October is primetime to see the fall foliage at its peak color, so set aside a weekend for a drive to North Georgia or North Carolina.
According to the Fall Foliage Prediction Map at smokymountains.com, leaves will peak a little earlier than usual in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina between Oct. 4-11, while Oct. 18-25 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, so be sure to check gastateparks.org for updates. The same goes for the Smoky Mountains, where the National Park Service is requiring masks in all buildings and in crowded outdoor spaces.
According to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, these are the parks to check out the best foliage color along with some recommended hikes and activities.
Amicalola Falls State Park & Lodge
An hour north of Atlanta in Dawsonville, 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
At an altitude of 3,640 feet, Black Rock Mountain in Clayton 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
Located in 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. The 5-mile West Rim Loop is moderately difficult and offers great views of the canyon.
F.D. Roosevelt State Park
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
This park in Chatsworth 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
Georgia’s smallest state park sits on the shore of a gorgeous Lake Burton. 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
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
Tallulah Gorge near Clayton 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, or hike to the bottom of the gorge for a bigger challenge.
Unicoi State Park & Lodge
Ziplines take you high above the forest canopy for a unique view of leaves near Helen. 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
Near 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.
Cashiers Valley Leaf Festival
At press time, the annual Cashiers Valley Leaf Festival at Village Green in downtown Cashiers was still on for Oct. 8-10. More than 100 Artisans, food, entertainment and more are staples of the event. Visit villagegreencashiersnc.com for more information.
While the leaves will be past their peak, the annual Highlands Food & Wine Festival (highlandsfoodandwine.com) returns Nov. 11-14 with music, tastings, dinners and more. Highlands also offers great shopping, dining, and the chance to explore the scenic surroundings.. Visit highlandschamber.org for more information.
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 Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands is set for Oct. 14 and Oct. 17 in downtown. Visit romanticasheville.com for more information.
A short drive from Asheville, just below Mt. Mitchell and near Black Mountain, the music festival features African, Latin, Appalachian, Cajun, Celtic, Blues, Bluegrass, and more Oct. 14-17. Visit theleaf.org/the-festival for tickets and information.