Story & Photos by Tim Barnwell
For me a great fall drive is one that offers beautiful countryside, mountain views and colorful foliage. The best way to maximize the chances of finding good color is to follow a route that covers a wide range of elevations, as colors change at higher elevations first before moving down the mountainside. Some fall seasons are prettier than others and timing can vary from year to year, but mid to late October is usually the optimal time to get out and explore Western North Carolina.
Popular options include well-known and easy-to-follow routes such as the Blue Ridge Parkway and Newfound Gap Road/ Highway 441 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I spent many fall seasons lovingly exploring these for my travel guidebooks, Blue Ridge Parkway Vistas and Great Smoky Mountains Vistas and highly recommend them. However, you can encounter bumper-to-bumper traffic along these routes on October weekends, draining much of the pleasure of the drive.
Over the years I have mapped out alternate drives—such as the one detailed here—that allow me to find good color while avoiding the worst of the congestion from the influx of leaf-lookers. While this route doesn’t afford as many places to pull off the road as the Parkway, there is considerably less traffic. For the most flexibility, pack a lunch and drinks in a cooler so you can stop anywhere when you get hungry. And do your travel and restaurant research before you leave home as cell coverage is limited along this route.
Head northwest from Asheville on New Leicester Highway (NC 63). This scenic drive traverses stunning farmland dotted with old barns and white farmhouses. The road undulates across rolling hills before climbing to crest the ridgeline at Doggett Gap. There is a great view back toward Asheville and Mount Mitchell just before you reach the top of the mountain.
From there the road drops into Madison County to end at the small community of Trust where it intersects Highway 209 (small convenience store there). At this juncture you have the choice to head southwest toward Canton or north to Hot Springs. Both offer great loop drives back to Asheville. The slightly shorter route is to turn left and take Highway 209 across Betsy Gap to I-40 at Clyde, and follow that east to Asheville. If you have the time you can explore nearby Waynesville, home of great craft shops, including Twigs and Leaves, and a nice selection of restaurants.
My preferred option is to turn right onto Highway 209 and head north through the Spring Creek community to Hot Springs. I think this is one of the prettiest valleys in Western North Carolina. Hot Springs is a unique little town situated at the junction of the Appalachian Trail and the French Broad River and is the focal point for many river rafting outfitters. There are a few neat shops, and lunch choices include the Spring Creek Tavern and Iron Horse Station. Continue straight through town and when the road ends at the rock face, bear right and stay on U.S. Highway 25-70 to the U.S. Highway 19/23 junction at Weaverville. This 25-mile section winds through the mountains and offers a wide range of elevations and views.
If you want to explore downtown Weaverville continue straight until the road ends and turn right on Main Street. There are a number of great shops including Mangum Pottery, and one of my favorite pizza parlors, Blue Mountain Pizza. Otherwise, take 19/23 back to Asheville.
Whatever route you pick should have plenty of beautiful scenery to enjoy, so grab your jacket and camera, pack the car, and head out for a fun fall adventure!
Tim Barnwell is the author of seven books of photography including his newly released Tide Runners: Shrimping and Fishing on the Carolinas and Georgia Coast (see page 56). He maintains a studio in Asheville where he photographs art and craftwork and teaches photography. For information, visit BarnwellPhoto.com.