You love fall color — and so does everyone else. This time of year, conga lines of cars snake along the Blue Ridge Parkway, U.S,. 441 through the Smokies and any number of other mountain roads in search of the color promised by tourism brochures. The good news: few of those folks will bother to get out of their cars to enjoy the show, and those who do won’t wander more than a half mile or so.
That leaves plenty of North Carolina hikes trails with minimal traffic. But why take chances hitting one of the few trails that do draw crowds? I’ve got solution. These five hikes don’t get a lot of foot traffic, which is surprising considering the explosion of fall color they offer, and still get you a front seat view of fall foliage.
Three Top Mountain
4 miles (out-and-back)
Might as well start with one you’ve likely never heard of. Three Top Mountain is a rugged 4-mile out-and-back that takes you to the 4,000-foot top of this 2,308-acre preserve brought to us by The Nature Conservancy. The trail’s off-the-beaten path location — it’s off Three Top Mountain Road, off NC 88 near Creston — is just one plus. Perhaps more alluring is the fact Three Top is, according to TNC, is “part of the amphibolite mountain group, an unusual mountain chain containing a calcium-rich rock rare in the southern Blue Ridge.” Which means what, exactly? It means the soil is more like that found in New England — and supports flora known for its eye-popping color, most notably the sugar maple with its traffic-stopping orange leaves.
Note: Three Top is on Wildlife Resource Commission game land. Consult the WRC for information on the local hunting season: www.ncwildlife.org
Shortoff Mountain / Linville Gorge
Nebo, NC – McDowell County
You’re right, Linville Gorge is one popular spot come fall leaf season — the north end of the gorge, that is, the part with the visitor center and quick, easy access. On the south end, however, after driving up the gravel Wolf Pit Road, a 2.2-mile trail takes you up Shortoff Mountain to fabulous views of the gorge. The trail is a climb (you’ll gain more than 1,300 vertical feet), but the pay-off is worth it: lots of rocky perches where you can kick back and enjoy the show. And, once you’re atop the east rim, you’ve got a couple miles of relatively flat hiking to extend your visit.
Middle Prong Wilderness
Waynesville, NC – Haywood County
6.2 miles (shorter and longer options available)
How do you hide a 7,500-acre wilderness area? Stick it next to a sexy neighbor, in this case the 18,500-acre Shining Rock Wilderness. Everyone knows Shining Rock, the popular area known for its elevation (much of it between 5,000 and 6,000 feet), its open meadows, its glow-in-the-dark white quartz outcrop. Middle Prong, meanwhile, sits unnoticed, Cinderella-like to the west, with easy access from NC 215 on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. The MST goes along Middle Prong’s western edge, offering access to several trails that descend it’s rugged north flank. Lots of fall color to enjoy by your lonesome.
Florence Nature Preserve
Gerton, NC – Henderson County
Talk about popular neighbors: the Florence Nature Preserve sits just up the Hickory Nut Gorge from Chimney Rock State Park, it of elevator-to-the-summit fame. What Chimney Rock boasts in attractions, the Florence Nature Preserve soft pedals in quite retreat. The ample canopy that makes this 600-acre Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy property a good spot to avoid the sun on a summer hike offers a colorful umbrella come fall. Mellow hiking can be found here on a mix of narrow single-track trail and old roadbeds.
Mountains-to-Sea Trail / Blue Ridge Parkway North
Blue Ridge Parkway, from Grandfather Mountain to Stone Mountain
88 miles, broken into 14 day-hike sections ranging from 3.7 to 10 miles
Some day, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail will run about 1,000 miles across North Carolina, from Clingman’s Dome on the Tennessee line to Jockey’s Ridge on the Atlantic Ocean. At present, 620 miles of the trail is complete; one of the most scenic stretches of the lot is this 88-mile run from Grandfather Mountain to Stone Mountain. Here, the trail parallels the Blue Ridge Parkway, along the rocky east flank of Grandfather Mountain, through cow pastures south of Price Park, across open meadows near Bluff Mountain and through a hemlock forest in Doughton Park. It’s some of the most gorgeous hiking in the state, and some of the least explored, especially north of Doughton Park. And of the 14 day-hike sections will yield good color, especially at the tail-end of the mountain leaf season.
Wherever you choose to go this fall season, you’ll be sure to get more out of a hike than just a good view. The best kind of work out is the one that happens when you’re enjoying your view, improving your health without even thinking too hard about it.