When it comes to fall foliage, you might not immediately think about leaf peeping in the Southern States.
A visit to the South isn’t always what first comes to mind for those wanting to watch summer fade to fall, but it’s one of the best times to visit. By leaf-peeping season, Southern heat has shimmered into crisp fall air, and soft summer greens burst into gold, amber, and scarlet. Rivaling the well-loved fall foliage of New England, the South is worth a visit to anyone interested in leaf-peeping.
While the dates of peak changing color vary year to year, generally, leaves begin changing up north before migrating south. Some states start to transition by mid-September; others won’t change until November, depending on weather conditions. Many states keep travelers up to date with local foliage on park and tourism board websites, so leaf peepers should keep tabs on the progress of the foliage in the state you plan to visit. Here are the ten best places to go leaf peeping in the South.
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By mid-October, Alabama’s byways are colored in beautiful hues of falls foliage. One of the best ways to take it all in is along the Circle of Colors Trail, which passes through three state parks: Oak Mountain State Park, Noccalula Falls, and Cheaha State Park. Oak Mountain is the state’s largest park and has more than 50 hiking and biking trails. At Noccalula Falls, a 1.7-mile crushed stone path, The Black Creek Trail, runs along the creek making its way down to the beautiful rushing falls. Cheaha is one of the country’s most unique national parks. Granite boulders and ancient trees sit over 2,000 feet above sea level amongst the clouds on what’s considered “an island in the sky.”
Arkansas’ Ozark Mountains are one of the best places in the state to witness fall foliage. The park is known for its deep gold, amber treetops, and cascading waterfalls. Bend along the backroads of Byway 7, traveling through four regions, including the West Gulf Coastal Plain, the Ouachita Mountains, and the Arkansas River Valley. Around mid-October, start in the northern town of Harrison and follow the changing foliage south toward the Louisiana border.
There are plenty of overlooks for opportunities to hop out of your car and explore on foot in the region. You can’t miss the deep valleys of the Grand Canyon of the Ozarks in Jasper. Head to the Rotary Ann Roadside Park for the best 180-degree views of the mountains and canyon.
With just one cruise through the Appalachian foothills of North Georgia, you can experience charming orange, red, and yellow mosaics. Take a seat in the open-air car of the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway. The riverside train glides through the Chattahoochee National Forest for unparalleled fall foliage views.
For the best of Georgia during fall, head to Amicalola Falls State Park, home to the tallest cascading waterfall in the Southeast, or Black Rock Mountain, Georgia’s highest state park overlooking 80-mile vistas. Beginning every October, The Georgia Department of Natural Resources offers an online Leaf Watch to keep travelers updated with leaf changes across the state.
There’s a lot of leaf peeping in Tennessee, but many visit the country’s most famous park, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which also straddles North Carolina. During early October, bold yellows top birch trees, and rich reds cover pin cherry trees. The foliage is impressive and considered to rival the best of the New England states. Due to the park’s popularity–particularly the last three weeks of October–reserving campsites far in advance is necessary. To avoid crowds, check out the routes recommended by the National Park Service.
South Carolina’s autumn foliage comes later into the fall because of the state’s warm weather. Bursts of color appear in early October, but the most spectacular chances at leaf peeping arrive by early November. Beyond the usual beauty of fall foliage, the state’s marshes also turn from summer greens to glistening gold autumn hues, making it a unique leaf-changing season. The state’s best viewpoints are Chester State Park, Oconee State Park, Table Rock State Park, and Caesars Head State Park, which is loved for its hardwood forests covered in golden foliage.
Home to some of the tallest mountains in the Southeast of the U.S., North Carolina has one of the most vibrant fall foliage in the region. Beyond the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains, leaf peepers should also head to the various areas of the North Carolina Piedmont. Don’t fret about planning too far in advance here, though. The state’s high elevation means not worrying about missing peak colors. Unlike other regions, the mountains are just in the backyard of Asheville, one of North Carolina’s most charming cities.
Take a trip to Virginia for a bit of a different fall landscape. Deep purples fill the state’s lush forests along the usual bright red oaks and golden ash trees, creating an unforgettable leaf-peeping experience–one of the best in the South. Shenandoah National Park is one of the most popular places to visit. According to the Virginia Department of Forestry, peak fall foliage seasons happen by early October in the western part of the state and around the end of the month in the eastern region. The National Forest Service publishes leaf reports annually, and they’re worth checking out before planning your trip.
The best of fall in Mississippi comes around mid-October and lasts through November. It’s a small window for leaf peeping, so planning in advance is necessary, but it’s worth it. With 189,000 acres, Homochitto National Forest is the perfect place to experience fall foliage in Mississippi. Leaf peepers may enjoy the unique way the colorful leaves reflect onto Lake Okhissa, creating the most shimmering fall foliage in the region.
The most popular place for spotting the changing leaves in Jackson is along the Natchez Trace Parkway. For deep red hues and remarkable views, head to Jeff Busby Park. For unique, massive rock formations and wildflower-lined trails, check out Tishomingo State Park.
The Mountain State is a fantastic place to explore during the fall. For early leaf peeping, head to West Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains–right next door to Virginia–for the first peak around the end of September. Usually by the end of October, the state’s southwest region is last to change. The state’s parks are some of the best for witnessing the changing leaves.
Blackwater Falls State Park is best for early-season visits. Coopers Rock State Forest is perfect for travelers who miss peak season, and for late October peeping, Hawks Nest State park, overlooking the waters of the New George River, is a stunning choice.
For the earliest of leaf-peepers, Kentucky is calling. The state’s first bursts of fall foliage appear as early as mid-September in the mountains of the eastern region before rippling across to the west. Vibrant hickory and maple trees filled Daniel Boone National Forest, making it one of the best places to come fall. Travelers arriving later in the season can experience a perfect day of hiking at Woodlands Trace National Scenic Byway.
While Kentucky’s national parks are the best option for leaf peeping, city lovers have options too. Head to Louisville or Lexington for fall foliage in their many parks and historic cemeteries.