the leaves, or you moved to the area because of our unmatched beauty, there are plenty of ways to avoid the crowds and do something unique. Whether it’s finding an off-the-beaten-path hiking trail or playing a new game in the great outdoors, we have some ideas that will help you make the most of autumn in western North Carolina.
Eight Fun Fall Activities in Western North Carolina
1) Hike Off The Beaten Path
To clarify, we aren’t saying you should hike off trail. You should always hike on sanctioned trails, of course, but you might be able to avoid trailhead congestion by hiking some of the less-popular trails in our area.
Some of the hikes that will be crowded during fall include:
- Rough Ridge/Beacon Heights: These hikes are near the Linn Cove Viaduct and Grandfather Mountain on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It is beautiful but will be quite crowded.
- Linville/Crabtree Falls: Both of these hikes near the Parkway will draw pretty substantial crowds.
- Craggy Mountain: Craggy is the high point of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The hike, however, is quite easy. It is a crowd-pleaser, for sure.
- Mount Mitchell: The highest peak on the East Coast is always sure to draw a large fall crowd.
- Clingmans Dome: The highest point in the Smokies is a relatively easy hike from what is sure to be a crowded parking lot.
- Mount Pisgah: This three-mile out-and-back can be challenging due to the amount of elevation you gain, but that does not deter big crowds from forming.
These hikes are popular due to the views they provide and their accessibility. We’re not saying you should avoid them altogether, but be mindful that they’ll be busy during the fall, especially on the weekends.
Less Common Hikes
- Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte: This hike explores some of the highest peaks in the Smokies with incredible views. It’s an eleven-mile out-and-back near Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
- Chimney Tops Trail: Also in east Tennesee, this trail is only three and a half miles but is challenging enough to deter some of the crowds.
- Looking Glass Rock Trail: Enjoy this 6.2-mile out-and-back track close to North Carolina’s Pisgah Forest. Since running, rock climbing, and hiking are all fairly popular activities here, you can run across other individuals while exploring, but the difficulty of the hike will thin the crowds.
- The Pinnacle Trail: This is one of the most beautiful hikes in North Carolina; however, at seven and a half miles, the distance and difficulty of the Pinnacle Trail are enough to keep the majority of the crowds at bay.
- Cat Gap Trail to John Rock Loop: This 5.6-mile loop features a variety of views, terrains, wildlife, and more.
- Wayah Bald Via the Appalachian Trail: Hike the famous AT to 360-degree views at stunning Wayah Bald. You’ll climb over 2,000 feet on this 8.6-mile out-and-back, but every step will be worth it.
2) Go Whitewater Rafting
Summer is over, so you’re not even thinking about getting in the water, right? That’s exactly what thousands of tourists are thinking. It’s too cold for whitewater rafting. Here’s the thing – it’s always cold in the Nantahala and Ocoee Rivers.
Most trips take place at low elevations, so while air temperatures are certainly cooler in October than in August, it’s not out of the question to experience the low 80s well into September and October. With mild air temperatures and the right gear, whitewater rafting, kayaking, and tubing is still plenty of fun.
Instead of waiting in a line of cars on the Blue Ridge Parkway to finally get a spot at one of the overlooks, you can be plunging down a river in adrenaline-pumping fashion with the beautiful changing leaves decorating the walls of the Nantahala Gorge.
3) Mountain Biking
Western North Carolina is one of the must-visit mountain bike destinations on the East Coast. Tens of thousands of people travel to our area to shred our unique and rowdy singletrack. Over the years, some quality bike parks have developed that capture many more visitors.
So, how will mountain biking help you avoid crowds? Well, even though the parking lots can be packed, generally in our area, once you start riding, people thin out, and you can find some peacefulness. Leaf tourists from out of town are not necessarily thinking about doing extreme sports. Still, you can get even farther away from the crowds by choosing the right trials.
Common Trails and Systems
Some of the areas where you will find the most crowded parking lots include:
- Brevard and Pisgah Forest: The hub for classic Pisgah trails, this area will be bustling with traffic throughout autumn. Many will be attempting to coordinate shuttles as well, so carpooling will be at a minimum.
- Bent Creek Experimental Forest: The closest Pisgah trail system to downtown Asheville, Bent Creek’s parking lots are full at the slowest of times, so you can expect them to be overflowing during the fall.
- Dupont State Forest: Dupont affords some of the unique biking and hiking in the area. Parking is at a premium at the best of times.
- Bike Parks – Kolo, Kanuga, The Riveter, Berm Park: Amazing riding near Asheville also means incredibly busy trails and parking lots.
Obviously, there’s a reason these trails and areas are popular during fall. They’re beautiful and offer amazing riding. However, there are some other systems that might not be as high on the priority list that provides incredible shredding as well.
Less-Common, Equally Awesome Trails, and Systems
- Fire Mountain in Cherokee: Cherokee is known for its beauty, history, and casino; however, the relatively new Fire Mountain bike trails are incredibly well-built, beautiful, and fast. With so much else going on in Cherokee, finding room in the parking lot here is a safe bet in the fall and well worth it.
- Tsali Recreation Area: The Tsali trails are certainly not a secret, but this XC/flow system on Fontana Lake is a must-ride that may have a little more room in the parking lots than others.
- Fontana Village Trails: “The trails at Fontana Village are a hidden gem. These trails are very low-traffic, so you are unlikely to see many other bikers if you ride here. These trails are typical of western North Carolina – rocky, steep, and fun. There is a lot of climbing but also a classic downhill trail not to be missed.” – Trailforks.
4) Outdoor Festivals and Events
Again, festivals and events might not seem like something that would avoid big crowds. However, if you know where to look, you can find some events in towns that may not attract the most tourists. In fact, if you get away from some of the larger urban areas like Asheville and Hendersonville, you can find some fall fun in mountain towns that will make you feel right at home:
- NOC’s (Nantahala Outdoor Center) Guest Appreciation Weekend: Bryson City – Food, live music, entertainment, etc.
- Church Street Art & Craft Show: Waynesville – Arts and crafts in downtown.
- Smoky Mountain Elk Fest: Maggie Valley – Big festival and seeing the Elk herd.
- Mountain Heritage Day: Cullowhee (Western Carolina University) – “Outdoor celebration features the sights, sounds, crafts, and flavors of yesteryear.”
- Art on the Island Fest in Marshall: Marshall – Art festival
5) Fontana Lake
If you’re willing to go whitewater rafting in the Fall, you’ll have no problem paddleboarding or kayaking in Fontana Lake. Fontana Lake is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful places in North Carolina. The entire lake is surrounded by mountains that will be changing colors throughout October and November.
6) Weekday Activities
There are some quintessential fall activities that you don’t want to skip just because it’s crowded. The key is to go on a weekday whenever possible. Here’s some fall fun that is more fun if you avoid the weekend:
- Great Smoky Mountain Railroad
- Blue Ridge Parkway
- Zipline Canopy Tours
- Popular hikes and bike trails
7) Play Tactical Laser Tag
The Tactical Laser Tag we provide is a totally unique experience. Not your father’s laser tag, either. There aren’t any bulky vests or other items of equipment to wear here. Each player’s activities are communicated to them through vibrations and sound effects.
We utilize the most basic settings for younger players to maximize their enjoyment. Younger players can wear our head strap sensors around their necks if their heads are too small to fit the head strap. Each participant in this cutting-edge system may keep track of their individual and team statistics thanks to real-time scoring!
8) Play GellyBall
What is GellyBall? GellyBall is a fun and also revolutionary new game that takes the sting of airsoft and paintball. The ammo is 90% water and biodegradable. It feels like being flicked with a rubber band. If you have the space, Elite Action Gaming can bring GellyBall to your party or event. It is a great way to have a blast while enjoying the beauty and mild temperatures of Autumn.
Enjoy this Fall! If you want more information about how Elite Action Gaming can help you have a blast playing exciting games at your next event, reach out to us today!