Finding Fall Color along the Blue Ridge Parkway and Beyond

Check out these leaf-peeping tips for a spectacular fall visit to the Blue Ridge Parkway

Tens of thousands of people visit the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Georgia each year to see the beautiful fall foliage and autumn colors. The Blue Ridge Mountains offer one of the most colorful and longest-running fall leaf seasons in the world.

One of the many reasons for this is the varied elevations which show prime fall colors for more than a month. Fall colors begin at the highest elevations in early October and work their way down to the lower elevations in early November.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When will the Parkway leaves stop producing chlorophyll and change to their wardrobe of fall colors? If you’re wondering when the peak Blue Ridge Parkway Fall leaf season will be this year, you’re not alone. It’s usually in October which is often the busiest month along the Parkway. But there are many factors that influence the timing and intensity of the color including when and how much rain falls, how late in the season the sun shines with intense heat, and how cool the nights are. So your best bet to see peak autumn color is to incorporate as many of these elements into your trip as possible.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Elevation: Travel a longer section of the Parkway to see a variety of elevations. Leaves change color at higher, cooler elevations first. The elevation along the Parkway ranges from over 6,000 feet at Richland Balsam in North Carolina to just under 650 feet at the James River in Virginia. You can also continue into Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks on either end of the Parkway for additional opportunities to view fall color. Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the state high point of Tennessee and Mount Mitchell, located along the Parkway at Milepost 355 is the state high point for North Carolina and either would be a good choice.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aspect: Which direction a slope face determines its temperature and the type of plants that grow there. Leaves change color first on cooler, wetter north-facing slopes and later on warmer, south-facing slopes. View a variety of aspects to see different plants and different phases of color change.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Distance: Since overlooks with distant views reveal a variety of elevations and aspects you are more likely to see leaf color. Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the state high point of Tennessee, and Mount Mitchell, with access at Parkway at Milepost 355, is the state high point for North Carolina; either would provide a long-distance view. But many Parkway overlooks also provide long-range views, so there are lots of options besides the tallest peak in the state.

The bottom line is, don’t expect to pick one spot on one day on the Parkway and see the perfect combination of colors—instead, travel a longer distance and you’re likely to meet all the criteria above and see a variety of stages of color change.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here, then, is the general progression:

  • Leaves at the highest elevations (Clingmans Dome, Grandfather Mountain, Mount Mitchell, and Waterrock Knob) change from late September to early October
  • Mid-October provides good color along most of the Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park including Boone and Blowing Rock in North Carolina and Wytheville and Fancy Gap in Virginia
  • Next, the lower elevations provide good color (Pisgah National Forest, Linville Gorge, Nantahala Gorge, and Maggie Valley in North Carolina and Roanoke, Lynchburg, Lexington, Waynesboro, and Shenandoah National Park in Virginia)
  • The lowest elevations (Asheville, Brevard, Waynesville, Cherokee, Gatlinburg, Chimney Rock, and Lake Lure) provide the final color display if the weather has cooperated and there are still leaves on the trees
Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2021 Fall Color Forecast for the Blue Ridge Parkway, by week

September 27-October 7: At the highest elevations, close to 6,000 feet there is some color but it’s often very spotty and muted. The views from these locations will be mostly green since the areas viewed are lower elevations. Areas that turn early in this date and elevation range include Graveyard Fields (Milepost 418.8) and Rough Ridge Trail (Milepost 302.8).

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

October 1-10: Peak time for areas above 5,000 feet. This would include Clingmans Dome, Grandfather Mountain, Mount Mitchell, Waterrock Knob (Milepost 451.2), and Graveyard fields (the first location on the Parkway to turn) and higher elevations of The Blue Ridge Parkway (between Asheville and Cherokee) and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

October 10 – 20: Peak time for elevations from 4,000-5,000 feet. This would include almost all Blue Ridge Parkway locations and the majority of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as well. Included in this elevation are the Boone and Blowing Rock areas.

October 18-26: Peak time for lower elevations, from 3,000-4,000 feet. This would include places like Pisgah National Forest which includes Sliding Rock and Looking Glass Falls, Dill Falls, Wildcat Falls, and many other waterfalls.  Other areas include Linville Gorge (Milepost 316.4), Nantahala Gorge, Maggie Valley (Milepost 455.5), and Cataloochee Valley.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

October 24-31: Peak time for elevations from 2,000 feet-3,000 feet. This would include The cities of Asheville, Brevard, Waynesville, Cherokee, and many others. Places of interest include Dupont State Forest and Biltmore Estate, and Cades Cove.

October 26-November 8: Peak time for remaining elevations including Gatlinburg (Tennessee), Chimney Rock (North Carolina), and remaining lower elevation mountains. This includes Chimney Rock (State Park) as well, a great place to see fall color.

Please note: These timeframes are estimates based on prior years and current weather and soil conditions. Actual peak times may vary some from this forecast.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Information and Trip Planning

The Parkway’s unique features such as limited sight distances, blind curves, and elevation changes offer driving challenges, especially for recreational vehicles. Stay alert and watch for other motorists, wildlife, and bicyclists.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping: Be sure to make advance camping reservations. The Parkway’s eight campgrounds were built years ago and do not currently offer RV hookups. Most Parkway campgrounds have at least some sites that will accommodate sizeable recreational vehicles. There are many private campgrounds in communities available just off the Parkway with full RV hookups and amenities.

Tunnels: Know the height of your RV in comparison to the heights of the 26 tunnels along the Parkway. The top of each tunnel is curved with the maximum height above the center line and the minimum height at the road shoulder.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Parkway Detour: From May 2021 to spring 2022, a section of the Blue Ridge Parkway will be closed in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. Expect a closure by Roanoke due to a serious slope failure there. The National Park Service will be completing repairs on the Roanoke River Bridge at Milepost 114 and also repairing a road hazard at Milepost 127.9 that was caused by heavy rains and landslides. As a result, the Blue Ridge Parkway will be closed from Milepost 112.2 (Route 24 near Vinton) to Milepost 136 (Route 221 on Bent Mountain) for through-travelers. You can take US 221 around the closure from Parkway Milepost 135.9 to Milepost 106 (about a 27-mile detour).

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a popular destination for vacationers who RV. Nothing beats a beautiful, wooded drive in your home-away-from-home!

Worth Pondering…

Almost heaven, West Virginia
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River
Life is old there, older than the trees
Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze

Country roads, take me home
Take me home, country roads.

—John Denver