Head for the Hills: Mountain leaves will be ablaze with reds, oranges and yellows in late October

If you’re looking for a socially-distanced weekend outing this fall, a drive through the North Georgia mountains or North Carolina to see the leaves changing color couldn’t be more perfect.

According to the Fall Foliage Prediction Map at smokymountains.com, Oct. 12-19 will be optimum for peak color in North Carolina, while Oct. 19-26 will offer the brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows in North Georgia.

At this writing, Georgia State Parks were still limiting access if parks become too overcrowded to maintain social distancing during the pandemic. Some activities in the parks have also been limited or cancelled, so check with the individual park before you go at gastateparks.org.

According to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, these are the parks to check out the best leaf color along with some recommended activities.

Amicalola Falls State Park & Lodge – Dawsonville
Just an hour north of Atlanta you’ll find the Southeast’s tallest cascading waterfall. A short, flat path leads to a boardwalk offering the most spectacular views. There’s also an easy-to-reach overlook at the top. For a tougher challenge, start from the bottom of the falls and hike up the steep staircase.

Black Rock Mountain State Park – Clayton
At an altitude of 3,640 feet, Black Rock Mountain is Georgia’s highest state park. (Brasstown Bald is the state’s highest peak.) Roadside overlooks and the summit Visitor Center offer sweeping views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The 2.2-mile Tennessee Rock Trail is a good choice for a short, moderate hike. For an all-day challenge, take the 7.2-mile James E. Edmonds Backcountry Trail.

Cloudland Canyon State Park – Rising Fawn
One of Georgia’s most beautiful parks offers easy-to-reach rim overlooks and challenging trails. A favorite hike takes you down a staircase to the bottom of the canyon, where you’ll find two waterfalls. (Remember, you have to hike back up, but it’s worth it.) The 5-mile West Rim Loop is moderately difficult and offers great views of the canyon.

F.D. Roosevelt State Park – Pine Mountain
Many people are surprised to find hardwood forests and rolling mountains south of Atlanta. The 6.7-mile Wolf Den Loop is a favorite section of the longer Pine Mountain Trail. For a touch of history, drive to Dowdell’s Knob to see a life-size bronze sculpture of President F.D. Roosevelt and views of the forested valley. Ga. Hwy. 190 is a pretty driving route.

Fort Mountain State Park – Chatsworth
This park is best known for a mysterious rock wall along the mountain top, plus a variety of trails. For the easiest walk, take the 1.2-mile loop around the park’s green lake. For a challenging, all-day hike, choose the 8-mile Gahuti Trail. Mountain bikers have more than 14 miles to explore. Hwy. 52 has beautiful mountain scenery and overlooks worth stopping to see.

Moccasin Creek State Park – Lake Burton
Georgia’s smallest state park sits on the shore of a gorgeous deep-green lake. Guests can choose from the 2-mile Hemlock Falls Trail or 1-mile Non-Game Trail with a wildlife observation tower. Hwy. 197 is a particularly pretty road, passing Mark of the Potter and other popular attractions.

Smithgall Woods State Park – Helen
Protecting more than 6,000 acres around Dukes Creek, this is the perfect spot for fly fishing while enjoying fall color. Day visitors can picnic near the creek, and overnight guests can hike a private trail to Dukes Creek Falls. A 1.6-mile loop climbs to Laurel Ridge and provides a view of Mt. Yonah once most leaves are off the trees. Smithgall Woods has some of the park system’s most sought-after cabins and is near wineries and Helen’s Oktoberfest.

Tallulah Gorge State Park – Near Clayton
Tallulah Gorge is one of the most spectacular canyons in the Southeast, and you can choose from easy or difficult trails. Hike along the rim to several overlooks with waterfall views, but hikes to the bottom of the gorge and climbing permits were still not being offered at press time.

Unicoi State Park & Lodge – Helen
Ziplines take you high above the forest canopy for a unique view of leaves. If you’re up for a steep hike, take the 4.8-mile Smith Creek Trail up to Anna Ruby Falls. Unicoi offers a lodge and restaurant.

Vogel State Park – Blairsville
The 4-mile Bear Hair Gap Trail makes a nice day trip for experienced hikers, offering a birds-eye view of the park’s lake. For an easier walk, follow the Lake Loop to a small waterfall below the dam. The twisting roads around Vogel, particularly Wolf Pen Gap Road, offer some of north Georgia’s prettiest fall scenery.

North Carolina

Cashiers Valley Leaf Festival
At press time, the annual Cashiers Valley Leaf Festival at Village Green in downtown Cashiers was still on for Oct. 9-11. Artisans, food, entertainment and more are staples of the event, which will be happening just as the leaves are at their peak in western North Carolina. Visit Cahsiers411.com for more information.

While most of the events planned for the fall (including the annual Highlands Food and Wine Festival) have been cancelled, Highlands still offers great shopping, dining, and the chance to explore the scenic surroundings. According to the experts, the second week of October will be peak color for the leaves. Visit highlandschamber.org for more information.

There’s always something to do in Asheville, and while the pandemic has cancelled many annual events in and around the city, you can still enjoy dining, shops, visit the Biltmore Estate, take a ride on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, or have a drink at one of the breweries or distilleries. The leaves will be at their peak in Asheville during the fourth week of October. Visit romanticasheville.com for more.


To find more North Georgia and North Caroline mountain events and features, be sure to check out Head for the Hills special section in the October issue

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley is the editor of Atlanta Intown.