Peak fall foliage viewing at North Carolina state parks - Carolina Country

Chasing Peak Foliage

NC state parks offer a perfect venue for fall colors

By Lori Grossman

Chasing Peak Foliage

When is peak leaf season in North Carolina? This time of year, it’s a question that leaves many puzzling over calendars to plan road trips and catch fall colors at their most dazzling.

Peak color varies according to weather conditions, although the most brilliant displays typically occur in October and early November. Appalachian State University’s Department of Biology tracks and predicts each year’s peak through fall color reports (, which peg the Western NC peak around mid-October, or sometimes earlier in the month for higher elevations. Warmer weather usually means a later season.

But it doesn’t take a stroll in the mountains to enjoy the fall — North Carolina has 41 state parks, and you can see amazing displays of fall foliage at most of them. Here we’ll highlight some of the smaller parks across the state, beginning where the first color shows and moving eastward.


Mount Mitchell

Approximate Peak: Mid-October
30 miles Northeast of Asheville

Mount Mitchell

Mount Mitchell. Photo by Craig Marimpietri

This was North Carolina’s first state park, opening in 1915. At 6,684 feet, its elevation makes it the highest point east of the Mississippi River. A park ranger will lead several fall foliage hikes (two are currently scheduled for October). Registration is required — you can sign up on the website, or call the park office. Try to come on a clear day for the best views. Temperatures can be on the cool side, so bring a jacket.


Approximate Peak: Mid-to end-of-October
55 miles southwest of Asheville

Gorges Rainbow Falls Trail

Gorges Rainbow Falls Trail. Photo by Craig Marimpietri

The Southern Appalachians have some spectacular color, too. Several park trails give you a good view, but the hiking can be long and a bit strenuous. One of the best vantage points may be the overlook at the top of Toxaway Falls. There are two suspension bridges on the Foothills Trail. If you’re a fan of waterfalls, you’re in luck— there are 26 here. As the saying goes, “Gorges is Gorgeous!”

Rendezvous Mountain

Approximate Peak: End of October to first week of November
30 miles east of Boone

Rendezvous Mountain

Rendezvous Mountain. Photo by Jeff Matheson

Rendezvous Mountain is a good alternative to Stone Mountain State Park, which can get busy on weekends. You can see amazing color without even going beyond the park office’s parking lot. There’s no camping here, but pick a nice spot for a picnic (remember to pack out your trash), relax and commune with nature.


Crowders Mountain

Approximate Peak: First week of November
32 miles west of Charlotte

Crowders Mountain

Crowders Mountain. Photo by Charlie Peek

A favorite of leaf-peepers and rock climbers alike, this formation features two peaks— Crowders Mountain (1,625 feet) and The Pinnacle (1,705 feet). You can hike to the top of Crowders Mountain. On a clear day, you can see Charlotte. Or stay on terra firma on the Lake Trail and admire the reflection of the leaves on the lake’s surface. 

Hanging Rock

Approximate Peak: Early November
30 miles north of Winston-Salem

Hanging Rock Fall Foliage

Hanging Rock. Photo by

Besides the glorious fall foliage everywhere you look, this park offers almost everything else you could want. You can camp, hike, bird watch, canoe, rock climb, ride horseback— you name it. The oaks here turn flaming red. Being such a short distance from Winston-Salem, the park can get crowded on weekends, so try to visit on a weekday.

Eno River

Approximate Peak: Early to mid-November
10 miles northwest of Durham

Eno River

Eno River. Photo by Charlie Peek

Triangle area residents love this park. It’s a great place to go to escape from city life. Check out the Cox Mountain Trail for one of the best views of awesome color. It starts at the Few’s Ford picnic area and leads to the suspension footbridge. The trail to the hilltop is steep from here on, so you might want to turn back here.


Merchants Millpond

Approximate Peak: Early November
30 miles northwest of Elizabeth City

Merchants Millpond Trail

Merchants Millpond Trail. Photo by Jane Wyche

There aren’t any mountains here, but it’s pretty cool to enjoy beautiful fall foliage from a canoe. You can rent one here, or bring your own canoe or kayak. Called “the enchanted forest,” the park’s bald cypress trees turn tan, cinnamon and then a bright orange. If you’re in the mood to explore, ask for directions to the second largest bald cypress tree in the state. It can only be reached by water. 

Cliffs of the Neuse

Approximate Peak: Early November
15 miles southeast of Goldsboro

Cliffs Neuse River

Cliff of the Neuse. Photo by Kris Anne Bonifacio

The overlook has great views of the river and the beautiful fall leaves. You’ll see some along the road that leads to the park, too. Another option is the Spanish Moss Trail. Along this trail, look for the huge sweetgum tree— it’s about three-feet wide! Sweetgums produce a jaw-dropping spectacle of hues on the same tree of red, gold and even purple.

Medoc Mountain

Approximate Peak: Mid-November
30 miles northwest of Rocky Mount

Medoc Mountain Little Fishing Creek

Medoc Mountain Little Fishing Creek. Photo by Charlie Peek

Medoc Mountain lies close to the Triangle but it’s not as busy as some other area parks, so bring the family for some leaf-viewing and camping. The big open meadow by the visitor center is a great place for a picnic. You don’t have to hike to the summit (325 feet) because autumn color is all around you. If you do want to roam around a bit, one easy hike is the Dam Site Loop Trail (1 mile). Little Fishing Creek has especially gorgeous color.

Know before you go

Visit to find more information about any of these parks. As fall draws closer, many parks will schedule ranger-led foliage hikes. For updates, check, and contact a specific park for details about local peak color timing.

About the Author

Freelance writer Lori Grossman currently lives in Texas, but carries memories of North Carolina in her heart.

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