Winter Adventures at Highlands Outpost

Highlands Outpost, formerly the Scaly Mountain Outdoor Center, offers all-day, winter fun for the whole family in Scaly Mountain, NC! Snow tubing, ice skating, and The Screamer are open all season and ready to take you on a snowy escapade you won’t soon forget – and all in one place.

snow tubing in Highlands
Photo by Greg Newington and Courtesy of Highlands Chamber of Commerce and Visit Highlands, NC.

The Screamer

Aptly named, The Screamer will have you careening down Scaly Mountain on the longest mountain coaster in North Carolina. Powered by gravity, the 3800-foot outdoor course thrills riders with 360-degree turns and spectacular views. The ride is surrounded by safety netting, allowing everyone from the youngest to the most mature to experience the excitement comfortably. This is one of the most unique ways to see the beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains!

Snow Tubing

Visitors from across the country trek to Western North Carolina to partake in some of the best snow tubing available. Highlands Outpost offers a spectacular 4-lane course that will have you flying by the seat of your pants. Don’t worry, they have a “Magic Carpet” lift to get you and your tube back to the top. The resort also blows its own snow to augment Mother Nature, so a fun time is always waiting for you.

Insider Tip: Snow tubing usually wraps up around March, depending on weather, but that just means that the gem mining and trout fishing are about to reopen for even more mountain adventure.

Ice Skating

Dreams of Rockefeller Center will fill your head as you glide across the spacious ice rink at  Highlands Outpost. Because it’s just one of the many activities available, the ice rink never seems overcrowded, so go ahead and practice that spin. Ice skate rentals are even included in the ticket price!

ice skating at highland outpost

Where To Eat

After a cold day on the mountain, warm up with a hot chocolate or specialty coffee at the onsite Blue Hound Barbeque. Better yet, tuck into a hearty meal to restore your energy before heading back out. Featuring Carolina-style barbeque, this little gem has some of the best BBQ in these parts, and the locals can’t get enough.

You have to try their Brisket Sandwich! Order it ”hound style” and your sandwich will come with slaw, pimento cheese, jalapeños, and onions. Or order a giant baked potato stuffed with your own selection of toppings (yes, one of them is brisket), and you’ll have all the energy you need to tackle the next adventure.


During the winter months, Highlands Outpost is open 6 days a week and usually closed on Tuesdays. But around Christmas and New Year’s, they offer additional hours. Please check out their calendar here so you can plan accordingly.

One note about the calendar, don’t be confused by the color-coded days. The red days do not signify days they are closed. Instead, it means that those days they are open additional hours.

Exploring the Primitive Outback of Otto NC

Vacationers seeking an ultimate, one-stop adventure in kayaking, gem mining, and yes, even fainting goats, should check out Primitive Outback in Otto, NC. Here is everything you need to know to get the most out of your visit.

Primitive outback kayakers

Kayaking the Little Tennessee River

Imagine yourself kayaking down the Little Tennessee River, sharing space with beavers, deer, and river otters. Primitive Outback offers a 2½- to 3½- hour self-guided tour through the intoxicating beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains. You can either rent a kayak or bring your own. If you bring your own, Primitive Outback offers drop and shuttle services.

Kayaking is offered through the winter months of November to February, but only by reservation, and the adventure is always weather dependent.

Find Treasure with Gem Mining

Experience the mountain tradition of panning for precious gems and minerals at Primitive Outback. Miners-for-a-day receive a sifting screen to sort the gems from the silt under the covered, outdoor flume. An expert is always on hand to teach you about the gems as you discover them. While there are other gem-mining establishments in the area, Primitive Outback’s gem mining has an incomparable view, overlooking the crystal-clear Little Tennessee River. And you get an awesome treasure bag to carry your booty home.

Treasure hunters can choose from varying bucket sizes to pan. Super Buckets start at just $15 and go on up to the $100 Colossal Bucket, which guarantees a cut and faceted gemstone in each haul. The sharing of buckets is welcomed, so everyone gets a turn experiencing the excitement of striking it rich!

Primitive outback goat and babyFainting Goats

The best mountain adventures offer a multitude of experiences in one. At Primitive Outback, guests are invited to interact with the famous fainting goats. Watch as the goats spring from wooden platforms to mini trampolines, frolicking as only goats can. The only way this experience gets any better is when there are baby fainting goats to visit and feed!

Where to Eat

Otto, NC is just a quick, 13-minute drive to the mountain town of Franklin, NC. Visitors should not leave the area without experiencing a home-cooked meal at Sunset Restaurant, Franklin’s oldest eating establishment. Serving family style, the Sunset Restaurant is known for its homemade-style turkey and gravy and chicken and waffles.

Experience another Franklin food adventure at Cleaver’s, serving up both traditional and “unusual” burgers. This is your chance to finally try a bison, elk, or ostrich burger!  Of course, they also offer regular beef and veggie burgers so everyone can find a satisfying meal here.

Where To Stay

Franklin’s inns, bed and breakfasts, and campgrounds offer visitors a plethora of accommodation options. Both the Colonial Inn and Sapphire Inn offer clean, comfortable, and convenient rooms, while the historic Franklin Terrace Bed and Breakfast will wow you with their wide porches and southern hospitality.

High Country Haven Camping and Cabins gives you a choice of RV hookup sites, cabins, and tent-camping. Pines RV Park and Cabins is another excellent choice for campers, featuring a recreation room, shuffleboard, clean bathhouses, and playground.

For a complete list of recommended accommodations and restaurants, click here.


Primitive outback gem mining

Celebrate Smoky Mountain Holiday Traditions

Enjoy a cozy and festive holiday escape in the North Carolina Smokies. There are plenty of gorgeous winter-time mountain views to go around. Wander among dazzling light displays, ride the Polar Express, enjoy a small-town parade on main street, and support local small businesses as you check off the gifts on your shopping list. Take part in the holiday cheer happening across the Smoky Mountains at one of these great events. Please note that scheduled events are subject to change—refer to event websites and organizers for the most up-to-date information. We’ll update this blog as we learn of new events.

Our Top Picks For Holiday 2022 Events in the Smoky Mountains

People boarding The Polar Express in Bryson City
The Polar Express. Photo courtesy of the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad.

The Polar Express Train Ride

November 10 – December 31, 2022

All aboard! The Polar Express is waiting to take you and your family on a fantastic holiday ride to The North Pole to meet Santa Claus. This 1¼ hour round-trip excursion comes to life as the train departs the Bryson City depot for a journey through the quiet wilderness. Set to the sounds of the motion picture soundtrack, guests on board will enjoy warm cocoa and a treat while  they listen and read along with the magical story. Children’s faces show the magic of the season when the train arrives at the North Pole to find Santa Claus waiting. Santa will board the train, greet each child and present them with a special gift as in the story, their own silver sleigh bell. Christmas carols will be sung on the return back to the Bryson City Depot.

Christmas Cookie Walk and Bazaar

December 3, 2022, 9:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.

Fill your basket with a remarkable selection of Christmas cookies and treats while getting in some early  holiday shopping. Visit the Christmas Cookie Walk and Bazaar at the United Methodist Church at 76 Main Street in Bryson City. All proceeds benefit the United Methodist Women’s Group’s outreach efforts.

NEW for 2022! Smoky Mountain Christmas Light Spectacular

Now through December 31, 2022 from 6:00 – 10:00 p.m. (Check here for specific days.)

Create a new holiday tradition in Bryson City this year at the 1st Annual Christmas Light Spectacular! Drive through the giant LED light displays of the 12 Days of Christmas while listening to festive music on your mobile device.

Franklin’s Winter Wonderland Nights

Kids on ice slide in Franklin
Winter Wonderland in Franklin

Saturdays, November 26 & December 3, 2022, 5:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.

Visit the town of Franklin for their 2022 Winter Wonderland festivities! Enjoy unique holiday experiences like living window displays, live sounds of the season, extended shopping hours, and you may even catch a glimpse of Santa! Attendees can witness the annual lighting of the Christmas tree during the first night of the event.

Andrews Magic on Main Electric Christmas Parade

Saturday, December 10, 2022, 5:30 p.m.

You don’t want to miss the Small Town, Bright Lights Christmas Parade! Festively decorated floats will be gliding through downtown Andrews, filling the cozy, small town with holiday cheer. Bring your favorite candy-catching sack to fill with the sweet treats being thrown to the crowds. New this year, Santa will be visiting Cocoa Alley from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m., immediately following the parade. Bring your cameras to capture the holiday memories. Special note: The parade route has been changed to begin at the West End Plaza this year.

Christmas in Highlands

Light Up the Park and Santa in Highlands, November 26, 2022, 6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.

Highlands, N.C. welcomes you to join them in their holiday celebrations for their annual tree lighting. The trees in Kelsey-Hutchinson Founders Park will sparkle with millions of lights, to be switched on promptly at 6  p.m. and can be enjoyed by car or on foot. Tune in to WHLC 104.5 FM for a festive program with holiday music, Christmas carols and Santa Claus reading The Night Before Christmas.

Evenings set amongst the softly lit trees of the park, joy and laughter from the ice-skating rink, it’s all available for you throughout the holiday season.

Santa and Mrs. Claus will be stationed in the Kelsey Hutchinson Park that evening to hear your Christmas wish list.

Trim Our Town,  November 26 – December 24, 2022

Light Up the Park kicks off Trim Our Town, where local storefronts engage in a holiday decorating contest. When you vote for your chosen window, you can also win a special prize! Watch for posters at participating stores and vote online for your favorite.

Highlands Christmas Parade, December 3, 2022, 10:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.

This long-standing Highlands Christmas tradition features camels, bands, and floats decorated by community organizations parading down Main Street.

Insider Tip: Don’t miss the beloved dancing ladies from Mountain Garden Club leading the way at 10 a.m., before the parade begins!

Dillsboro luminaries
Dillsboro luminaries. Photo courtesy of Discover Jackson NC

Dillsboro Festival of Lights and Luminaries

December 2, 3, 9, and 10, 2022, 5:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.

The Dillsboro Festival of Lights and Luminaries is a step back into Christmas past. Experience Christmas magic as the entire town transforms into a winter wonderland of lights, candles, laughter and song. 2500 luminaries light your way to shops and studios. Horse and buggy rides are available each night, shopkeepers provide live music and serve up holiday treats with hot cider and cocoa, carolers sing, and children visit with Santa and Mrs. Claus.

Murphy Farmers Christmas Market

Saturday, December 3, 2022, 6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.

Experience holiday magic in beautiful downtown Murphy, NC at the Murphy Christmas Parade starting at the Valley Village Shopping Center.

Sylva NC holiday display
Sylva, NC, holiday display.

Robbinsville Christmas Parade

December 10, 2022, 6:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m.

The Town of Robbinsville will ring in the start of the holiday season with the Robbinsville Christmas Parade. Floats, Cars, Fire Trucks, Santa, and much more are in store. Bring the family to enjoy the excitement of Christmas. The parade starts at Robbinsville High School.

Holiday Fireworks

Friday, December 16, 2022, 7:30 p.m. – 8:45 p.m.

Celebrate the season with the 3rd Annual Holiday Fireworks display, visible from all over downtown Sylva, NC. Prior to the fireworks, the Jackson County Chamber and Visitor Center is hosting a holiday-themed concert, featuring Terri Lynn Queen and Scott Baker on the chamber’s front porch. Rumor has it there may be a special appearance by Ol’ Saint Nick himself! Enjoy a cup of hot cocoa during this free event.

A Night Before Christmas

December 10, 2022, 6:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.

Waynesville turns into a holiday playground for children and children at heart. Shop and dine along a luminary lined street, tell Santa (and Mrs. Claus, too!) your Christmas wishes and enjoy musicians and carolers.

Insider Tip: Visit the Living Nativity under the stars, sponsored by First Baptist Church in Waynesville!

Appalachian Christmas at Shelton House

Sunday, December 4, 2022, 5:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m.

The whole family will be dazzled by the twinkling lights of Tinsel Trail at the Shelton House, a museum of NC handicrafts, in Waynesville, NC. The Tinsel Trail will stay lit every evening from dusk until dawn for the month, so everyone should get outside to celebrate the season. Santa Claus will be on the scene with his real sleigh on December 4th, so bring the kids for a special photo opportunity! Make sure they bring their letters for Santa to be sent along the “Reindeer Express” to the elves waiting for their Christmas list.


Rustic Luxury Rentals at Buffalo Creek Vacations

cabin at buffalo creek vacations in clyde nc

Whether you are looking for an exciting family vacation, a romantic getaway, or a perfect gathering place for a large group, Buffalo Creek Vacations has something for everyone. The accommodations are stellar, but the setting is what draws people from across the country to this bucolic destination.

Located in Clyde, NC, Buffalo Creek Vacations comprises a 72-acre ranch with buffalo, goats, llamas, and some serious reconnecting with animals and nature. Every Monday through Saturday, guests are invited to the Bison Viewing Platform for the morning feeding. For many, these animals remind us of the vast, open plains of the Midwest, but here you can see these majestic animals up close and personal.

Next, feed the goats, visit the llamas, and join Dennis the Donkey Whisperer inside the donkey enclosure to feed, pet, and brush the mini donkeys. Kids (65 pounds or less) can also ride on the ranch’s mini horses after they are fed at about 10:45 am!

Families with younger children will also enjoy spending time at the Buffalo Creek (BC) Corral Playground. This is not your ordinary neighborhood park. With a rock wall, zip line, monkey bars, slide, and a horseshoe pit, your kids will expend a lot of energy making sure they don’t miss a thing.

The entire family also will be engaged with the onsite BC Depot Agapeland Station model train layout. In partnership with Smoky Mountain Model Railroaders, this 30 x 50 model train exhibition mimics the Great Smoky Mountains’ lush forests, mountains, streams, and farmland. They even include a miniature Buffalo Creek Vacations display.

The buffalo at buffalo creek vacations

As for where to stay on the ranch, choose from a large selection of cabins. The Orange Caboose and Gray Caboose offer accommodations the family will talk about for years to come. Each authentic train car sleeps 5, with a queen-sized bed for the adults below and a full-sized bed in the cupola with huge windows to view the grazing bison from bed!

Buffalo Creek Vacations also has the perfect hideaway for the romantic interlude. The Buffalo Bungalow is a one-bedroom, custom log home with a sauna, walk-in shower for two, deck with a hot tub, and king-size bed with a romantic canopy.

Large groups will find Buffalo Creek Vacations to be the perfect destination for family reunions, weddings, and other large get-togethers. The Tatonka Lodge is a 4-bedroom, 3-bathroom, luxury log home that sleeps 14. There are 2 master suites with jacuzzi baths. Another bedroom offers a queen-sized bed and another room is designed to delight the children. Your kids will dream of wild-west adventures sleeping in a replica of an actual covered wagon!

There are 8 cabins and 2 cabooses to choose from, and all luxury cabins have their own pool table, hot tub, Wi-Fi, and private fire ring. Buffalo Creek Vacations also offers some incredible deals, including a fourth-night free with a three-night stay during certain weeks.

Book now to have your own buffalo adventure in the Great Smoky Mountains today! Email for more information.

Where to Find Beautiful Fall Color in the Smoky Mountains

The Great Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina offers stunning natural beauty year-round, but fall is an extra special time to visit the region to see autumn’s colorful quilt covering the ridge tops. Thanks to the extreme variations in elevation, the Smoky Mountains enjoy one of the longest leaf-peeping seasons in the country. The first pops of color begin in late September along the highest elevations (over 6,000 feet) and continue through early November as color rolls down to the foothills. This means you can find stunning fall color at any point of the season.

fall color in the smoky mountains of nc

The 2022 Fall Color Season Has Now Ended.

We had a banner year for fall color. Be sure to visit this page again next year for updates on the 2023 fall color season.

2022 Fall Color Forecast

According to local biologists and fall foliage experts, the Smoky Mountains should experience a bright and colorful season. Warm dry days and cool nights are the recipe for stunning autumn hues, which the mountains have been experiencing since the first days of fall this year. While parts of the country experienced warmer than usual summertime temperatures, summer in the Smoky Mountains was relatively moderate so the trees aren’t as stressed as we head into leaf season. Fall leaf prognosticators say we could have a slight delay in color development if warmer temperatures persist longer than usual.

Nantahala Lake

Where to look for early fall color

During the earliest part of the season (late September – early October) you typically need to go above 4,000 feet in elevation to find fall color. Drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway to the higher points. Areas that tend to transition first along this scenic drive are Waterrock Knob (elevation 6,293’), the 16th highest peak in the eastern United States, Graveyard Fields (elevation 5,020’), a popular hiking spot with easy trails and multiple waterfalls, and Black Balsam Knob (elevation 6,214’), which offers near-360 views of the surrounding mountains. Another scenic drive to explore is the Cherohala Skyway near Lake Santeetlah. It spans the Great Smoky Mountains from North Carolina to Tennessee, connecting mountain peaks with elevations up to 5,390 feet at its highest point.

October is when fall color begins to accelerate across the mountains. Cooler nights and warm days provide the Smokies with the perfect weather conditions to produce peak season colors. When exploring for trees in transition, be sure to look down to find wildflowers adding their own pops of color to the season.

Typically around the second week of October is when Highlands, NC (elevation 4,117’), begins to see color emerge. Oaks, red maples, black cherries, and birches are all typically the first to turn. Blueberry bushes at the higher elevations will turn a brilliant red. A scenic drive along US Route 64 from Franklin to Highlands offers a beautiful way to see the color and some waterfalls along the way.


Top picks for mid season fall foliage

In mid-October, you’ll find fall color heading into elevations around 3,000 – 4,000 feet. During this time you should visit Cashiers (elevation 3,484’), located in the heart of Jackson County. Nearby you can hike Whiteside Mountain, a 2.2-mile hike with gorgeous long-range views.

Around the North Carolina Smoky Mountains you’ll find fall foliage appearing around small mountain towns like Andrews and Maggie Valley. This is a great time to check out the Joyce Kilmer National Forest, a popular hiking spot near Robbinsville in Graham County. The combination of towering old-growth poplars and fall color make this a sought after spot for color hunters. Nearby you’ll find Lake Santeetlah, one of the most beautiful lakes in the country, thanks in part to the Nantahala National Forest that borders it.

In late October, fall color will encompass areas below 3,000 feet in elevation. You’ll find beautiful foliage throughout many of the mountain towns around the Smokies including Sylva and Franklin. Make a trip to Cataloochee Valley to see the majestic elk roaming the pastures to graze in the evening. As with any wildlife experience, keep a safe distance from the elk. You can also find elk at Oconaluftee Visitors Center near Cherokee.

Great Smoky Mountain Railroad

End of season autumn hues

Once November rolls around, you’ll find fall color creeping below 2,000 feet in elevation. This is the time to visit areas like Chatuge Lake in Haysville and Fire Creek Falls near Murphy. In Dillsboro, climb aboard the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad and get a scenic tour of fall color.

In Cherokee take a quick out and back hike to Mingo Falls, offering a stunning 120-high foot waterfall.


Happy leaf peeping!

Where To Hear Smoky Mountain Music

Westernmost North Carolina is celebrated for its rich tradition of Appalachian music and is a renowned destination for music enthusiasts. Old Time mountain music is a melting pot of religious hymns, Scottish ballads – including the origins of bluegrass – and African blues. It’s down home, toe-tapping tunes meets Appalachian heritage.

However, there’s more to discover than just the rhythm of banjos and fiddles. You’ll find the live music opportunities across the Smokies span multiple genres including jazz, rock, jam, and R&B. Here are some of the best venues to visit for live music experiences.

bluegrass at folkmoot in waynesville

Explore the Roots of Appalachian and Americana Music

Any Appalachian music aficionado’s first stop must be at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC. Here you can attend week-long and weekend classes learning to play a traditional instrument and exploring the music’s history. Intrepid visitors can even be introduced to traditional contradance (line dancing) and square dancing! Be sure to stick around for the Friday night concerts.

You should also consider a visit to the  Stecoah Valley Cultural Center, near Fontana and Robbinsville, NC. It was originally an old stone schoolhouse and is now a study of the Appalachian arts. The center is a focal point for protecting mountain music. The preservation efforts include opportunities for young people to learn mountain instruments. The center also invites the community and visitors to enjoy the mountain music concert series, An Appalachian Evening.

band playing music on stage

Catch A Show At A Performing Arts Center

Discover “big city entertainment in a quiet mountain town.” Located right on the town square in Hayesville, the Peacock Performing Arts Center offers a wide variety of entertaining shows.

The Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts is also a premiere venue for superlative artists and performances. With stunning architecture and impeccable acoustics, this site offers a variety of shows, including gospel, folk and dance to name a few.

We can’t talk about music in the mountains without mentioning Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, featuring music of all genres, including southern rock and bluegrass.

Cloggers in Dillsboro

Smoky Mountain Music Festivals

Music festivals abound in these mountains, and you are pretty much guaranteed to find a music festival featuring your favorite music. Festivals of note include Thunder in the Smokies in Maggie Valley, the Highlands Cashiers Chamber Music Festival, and Concerts on the Creek in Sylva, NC.

But people travel from all over the world for Folkmoot USA in Waynesville. Folkmoot USA focuses on celebrating cultural diversity and encouraging cultural inclusion. It also honors cultural heritages through music and dance as a tool to achieve world peace. It is not to be missed!

John C Campbell Folk School in the nc smoky mountains

Local Music Hangouts

There is also a solid argument to be made for experiencing mountain music played by locals, up close and live. Some of our favorite music scenes are Unplugged Pub, Darnell Farms, and Nantahala Brewing in Bryson City. We also love the live music at Chevelles66 in Murphy, Lazy Hiker Brewing in Franklin, and Moonshiners Steakhouse in Robbinsville for the up-close-and-personal experience of live mountain music.

Immerse Yourself

For a one-of-a-kind mountain music extravaganza, few experiences can compare to the Stompin’ Grounds Dance Hall in Maggie Valley, NC. The lobby tells an excellent story of mountain music and dance. But the huge, 60 x 80 ft dance floor is where the excitement happens. Dancers perform the two-step, square dancing, clogging, and line dancing. The outstanding band plays old-time fiddle and bluegrass tunes, along with some contemporary country hits.

The best part is that you are invited to the dance floor to experience the dancing and music for yourself – even if you’ve never stepped out on a dance floor in your life. Let yourself go and embrace the rich music of these spectacular mountains for a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

Apple Harvest Adventures in the Smokies

Nothing says fall like flame-colored leaves, a light snap in the air, and apples! And there is no place in the NC Great Smoky Mountains that celebrates apples better than Apple Harvest Festival 2022 in the beautiful, historic town of Waynesville, NC. This year’s festivities take place on October 15, 2022 and promise to remind you why fall is your favorite of all the seasons.

apple orchard in the smokies

Sponsored by the Haywood Chamber of Commerce, Apple Harvest Festival is celebrating its 35th year. Each year, downtown Waynesville is transformed into an enormous street festival with almost 200 vendors bringing you mountain arts and crafts and food concessions. Enjoy live music and clogging performances – the traditional Appalachian folk dance where performers create a rhythmic percussion with only their heels and toes. It’s a true mountain one-of-a-kind experience to behold!

Of course, apples are the star of the show. Local apple growers set up on the street to offer you a vast variety of mountain-grown apples. The obvious choices are Red, Delicious, Golden Delicious, Stayman, and Rome Beauties, but this is your chance to also sample over forty varieties including Gala, Gold, Mutzu, Empire, and Fuji.

That’s just the beginning of the apple goodness. Fresh-pressed apple cider, apple cakes, apple pies, and other apple goodies, like fritters and turnovers, are available throughout the festival, so come hungry.

shops in downtown Waynesville NC

The quaint shops in the main street area are open throughout the festival, so browse the stores and pick up some memorable items in between treats. Take a step back in time at the Mast General Store, where you can pick up the Necco Wafers, Jawbreakers, Bit-O-Honey, and Black Licorice Laces of your youth. Be sure to check out the toy section with Tiddly Winks and Jumbo Jacks! You’ll think you’re a kid again.

But make sure you save room for some hand-dipped caramel apples – a specialty of the Apple Harvest Festival.

The festival runs from 10 am to 5 pm, and there is no admission fee. For parking options, visit here. With about 10,000 visitors to the annual festival, get there early and plan to spend the day.

If you can’t travel to Waynesville for the October 15 Apple Harvest Festival, you can still experience the quintessential fall experience of apple picking at Barber Orchard Fruitstands Inc. or Winchester Creek Farm in Waynesville or Darnell Farms in Bryson City.

Five Fave Hikes for Fall Colors in the NC Smokies

The brilliant fall foliage of the NC Smoky Mountains rivals the changing leaf colors anywhere in the country. But, because of our steep elevations and lower rolling foothills, the leaf-looking season here lasts longer than most. Beginning in mid-September and continuing through early November, the NC Smokies offer you plenty of weeks to plan your visit. We think the best way to experience nature’s best show is by hiking through the kaleidoscope of flaming colors. Here are five of our favorite fall hikes.

Fall Color in Clay County North Carolina

Appalachian Trail

Considered the Granddaddy of US Trails, the Appalachian Trail runs approximately 2,200 miles between Georgia and Maine. But visitors to Franklin, NC in Macon County, NC can experience some of the most beautiful parts of this iconic trail less 10 miles away.

Once on the trail, take a 4-mile roundtrip hike to the Wayah Bald Lookout Tower, a restored fire watch tower built in 1937 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Decommissioned in the 1940s after wind and rain damage, this 3-story stone tower rises 53 feet in the air and continues to offer visitors unparalleled 360-degree views of a different kind of fire – the vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows carpeting the numerous surrounding mountains in autumn.

Andrews Bald Hike

If you’re planning a leaf-peeping trip in the near future, consider a hike to Andrews Bald near Bryson City, NC. The 1.8-mile trail begins at the Clingmans Dome parking lot and descends to Andrews Bald, a grassy area named for the cattle herder who brought livestock up there in the 1840s. The final section of the trail ascends through a forest of trees that generally peak in mid- to late-September. Look for Dogwoods, Maples, Sourwood, and Sumac as they turn to a bright, flamboyant red.

Large poplar tree at Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest

The Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forests, named for one of this nation’s most prominent nature poets, features 3800 square miles encompassing one of the largest contiguous growths of hardwood trees in the country. An easy 2-mile roundtrip, figure-eight trail leads you past the majestic Yellow Poplars (also known as Tulip Poplars), reaching an astounding 100 feet high and 20 feet around. You’ll also see White Oak, Beech, Red Oak and Basswood trees as they transition from their lush summer green to their blazing autumn colors.

Deep Creek Waterfall Hike

Just outside of Bryson City, NC, is the Deep Creek Waterfall hiking area. With several trail options of varying lengths from .25 miles to 5 miles to visit nearby waterfalls, hikers can choose the one that best suits them. Leaf peepers can spot American Beech and Birch trees flaunting their bright yellow and gold leaves along the way, as well as the orange and crimson leaves of the Sumac, Scarlet Oak, Hickory, and Mountain Maple trees.

Hikers in Deep Creek Falls
Deep Creek Photo Courtesy of Swain County TDA / Chamber of Commerce.

Oconaluftee River Trail

If you’re planning your visit for the early part of November, check out the Oconaluftee River Trail in Cherokee, NC. Combine your leaf-peeping with learning the fascinating history of the Eastern Band of Cherokee People. As you hike along this 3-mile roundtrip path, you’ll be treated to every vibrant fall hue in the surrounding foliage. The hike itself is considered easy enough for a stroller, but you can also opt to bike it. Along the way, you’ll be treated to views of the beautiful Oconaluftee River, wildflowers, diverse animal life, and lush mountain scenery as it prepares for the upcoming winter months. The colorful Asters along the riverbank are proof that Mother Nature is putting on her best show.

Revel in the stunning seasonal colors as you follow the interpretive signs along the trail, teaching you about the history, culture and spiritual beliefs of the Cherokee. Each unique sign is written in English and Cherokee and is illustrated with designs created by Cherokee artists. Along the trail, you’ll be witnessing the same stunning fall foliage the indigenous people did a hundred years ago.

Explore the Smokies on Horseback at Smokemont Riding Stables

Of all the ways to explore the NC Great Smoky Mountains, few are as exciting as on horseback.

At the Smokemont Riding Stable, you can choose your ride from 10 different adventures featuring beautiful trails, waterfalls, and/or historic landmarks. Rest assured, the health and happiness of the horses are of utmost concern to the owners, switching out horses for rest periods between rides and pasture time. Here are some of our favorite rides.

horses at Smokemont Riding Stables

The Waterfall Ride

This 2.5-hour ride travels along mountain streams until you reach the Chasteen Creek Waterfall click here to see the video. You will be given about 15 minutes to dismount and explore the waterfall before completing your journey back to the stables. They offer morning, noon, and afternoon start times to fit conveniently into your vacation schedule. ($100 per rider)

The Oconaluftee River Trail

Explore the Great Smoky Mountains National Park like the Cherokee People. This 3-mile-long roundtrip adventure follows the Oconaluftee River, passing through a landmark tunnel and over a rushing creek. You’ll ride by the Mountain Farm Museum, featuring log houses, an authentic barn, smokehouse, spring house, a working blacksmith shop, and a living display of early farm life. Watch the creek-crossing video here. ($40/hr. per rider)

 Newfound Gap

Newfound Gap rises to the astounding elevation of 5,046 feet (almost a mile high) and offers incomparable long-range views. Riders will climb over 3,000 feet through Cove Hardwood, Pine-Oak, and Northern Hardwood forests. Of course, this means you’ll be experiencing temperatures about 10 degrees cooler than the surrounding lowlands, so dress accordingly. Layering is highly recommended. Visitors can even stand at the very spot where Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1940.

Four-Hour Rides

If horseback riding through the beautiful Smoky Mountains is something you can’t get enough of, you can book a 4-hour ride along a wooded mountain trail alongside 2 cascading waterfalls and miles of Creekside nature. ($160 per rider)

Wagon Rides

The horse-drawn wagon travels down the Old Turnpike Road, alongside the Oconaluftee River. Along the way, travelers will pass fields that host many species of wildlife, and guides will narrate historical information along the way. Departure times are hourly from 10:45 to 3:45, so scheduling a wagon ride is effortless. ($20 per rider)

Insider Tip: Some riders are limited by their age (under 5 years old) or their weight (over 240 pounds), but the wagon ride has no limits, and the pioneering fun is non-stop!)

Fall Adventures with Nantahala Outdoor Center

Experience the seasonal change from lush summer greenery to spectacular fall foliage. Each year, the Smokies become a canvas of vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows over a backdrop of forested mountains. The temperature is perfect – warm enough for just a light jacket but cool enough to enjoy outdoor activities comfortably. And you will find no better hosts for your fall getaway than the folks at Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC), the pioneers of outdoor adventures in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Novices and experts alike will find the level of experience appropriate to their skill level in hiking, white-water rafting, kayaking, treetop adventure nets, zip lining, and mountain biking. The experts at Nantahala Outdoor Center will make sure you get the vacation experiences of a lifetime.

Mountain Biker on the Flint Ridge Trail in Bryson City
Photo Courtesy Swain County TDA / Chamber of Commerce.

Outdoor Adventures at the NOC

River Rafting

The Nantahala River Rafting: Fully Guided Tour out of Bryson City is a fun family excursion down the iconic Nantahala River. Professional guides ensure the comfort and safety of the rafters, who must be at least 7 years old and weigh at least 60 pounds. The whole trip is 3 hours.

Or, try the Nantahala Adventure Pass with Raft or Duck Rentals. “Duckies” are inflatable kayaks that allow paddlers to guide themselves at their own pace. This tour is designed for the more experienced rafter and kayaker, but if you’re looking to enjoy the scenery and wildlife along the river banks, the course is rated easy to moderate.


The NC Great Smoky Mountains are renowned for their hiking trails and the Nantahala Outdoor Center is a stopover on the famous Appalachian Trail. The “AT” is a popular trail for thru hikers looking to take on the challenge of hiking from Georgia all the way to Maine, but its also a great spot for section hikes offering diverse natural flora and fauna, naturally growing herbs, and wildlife. NOC offers lodging, gear, and food for hikers along this section of the AT.

Mountain Biking

Conveniently located on NOC’s 500-acre main campus in Bryson City, NC, the new Flint Ridge Guided Mountain Biking technical trail features a rolling single track and breathtaking views of the Nantahala Gorge. Designed for bikers 10+ years old, the 4.5-mile trail is moderately difficult and takes 3 to 4 hours to complete.

The world-famous Tsali trail system attracts mountain bikers of all skill levels to the NC Great Smoky Mountains for some extreme sport biking. The Nantahala Outdoor Center offers a Tsali Guided Mountain Biking adventure with experienced guides, top-of-the-line equipment, and even a trail-side snack. Tsali is appropriate for 10+-aged riders and takes between 3 and 4 hours.

Woman zip lining at NOC in Smoky Mountains
Get a birds eye view of the mountains at the Nantahala Outdoor Center.

Take to the Air with Ziplining and Treetop Adventure Nets

Sail through the air with NOC’s Mountaintop Zip Line Tour. With almost 2 miles of ziplines running from treetop to treetop, race your friends on dueling courses 40 feet up!

Kids aged 3+ can have their own exciting experience with the Treetop Adventure Nets. This fully-netted aerial playground invites participants to navigate their way through tunnels and slides in this ship-themed wonderland.

Package Deals

Want to raft the rapids in the morning and zipline the afternoon away, check out NOC’s Package Deals to combine two or more excursions for a whole day of fun!

Nantahala Lake

Relaxing Riverside

The Nantahala Outdoor Center is a village unto itself, giving you few reasons to leave the 500-acre campus. Retail stores and riverside restaurants offer everything you need for a relaxing day in the sun before, during, and after your outdoor adventuring. You can even spend the night at NOC in a cozy mountain cabin, motel, or the hostel-style Basecamp.

Insider Tip: Eat at the River’s End Restaurant and order the Sherpa Rice, the world-famous original recipe of whole-grain brown rice, lentils, and barley topped with seasonal veggies and soy-ginger sauce. Add your choices of protein and additional toppings for a hearty meal that will get you through your full day of outdoor adventures.

The American Museum of the House Cat

While researching your Smokies vacation, you may come across a place so intriguing you’ll have no choice but to visit. You have just stumbled upon The American Museum of the House Cat. This museum, located in Sylva, NC., is the purrfect place to to pay homage to our feline friends.

Housed in an old antiques mall, the museum is festooned with giant metal feline sculptures and murals of the ordinary house cat. You can’t miss it from the road, and you definitely don’t want to! Especially if you are a true cat lover and aficionado.

cat laying on its back.

What To Expect at The Museum

Curated by Harold Simms, the well-respected founder of Catman2 rescue in Sylva, NC, The American Museum of the House Cat is only one of 2 museums in the United States dedicated to the domesticated feline. Originating with Simms’ personal collection of cat art and items, the museum is now open to the public with all proceeds going to cat rescue.

When you first enter, you’re almost overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of feline objects, estimated to be over 10,000 in number. Of course, there are the obligatory cat figurines, stuffed toy cats, and every possible signage featuring a cat. But once you acclimate and begin to really study the displays and curio cases, incredible things start to pop out at you.

Fascinating Exhibits

There is a weirdly wonderful paper mâché mashup of an octopus with a kitty head, a tiny cat orchestra performing in a mini concert hall – complete with a band director and photographer, a kitty carousel, cat masks, kitty beer steins, and cat clocks galore.

Oddities That Will Surprise You

There are also some exhibits that you probably won’t ever see anywhere else. Unbelievably, there is the Medieval petrified cat on display and a 300-30 B.C. Egyptian cat mummy encased in glass.

Feline Art

From cartoon posters to kitty portraits, there is no shortage of interesting feline art. There is much excitement surrounding the arrival of a large metal sculpture known as Scooby Doo, one of the 3 Purr Pods artist Paige Tashner created for Burning Man 2019 to help people find peace in the midst of chaos. In fact, that could also be the motto of the museum itself. Peace, love, and cats.

More Can’t-Miss Museums

The NC Great Smoky Mountains have quite a few fascinating and sometimes quirky museums you don’t want to miss. The Museum of the Cherokee Indian uses artifacts, artwork, and computer animation to tell the story of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The Franklin Gem and Mineral Museum, housed in an old jail, features 8 rooms of gems and minerals from all over the world. And The Scottish Tartans Museum & Heritage Center was established to be a source of “reliable information” on traditional Highlands dress and heritage.

Find a comprehensive list of must-see museums in the NC Great Smoky Mountains here.

Visitors Guide to Gorges State Park in Sapphire, NC

Explore 7,500-acres of natural beauty at the Gorges State Park in Sapphire, NC. Here you’ll find rushing rivers, sheer rock faces, plummeting waterfalls, deep gorges, and rare species of flora and fauna.

Rainbow Falls in Gorges State ParkTrails & Waterfalls

Gorges is known for the multitude of beautiful waterfalls located throughout the park. Turtleback Falls, Rainbow Falls, and Bearwallow Falls are among our favorites. You’ll find 13 hiking trails, some short and some long, covering 56 miles. Add to that 17 miles of mountain biking and equestrian trails you can explore.

Bearwallow Falls

Hikers looking for a challenge will enjoy the Bearwallow Falls Trail. The gravel trail isn’t long at just .4 miles, but the hiking is strenuous. At the end, you are rewarded with a spectacular view from the Upper Bearwallow Falls observation deck overlooking a long cascade on Bearwallow Creek.

Lime Kiln Trail

For a more moderate hike, the .6-mile Lime Kiln Trail is a good choice. The loop trail leads you down to the abandoned lime kilns used by early settlers In the late 1800s and early 1900s to burn the marble they mined along Bearwallow Creek and metamorphosed into quicklime, which they used for whitewash, fertilizer, plaster, and mortar. The kilns are quite interesting and well worth the hike just to see them.

Visitor Center Connector Trail

If you’re looking for an easy hike suitable for children and seniors, try the Visitor Center Connector Trail. The trailhead is at the Visitor’s Center and follows a .50-mile roundtrip path that leads to the Bearwallow Valley observation deck where you can see much of the park and Jocassee Lake on the South Carolina border on a clear day.

Auger Hole Trail

Mountain biking and horseback riding are permitted from the Frozen Creek access area on the Auger Hole Trail, but riders cannot go past Turkey Pen Gap near the western boundary of the park. There is a nice picnic area at the trailhead.

Insider Tip: Horses must have proof of a negative Coggins test before they are allowed in the park.

Visit Gorges State Park Trails for a complete list of trails.


Cast your line and enjoy the solitude of this state park. The water is teeming with Smallmouth Bass, Redeye Bass, Brown Trout, and Rainbow Trout. You have your choice of hiking your gear to the Bearwallow Creek and Toxaway River that flow through the middle of the park, or there is boat access to Lake Jocassee at Devil’s Fork State Park in South Carolina.

The rivers and streams in the park are designated Wild Trout Waters, meaning the regulations of the NC Wildlife Resources Commission apply. You will find them at NC Regulations and Licenses.

Native Plants

This park has many rare species of plants and animals. Because of this, 275 acres were placed on the NC Registry of Natural Heritage Areas. One of the most stunning features is the colonies of endangered Lady Slipper Orchids growing wild throughout the park. (It is illegal to pick them or dig them up.) With over 80” of rainfall annually, Gorges State Park is a temperate rainforest biome and it’s home to some plants found only in the tropics!

Gorges State Park NC


The camping in the Gorges State Park is considered “primitive camping,” meaning you’re deep in the woods with very few amenities. To find out which campsites offer some amenities, like pit toilets, bathhouses, electric hookup, and access to water, visit Gorges State Park Campground Details.

The site will let you see which campsites have fees and are wheelchair accessible. As with all backpack camping, you must carry out anything you carry in, although there are recycling stations in the area.

One very important note is that the gates to the park are locked at night, so you need to make sure you are not locked in if your just day-hiking or locked out and unable to get back to your campsite if you’ve left the park.


For a quiet, peaceful picnic amongst the trees, Gorges State Park offers some beautiful spots. There are two well-maintained, covered picnic shelters, but only one of them can be reserved while the other is first come first serve. Again, carry out what you carry in.

gorges state park visitor center

Visitor Center and Educational Programs

The Gorges State Park Visitor Center is a center for learning and having new experiences. Here you’ll find a large exhibit hall with museum-quality displays, a 40-person classroom, restrooms, 2 large picnic shelters, park offices, and a large, covered wraparound porch with “gorge”ous views of the park.

Take advantage of their programs out in the park to learn about local wildlife, flora, and natural features of the park. Most of the programs are free, because education is a big part of maintaining the park’s natural beauty.

Some of the topics may include a “Walk in the Woods” guided tour that teaches you how to identify tree species, “Salamanders of Gorges,” or “Nature Journaling” that gives you practice with intentional curiosity. For more information about programming, call the park office at 828-966-9099.

Gorges State Park from North Carolina State Parks on Vimeo.


Gorges State Park is located in Sapphire, NC in Transylvania County. The park is approximately 45 miles southwest of Asheville. Follow Hwy 64west out of Brevard until you reach Sapphire, turn left on Hwy 281south, the park entrance is .7 miles on your left. The Visitor Center is located .5 miles inside the park on Grassy Ridge Road.

From Asheville, reach the park from I-26, taking exit 40 onto NC 280 and traveling west toward Brevard. Turn west on US 64 and travel toward Sapphire. To reach the Frozen Creek Access (east side of the park), turn left onto Frozen Creek Road, which is approximately two miles past NC 178. The east entrance is three miles on the right. To reach the Grassy Ridge Access (west side of the park), turn south on NC 281 in Sapphire; the western park entrance is .7 miles on the left.

From Atlanta, GA, reach the park from I-85, taking South Carolina exit 1 onto SC 11 and traveling north toward Walhalla, SC. Turn north on SC 130, which becomes NC 281 at the North Carolina state line. Continue north on NC 281. The Grassy Ridge Access (west side of the park) is approximately seven miles north of the state line on the right. To reach the Frozen Creek Access (east side of the park), turn east on NC 64 in Sapphire. Travel toward Brevard approximately eight miles and turn right on Frozen Creek Road. The east entrance is three miles on the right.

From Charlotte, reach the park by traveling west on NC 74 to I-26. Turn west on I-26, traveling toward Hendersonville. Take exit 49B to NC 64 and travel west through Brevard toward Sapphire. To reach the Frozen Creek Access (east side of the park), turn left onto Frozen Creek Road, which is approximately two miles past NC 178. The east entrance is three miles on the right. To reach the Grassy Ridge Access (west side of the park), turn south on NC 281 in Sapphire; the western park entrance is .7 miles on the left.

From Greenville, SC, reach the park by traveling on US 276 north to SC 11. Take SC 11 south toward Walhalla, SC, and turn north on SC 130, which becomes NC 281 at the North Carolina state line. Continue north on NC 281. The Grassy Ridge Access (west side of the park) is approximately seven miles north of the state line on the right. To reach the Frozen Creek Access (east side of the park), turn east on NC 64 in Sapphire. Travel toward Brevard approximately eight miles and turn right on Frozen Creek Road. The east entrance is three miles on the right.

gorgest state park welcome sign

Safety First

Gorges State Park is in a remote with few other people around. Be sure to follow directions on any posted signs as well as these additional precautions.

– View waterfalls from below. Rocks and cliffs are jagged and slippery from the vegetation growing around them. Don’t climb next to waterfalls, or wade at the top where a swift current may not be visible.

– The park terrain is steep and rugged in some places. Casual hiking in the more secluded areas of the park is not recommended. Hike with a buddy if possible.

– Nearby Lake Toxaway breeched its dam in 1916 and the water rushed down the gorges, leaving 15- to 20-foot piles of debris everywhere. You’ll see them around the park, but please do not attempt to climb them.

– Be aware you may bump into wildlife like Black bears and coyotes. Stay alert and don’t leave food around your campsite.


Photos Credits:

Rainbow Falls by Jim Liestman

Scenic View, Visitor Center and Welcome Sign by WashuOtaku