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6 Must-See Autumn Foliage Locations on the Blue Ridge Parkway

A drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway when autumn foliage colors are at their peak was always a highlight for me when I lived in Asheville, North Carolina. The optimal time for viewing the colors at their best is usually the 2nd and 3rd weeks of October, but it can vary from year to year. A late spring or drier than average summer can postpone the arrival of color. The intensity of color can also vary if leaves fall prematurely due to spring drought or a warm autumn, although I personally found that the strongest correlation for a premature drop was how excited I was for the changing of color. So don't look forward to autumn or it will spite you!

In the 22 years I lived in Asheville, my favorite route for foliage color was to hop on the Parkway near the entrance to the The North Carolina Arboretum and head southwest for about 20 miles to reach a series of spectacular overlooks that can be covered in a single afternoon.

Looking Glass Rock Overlook

Looking Glass Rock and autumn foliage in the Appalachian Mountains, as seen from the Blue Ridge Parkway.
I didn't pack my telephoto lens at the time, but it's possible to get much tighter crops of Looking Glass Rock from this lookout with nice color in the foreground.

The view from Looking Glass Rock Overlook offers unique terrain year-round thanks to the popular pluton monolith that dominates the landscape, but some color always helps. If you're feeling adventurous, you can do the 6.5 mile round-trip hike to the top of Looking Glass Rock for a breathtaking panoramic view of Appalachian autumn scenery. However, the trailhead isn't accessed from a drive on the Parkway. It's located on National Forest 475 Road, one mile east of the Pisgah Center For Wildlife Education.

East Fork Overlook

East Fork Overlook during the peak of autumn color on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
In addition to spectacular autumn color, East Fork Overlook is a great location for capturing dramatic sunrises and misty mornings with a bit of luck from the weather.

East Fork Overlook is my favorite pull over spot on the Parkway for landscape photos. The wavy lay of the land makes for some nice compositions, and the color on a good autumn is incredible. Also adding to the mix of colors are the ghostly white trunks of dead American chestnut trees, victims of chestnut blight. More than 3 billion American chestnut trees are thought to have been extirpated by the fungus in the early 20th century when it was accidentally introduced to North America by imported Asiatic chestnut trees, which have natural high immunity. It's a sad loss of an iconic tree, but the white streaks do add contrast to the landscape, as well as a reminder of why protecting our local flora is important.

Graveyard Fields

Graveyard Fields and Second Falls with bright fall colors just off the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Although the trees hide it from this angle, Graveyard Fields still features some graveyard-like patches of low-lying shrubs and lichens.

Graveyard Fields was ravaged by logging and forest fires in the early 1900s. The topsoil was heated with such intensity that roots and seeds were destroyed, leaving the valley barren for many years. Even now it hasn't made a full recovery. One plant that seems to be thriving though is the blueberry. The shrubs provide bucketfuls of wild blueberries in mid to late August, enjoyed by people and bears alike, as well as fiery red leaves in October. The cascading falls and hiking trails are popular attractions throughout the year, as well as overnight camping near the river.

Devil's Courthouse Overlook

View of Appalachian fall colors from the pedestrian overlook at Devil's Courthouse.
The view from atop Devil's Courthouse, just a half-mile walk from the Devil's Courthouse Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Devil's Courthouse usually doesn't boast as much autumn color as the other locations in this list, but the view from the pedestrian overlook, which is an easy 15-20 minutes walk from the roadside overlook, offers unobstructed panoramic views of the Appalachian Mountains. If you take in the sights on a clear day, it's possible to see North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia. An information sign at the overlook claims the devilish looks of the mountain have contributed to folk tales of the devil holding court within a cave inside the mountain. The cave actually does exist, but the rest of the details I'm not able to confirm (nor deny).

Sunburst Falls

Long-exposure of Sunburst Falls on Lake Logan Road in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Sunburst Falls is shady enough to shoot 2 to 3-sec exposures at smaller apertures in the evening without a filter. I only blew the whites a little.

A stop at Sunburst Falls actually requires a small detour off the Parkway onto Lake Logan Road, but it's only 4 miles north, or about 7 minutes, and it's well worth it. Sunburst Falls is conveniently located literally right alongside the road. In fact, it runs under a small bridge in the road after cascading multiple times. It won't impress in size (that's what she said), but it's a perfect spot for long-exposure falls photography and silky-smooth cascades. The sun-yellow beech leaves in autumn help the falls live up to its name.

Random roadside

Bright red and yellow autumn-colored sweetgum and maple trees along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Lower elevations may be more accessible for monitoring the peak of colors. If you find a photogenic spot, you can return with a camera when the foliage is at its brightest.

I'm not exactly sure at what location on the Parkway I took this photo, but it is along the route! Part of the fun in enjoying autumn colors and taking photos on the Blue Ridge Parkway is that you never know what's around the next bend. Conditions change all the time, so these spots of concentrated colors can pop up anywhere, especially when the sun hits them just right. Be on the lookout for unmarked locations like this, because they can be easy to miss if you're focused on only the designated points of interest.