One of the best times to visit the US East Coast is during late autumn and Indian summer because of the vibrant colours that turn nature into a feast for the eyes.
To show you some of the best nature trips around North Carolina, I’ve compiled some of my favourite experiences and asked fellow travel bloggers about their recommendations on the coolest things to do in North Carolina in the fall.
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Eating like a glutton at NC State Fair
I’ve always wanted to see a real US fair and the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh was such fun and pure unadulterated gluttony, it’s definitely a must do in North Carolina in the fall.
What can you expect? The fair is hosted on the 344 acre large fair grounds and features multiple ferris wheels, animal exhibitions and show as well as plenty of food stalls to keep you busy for days.
It also runs for nearly two weeks, so you don’t need to rush the experience – because you will be full fast. So pace yourself and research the coolest new food features upfront, such as campfire on a stick or the Chickenator, so you can beeline straight to them.
Another fun feature are the giant pumpkin competitions. Seeing a pumpkin that’s larger than you is so surreal. How do they even grow them this big?
Originally, the fair was all about agriculture and animal husbandry, so it makes sense to dedicate the halls to local farmers. You can watch animal showmanships as well.
Halloween is big and you can hardly overlook it when travelling around North Carolina. I absolutely loved all the Halloween decorations in Oakwood District, Raleigh especially. There was one house that felt like Chucky did some house designing while listening to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. That was some serious next level scare design!
Besides houses turned into horror sets, you really gotta visit one of that many local farms that turn into haunted experiences and corn mazes. Halloween events area definitely one of the must do things in NC!
I finally did one for the first time and even though it was a toned down version and I tried not to suspend my disbelief too much, I was still very much freaked out. If that’s your thing, you absolutely gotta go!
Speaking of scary experiences, ghost and haunted tours are obviously a huge thing during October as well. Did you know you can do a segway ghost tour in Charlotte?
I was lucky and got invited on the Dark Raleigh Walking Tour hosted by City of Raleigh Museum, which changes every year and takes you to actual sites of murder and deaths paired with some tragic background stories.
Many local tour companies offer guided tours with creepy tales and walk you through the streets after nightfall. This adds a little extra spooky something to your North Carolina activities in autumn, don’t you think?
Pick your own apples
North Carolina is one of the biggest producers of apples in the US, so apple picking at a U-Pick farm is a must do fall activity in North Carolina. Most farms are located in Hendersonville, NC, a picturesque small town located alongside the Blue Ridge Mountains in Western North Carolina.
Our favorite apple picking spot is Justus Farms, a family owned farm that spans six generations and has been in the family for over 100 years. Grandad’s Apples and Stepp’s Hillcrest Orchard are also perennial favorites for the residents of Asheville, NC.
picking season runs from mid August to mid November, and almost always includes
other Fall inspired activities like pumpkin picking, corn mazes, apple cannons,
petting zoos, and corn hole games. Depending on what time of year you go, you
can also pick pears, peaches, and berries.
In general, you should plan on spending 2-4 hours at the farm. Take your time to walk along the rows of dwarfed apple trees, collecting your favorite varieties, and enjoying the sublime view of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance.
The farms can be quite big, so comfortable walking shoes and a good sunhat can go a long way to making the day more enjoyable. After you’ve gotten a bushel of apples, don’t forget to nosh on some apple cider donuts available in the country mart!
Apple picking tip by Christina of A Wilder Life
Waiting for the Great Pumpkin
I was under the delusion that I could arrive in North Carolina in the fall and see fields upon fields of bright orange pumpkins. My naïve goal was to stand in a field and wait for the Great Pumpkin for a while (you know, to make a video because that’s my jam). To me, pumpkin fields sounded like fun places to go in North Caroline.
While there are pick your own pumpkin farms in the state, it’s not exactly like strawberry picking. You don’t get to walk out into the fields and cut the pumpkins off. They are typically already harvested and put out on display in rows upon rows.
Therefore, there’s no need to drive up to the farms. (Though they come with their own harvest games, playgrounds, events and such and are still worth a visit!). There are farmers markets or local events like Falling for Local in Raleigh, where you can pick your pumpkins too.
Asheville city experience in autumn
Asheville is the largest city in western North Carolina and, in my opinion, the best place to visit for North Carolina vacations. For me, Asheville is distinguished as a hipster, vegan and hippy city in the middle of the state.
The city is navigable on foot and is home to Biltmore Estate. This is a top destination if you want to explore some history. During the fall, however, not only the estate but the grounds will be most impressive.
If you are more of a city person and not ready to go for a hike, you can still enjoy fall colors by strolling through the gardens, driving along the estate’s back roads or even taking a horseback tour around.
Another fun thing to do in this NC city is taking one of the Haunted tours. Usually, these are walking tours that unravel all the creepy and mysterious aspects of the city. Especially suitable during fall as Halloween draws near.
If Autumn to you means apple cider, apple and pumpkin pies, pumpkin spice latte and a fresh pumpkin ale brew, then Asheville is definitely a destination for you. Try World Coffee Cafe for a pumpkin spice latte, Wicked Weed brewery for pumpkin ale brew, and Buxton Hall for Autumn Pies.
Asheville tip by Inna from the Executive Thrillseeker
Driving the Great Smokey Mountains National Park
Nestled in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, Great Smoky Mountains is the most popular national park in the U.S., getting around 9 million annual visitors.
The park is conveniently located within a half-day’s drive from most of the major cities along the east coast. But the colorful Appalachian culture, gorgeous mountains and waterfalls, and impressive assortment of wildlife could also have something to do with the popularity of the area.
If you want to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park, autumn is arguably the best time of year to do so. The weather is much cooler, the tourist crowds are much smaller, and the colors of the leaves are much more vivid than at any other time of year.
But there’s also a natural phenomenon you can usually only witness there in October: That’s when the famous Cataloochee Valley Elk herd (which was reintroduced to the park back in 2001) is in rut. Come for the stunning scenery, but stay for the wild Elk mating calls!
The park encompasses some 522,419 acres, around 95% of which are lush forests that are teeming with native flora and fauna: The 10,000 or so plant and animal species here include Black Bears, White-tailed Deer, Raccoons, a diverse array of birds, and much more.
There are also 16 mountains within its boundaries with summits of 6,000 feet or more; nearly 900 miles of hiking trails; and road trips that provide remarkable views at places like Cade’s Cove, Clingman’s Dome, and Newfound Gap Road.
Hiking (including part of the world-renowned Appalachian Trail), fishing, and camping are the park’s most popular tourist activities. It’s also the starting point for road trips along the world-renowned Blue Ridge Parkway, which winds more than 500 miles from North Carolina to northern Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park.
NC Travel Tip by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett of Blue Ridge Mountains Travel Guide
Outer Banks Beach Trip
Fall is technically shoulder season and off-season in the Outer Banks, but it’s an awesome time to visit North Carolina. Of course, there are risks to visiting, since these barrier islands are North Carolina’s first line of defense during Hurricane Season.
But severe weather aside, a fall trip to the Outer Banks in NC is worth the gamble. The summer heat is backing off a bit and prices tend to drop a bit from peak, so you can stay right on the beach for less.
Many restaurants in the Outer Banks stay open throughout the year, so you don’t have to worry about missing out on the area’s best food. Places to eat that we love include Kill Devil Grill in Kill Devil Hills and Waverider’s in Nags Head, but there are so many great spots to grab a bite!
Our favorite day trip activity while staying in the Outer Banks is to drive up and down Highway 12, from Corolla all the way down through Hatteras Island, where you can ferry to Ocracoke Island.
There are innumerable stops along the way, including Nags Head Beach, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, and more. We keep coming back and always find something new while exploring our favorite part of North Carolina’s coast.
NC fall tip by Carl Hedinger of NC Tripping
Hiking Great Smoky Mountains Trails
The Great Smoky Mountains make for an incredible experience in the beautiful North Carolina Autumn.
Hiking the mountains and exploring the nature trails are the perfect escape from the urban city, and will leave you refreshed and recharged. The 3 best hikes and adventures in the Great Smoky Mountains are Cades Cove, Mount Cammerer, and Gregory Bald.
Cades Cove is the perfect place to get out and see a ton of wildlife! Deer are everywhere around here, and if you’re lucky you may even spot a black bear making its way through the prairie. Cades Cove is mainly taken as a beautiful drive, however you can also bike or hike the route as well.
Once you’ve gotten your fill here, the two best mountain hikes you can do are Mount Cammerer and Gregory Bald. Both of these hikes are absolutely stunning and offer incredible views of the surrounding valley and forest.
In Autumn, this place is even BETTER because the trees will be changing colors, so the landscape will be prettier than any watercolor you can even imagine!
Do yourself a favor and take a hike around the Great Smoky Mountains as one of your buckelist things to do in NC. You will have an experience unlike any other you can have in North Carolina, and the relaxation you feel upon your completion of the adventure will make you want to come back soon!
Hiking tip by Zach & Julie Ruhl of Ruhls of the Road.
Hiking around Beech Mountain
The fall leaves rank among nature’s most spectacular North Carolina attractions. One of the best places to see their beautiful color is Beech Mountain in the western part of the state.
This small mountain town may be primarily known as a ski resort, Beech Mountain should be in your list for places visit in North Carolina in fall. It’s the highest town on the East Coast (elevation 5,506 feet), which makes for gorgeous panoramic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Although the town is less than seven square miles, it has 28 miles of trails with easy strolls through wooded forests to more challenging hikes with large elevation changes. For the best views head to Emerald Outback Trail, where you can hike through more than seven miles of well-marked trails, mostly intermediate to advanced.
The trails take you through old-growth forests, over creeks and through open spaces. You’ll also find scenic overlooks with spectacular views of Elk River Valley and Grandfather Mountain.
Because of the elevation, the leaves turn color here a little earlier than the rest of the state, typically around the beginning of October. For where to stay, see Chalets, Log Cabins, Suites: Beech Mountain Rentals.
NC Hiking tip by Jan Schroder, Editor-in-chief, The Travel 100
Colourful Burke County
Hiking in North Carolina is perfect during fall. The temperatures are around 15°C (60°F) and if you can catch the leaves at their autumn peak, the colors are sublime.
Burke County is one of thr best areas to visit in North Carolina in autumn as you have easy access to the Blue Ridge Mountains and all they have to offer.
Table Rock is a wonderful trail that leads visitors on a moderate route to the peak of the boulder that resembles its name. You’ll find expansive views of the forests surrounding it at its height. Plus, you’ll feel on top of the world – literally and figuratively – as you rest after your mountain summit victory.
Be sure to bring water and dress in layers during fall for North Carolina mountain weather, cold at night and in the morning and warmest mid-day. There are no restrooms on the trail so be sure to use one before or after you begin!
Tip by Mikkel Mihlrad of Sometimes Home
Park strolls in Greensboro
No need to strap on your hiking boots. Not all things to you can do in North Carolina in the fall require extensive hiking and mountain walks to immerse yourself in nature. If you visit Greensboro in NC, you can take the bus or drive to the botanical garden region and take it slow.
The well-manicured Tanger Bicentennial Garden with its sculptures and historic mill is located right next to the more wild Bog Garden. Both are great destinations for some forest bathing and ambling among the fall foliage.
Street art viewing in Charlotte
Charlotte has a few lovely parks but what makes walking around town (and skipping museums) even better is its street art scene. There are many gorgeous murals beautifying walls everywhere, many of which can be found in the neighbourhood of NoDa.
Just walk up and down the main street lined with hipster shops and cafes in NoDa and you get your quick fill. There are so many colours, gorgeous creations and city scenes to be see. (Get a local guide for the best spots.)
Still, you shouldn’t discard the city centre with murals scattered throughout, especially towards the East. I am currently working on a little mural guide to Charlotte because I was so impressed and really enjoyed treasure hunting these street art pieces.
Shopping at Raleigh vintage, art and handcraft markets
There’s always something going on and a lot of things to experience in Raleigh. During my time in town, a string of local markets, featuring vintage finds, locally produced, handcrafted items and art exhibits took place.
I loved strolling around the markets, talking to vendors, purchasing unique souvenirs and admiring local talent. It’s a great place to meet and mingle too. So if you want to add something new to your home or get some unique souvenirs, check them out.
One special recurring market is First Friday, during which art galleries and local stores open up until late evening. It makes sense because many people don’t have time to visit galleries during the week and might work until after they close.
This way, you can take your time walking around the city centre, meeting artists and likeminded art lovers.
Wanna combine art and nature? Check out the Modern Art Museum in Raleigh for some pretty interesting outdoor sculptures. For art lovers, this museum with many free exhibitions ought to be among the top priority North Carolina places to visit all year.
Taking the greenways
While there are free (indoor) events and museums inviting you to stay and linger – which are especially great for rainy days -, you should take a breather in nature. When it’s sunny and the fall foliage all out, pick one of the many hike options in the state.
Most might not consider the many greenways in North Carolina as points of interest but you can even walk from High Point all the way to Greensboro, if you like really long walks.
For a shorter one, consider Raleigh. For example, if you have three hours to spare, take the easy trail from the North Carolina Museum of Art all the way up to Shelley Lake.
That’s the House Creek Greenway and Mine Creek Trail. Should that not be enough, you can continue up until Sawmill Trail Greenway for another hour.
Ok, the last on my list of coolest fall things to do in North Carolina is a rather obvious one. If you are visiting family or friends, you might want to experience a true Southern Thanksgiving.
When I was working at a summer camp, I made a friend from Louisiana and she told everyone about how her family fried a giant turkey in a long pot. She puzzled quite a few people with that statement.
So when I got to celebrate my very first Thanksgiving ever and in the South, I luckily was able to see what she meant with my own eyes.
They indeed fill a giant, elongated pot with litres of oil and then gently lower the entire (already defrosted) turkey in there. Leave for 40 minutes and it was done and tasted very different from the typical roasted type. Quite the experience!
More USA Travel tips
- What to see in Salisbury, NC
- Planning a day trip to Sleepy Hollow from NYC
- Exploring spooky Eastern State Pen in Philadelphia
- Retracing Alexander Hamilton’s steps in Baltimore
- Where to go for a Florida Road trip