From the first blossoms of spring to snow-capped mountains in winter, the seasons show off in the south. And there’s no better season to explore the southern United States than in the fall, when fire and sunshine cascades from the trees, with a variety of earth tones complimenting their beauty.
Whether it’s a drive down a backroad, a hike in the backwoods, or a fun event designed to celebrate the season’s sights, sounds, and flavors, these four southern destinations offer a little bit of everything during leaf peeping season, and a lot of charm all year long.
Blue Ridge, Ga.
Located along Interstate 575 in northern Georgia, and an easy 90 minute drive north of Atlanta, the town of Blue Ridge offers a pristine wonderland filled with hiking trails, scenic vistas, and driving routes worthy of straying off the beaten path.
Where to Hike: While there are ample opportunities to stroll through the hills and valleys of Blue Ridge, Georgia, one of the most spectacular trails to hike in the fall is the Benton MacKaye Trail. Starting high atop Springer Mountain with views you’ll have to see to believe, this trail connects to the Aska Trail system and the Appalachian Trail. With more than 286 miles of trail along the western slopes of the Appalachian Mountains, the Benton-MacKaye winds its way up the Appalachian Mountains where it rejoins the Appalachian Trail at the Great Smoky MOuntains National Park, winding on another 54 miles to the Cohutta Wilderness.
Driving Tours: From valleys dotted with old churches and family farms to historic sites like the Trail of Tears, then on to the pristine waters of the Toccoa River and the heights of the Blue Ridge Mountains, some of the most unique and acclaimed seasonal driving tours can be found in Blue Ridge, Georgia. Click here to choose one of 6 amazing driving tours and download an accompanying tour map.
Photo Op: The “Swinging Bridge” located off Aska Road via US Forestry Road 816 is the longest suspension bridge east of the Mississippi and the perfect place to take a selfie.
Peak Leaf Viewing: October and November are peak months for fantastic fall foliage.
If you go: If you visit between October 5 and 20, you might want to check out the Cherry Log Festival. It takes place the first 3 weekends of the month, with homemade breakfast and lunch, arts & crafts, and entertainment in the form of bluegrass, gospel, and country music.
2. Abingdon, Va.
The charming town of Abingdon, Virginia has it all: delicious eateries, trendy shops, an acclaimed playhouse, fantastic annual events, and some of the most beautiful fall scenery in the south.
Where to Hike, Bike, or Horseback Ride: The Virginia Creeper Trail is renowned in the south as a family-friendly biking, hiking, and horseback riding trail with fantastic views of the South Holston River and Jefferson National Forest. Part of the Rails-to-Trails program, the Creeper is a (mostly) downhill 34-mile ride through Abingdon and Damascus, Virginia with 47 trestle bridges, one of the state’s largest wild trout streams, and a variety of native flora and fauna along the way. Visitors can rent a bike from one of the outfitters in town, which will then shuttle them to the top of Whitetop Mountain where they can begin their downhill trek. On a bike, it takes around 2.5 to 3 hours to ride from Whitetop to Damascus, then another 2 hours to get to the trailhead in Abingdon. There are plenty of great restaurants and pit stops along the way. For a more aerobic workout, try riding the trail up the mountain instead.
Best Driving Tour: If there’s time to spare, take one of these 5 Scenic Fall Drives in Southwest Virginia. From scenic byways to famed roads like The Dragon, fall scenery is at its best on these autumn drives.
Photo Op: Channels Natural Area features water-carved sandstone boulders, with a 20-acre labyrinth of sandstone formations to explore.
Peak Leaf Viewing: For the best views of fall foliage, visit in mid to late October.
If you go: Abingdon’s famed 1930s-era Barter Theatre will feature several plays, including The Producers and The Loophole, this fall. Click here for more information on the shows and to get tickets.
3. Harrodsburg, Ky.
Situated in the heart of the bluegrass, Harrodsburg, Kentucky has aptly been named one of the best small towns to visit by several publications for good reason. With its charming downtown, amazing historical sites, and unique accommodations offerings, it’s not surprising that this town has been named a Preserve America Community.
Where to Explore: For a truly unique trek through the Bluegrass, take a stroll through Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. More than 36 miles of free hiking trails wind through the property, as bikers, hikers, horseback riders, and even carriage drivers traverse this historic land. Shaker Village even offers daily guided tours for visitors, from historic village tours to waterfall walks to “spirit strolls” and more.
Best Fall Tours: Visitors can explore the property just like the original inhabitants: on a horse-drawn wagon tour. They operate on Sundays at 11:30 am and 2:30 pm. Or for a different view of the area’s fall foliage, hop aboard the Dixie Belle paddlewheeler for a cruise down the Kentucky River. Tours depart Shaker Landing daily in October at 2 and 4 pm. These tours offer both a unique perspective on the livelihood of the Pleasant Hill Shakers as well as an incredible view of rock formations, river bottom hardwoods, spring waterfalls, and the cliffs of the Palisades.
Photo Op: Shaker Village offers a wealth of photo opportunities on its 3,000 acres. From the open fields, to hayride tours, to scenic boat cruises on the Kentucky River, there are plenty of snap-worthy sites in the Village.
Peak Leaf Viewing: The optimal time to take in the colors in Harrodsburg is from late October through early November.
If you go: For visitors who find themselves at Shaker Village the weekend of October 25 and 26, a special Trick-Or-Treat event will be taking place along the VIllage road. Kids can gather treats, make crafts, and enjoy a selfie station costume contest. The whole family can enjoy free hayrides, live music, food and drinks, and a festival fall bonfire.
4. Sevierville, Tn.
Dolly Parton’s hometown is located at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains and their namesake national park. From the historic and walkable downtown area (grab a copy of the historic walking tour brochure at the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce) to amazing shopping at Tanger Five Oaks Outlets, this small town, often overshadowed by neighboring Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, is home to the famous Apple Barn Cider Mill & General Store, Floyd Garrett’s Muscle Car Museum, and the Tennessee Museum of Aviation.
Where to Hike: This close to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there’s really no better place to soak in the vibrancy of nature in autumn than at the country’s most visited national park. With an abundance of diverse plant and animal life, this mountainous park begs to be explored. One of the more popular trails, the Laurel Falls Trail, is a 2.6 mile round-trip hike on the park’s longest paved trail, which leads to stunning waterfalls. The famed Appalachian Trail also threads through the park, and for hikers seeking hardcore adventure, a hike to the top of Mt. Le Conte or Chimney Tops should provide a scenic challenge. Best of all, there’s no admission fee to visit the park, so visit often!
Best Driving Tour: The Boyd’s Creek Fall Driving Tour begins in downtown Sevierville at the statue of hometown girl, Dolly Parton, and takes drivers on an amazing journey through the scenic valleys, generational farming communities, and historic homes and churches. Drivers will pass area attractions, historic sites and restaurants on the tour, as well as glimpse spectacular views that are just perfect for photo ops.
Photo Op: A selfie with the Dolly statue is always a fun idea. For something more scenic, the 80-foot high Laurel Falls is an impressive and stunning photo op.
Peak Leaf Viewing: The prime time for fall foliage is mid-October through mid-November.
If you go: Fall crafts, costume contests, flash mobs, live music, and hayrides are just a few of the exciting activities that can be found at Sevierville’s History and Haunts event, taking place every weekend in October from 5-9pm on Bruce Street. The event is free and open to the public, though there may be a small fee for some activities.
Remember, the peak seasons for fall foliage vary each year due to temperatures and the amount of rain the region gets.
Nicky Reynolds is a freelance writer who currently lives in East Tennessee but hails from Kentucky. Her dreams are to explore Italy, move to Hawaii and keep adding new stamps to her passport.