1 of 3
W.VA Division of Tourism/Steve Shaluta, Jr.
Autumn Drive: Monongahela National Forest
In the Monongahela National Forest. Portions of the West Virginia woodland are wild and fully undeveloped.
2 of 3
Autumn Mountain Drives
3 of 3
W.VA Division of Tourism/Steve Shaluta, Jr.
Autumn Drive: Monongahela National Forest
In the Monongahela National Forest. Portions of the West Virginia woodland are wild and fully undeveloped.
There’s nothing like an autumn drive in the Blue Ridge Mountains, past flame-colored trees touching an impossibly blue sky. Unless it’s a walk through cool, shady woods with leaves crunching beneath your feet and a shower of fire-tinged leaves falling around you. It’s easy to wax poetic in autumn; it’s even easier to combine these two experiences into a mountain drive and leaf walk.
Into the Forest Primeval
Try a drive along Highland Scenic Highway (W.Va. 150) in central West Virginia to discover wild, undeveloped portions of the Monangahela National Forest for a different autumn trek.
This secluded area once served as a haven for Americans seeking to avoid the horrors of the Civil War. Their isolation continued for decades due to limited access and communication with the outside world. In the 1960s, the Smithsonian Institution studied descendants of these families and discovered that their language was the Elizabethan English of early settlers.
The Highlands Scenic Tour of this national scenic byway begins at Richwood, climbs east on W.Va. 39-55 along the north fork of the Cherry River, past a steep-walled, narrow valley and Hills Creek. The byway crosses Kennison Mountain, descends to Cranberry Mountain Visitor Center, turns north, following W.Va. 150 for 22 miles ascending Black Mountain, drops to cross Williams River and then climbs again on Gauley Mountain near Red Spruce Knob before descending to U.S. 219 on Elk Mountain. Allow 2-3 hours to enjoy the sights.
Leave your car: View the Allegheny Highlands at four scenic overlooks. Walk along a paved trail to see three waterfalls at the Falls of Hills Creek. Take the boardwalk through Cranberry Glades Botanical Area, a 750-acre bog, for a look at a unique habitat (complete with bog orchids and carnivorous plants). More than 150 miles of trails are located around the byway.
There are no services along this wilderness route; you may encounter a coal truck along the way. Information: Gauley Ranger District, 304/846-2695.
Rediscover “Auto Tourism”
In 1929, the Dixie Highway (called the granddaddy of I-75) became the first “interstate” to reach into the south and North Georgia. Tourist courts, filling stations, roadside markets and attractions such as Rock City soon sprang up. But the birth of I-75 and high-speed travel lessened the route’s popularity. Today, the Dixie (U.S. 41) is being rediscovered as a more leisurely way to enjoy sights along the way.
Auto travel nostalgia is abundant along the route. Ringgold, near the start of the Dixie, features a circa 1950s hamburger stand, a 1930s Sinclair gas station, the Ringgold Depot and, south of town near Ga. 2, a collection of circa 1925 tourist cabins believed to be the first lodging in Georgia for those driving the Dixie. Information: Catoosa County Chamber, 706/965-5201.
Leave your car: Five miles from Ringgold, Elsie A. Holmes Nature Park has “talking trees” equipped with solar-powered recordings about the surroundings (706/935-5263); nearby Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park has walking trails for any skill level (706/866-9241).
To reach the Dixie, exit I-75 in Northwest Georgia at exit 352 at the visitor’s center at Ringgold, to U.S. 41. Stops along the way include: Dalton, Calhoun, Adairsville (see segments of the original Old Dixie here), Cassville and Cartersville. The route extends to Marietta Square, I-75 exit 267B.
Information: 1-800-733-2280 or www.dixiehighway.org.
More Than Rhododendron
It’s difficult not to think of purple-pink rhododendron blossoms when you think of Roan Mountain, Tenn./N.C. But there’s much more to this peak that straddles a state line than springtime flowers. The 6,285-foot ridge rises above its namesake, Roan Mountain State Park, in Carter County, Tenn., about 20 miles south of Elizabethton (take U.S. 19E south from Elizabethton to the village of Roan Mountain and then Tenn. 143 to the park). The mountain can also be accessed from Mitchell County, N.C. (take N.C. 226 to Bakersville, proceed through town onto N.C. 261 for 12 miles to Carver’s Gap at the state line). From the park, a 10-mile drive takes visitors up the heights of the Roan.
Park naturalist Jennifer Laughlin says autumn visitors are not as locked into a certain weekend to view leaves at their peak on Roan Mountain. Due to elevational changes, from 3,000 to 6,000 feet, leaves are changing from late September to October. She says while the mountaintop may be winter-bare, trees at lower elevations may be just at their peak.
Leave your car: The Appalachian Trail runs across the Roan Highlands, ushering visitors across one of the area’s most unique features: the grassy balds. These treeless areas are the largest expanse of balds in the southern Appalachians. Try a park hiking trail, open year-round. Some trails follow the Doe River; others lead to the balds.
Information: 423/772-0190 (Tenn.) or toll free 1-800-250-8620
Try a “Heavenly” Trip Through the Upcountry
Many years ago the Cherokee called the Blue Ridge Mountains “the Great Blue Hills of God.” Just as the Blue Ridge encircles Upcountry South Carolina, so the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Byway (S.C. 11) follows these lofty peaks and cliff-walled rivers that splash down as waterfalls from mountain heights. Access this route by taking I-85 south to S.C. exit 92 or I-85 north to S.C. exit 1. The two-lane road follows an ancient Cherokee footpath for 112 miles.
Stops along the byway include: Caesars Head State Park, Campbell’s Bridge (the state’s only remaining covered bridge), Glassy Mountain (a 1,000-foot-high cliff with a sheer rock face) and Sumter National Forest.
Leave your car: For a look at the area’s heritage, stop at Walhalla, at the intersections of S.C. 183 and 28 in Oconee County. Settled in 1850, the town’s name comes from Norse mythology (Valhalla or Garden of the Gods). Today, a dozen antique shops dot Main Street.
Visit Oconee Station State Historic Site for a living history demonstration or watch Cherokee artist Nancy Basket use kudzu for her creations. Take an easy 1.5-mile nature hike on the Oconee Station Trail (ending in a waterfall spray area – home to rare and endangered plant life) or try the 15-minute hike to nearby Issaqueena Falls. Other nearby Upcountry trails range from easy to difficult (information: www.sctrails.net).
Area information: Upcountry South Carolina Association 1-800-849-4766 or 864/233-2690, www.upcountry-sc.org.
Leave Lane-Changing Behind
Travelers who venture off I-77 and I-81 at Wytheville, Va., can enjoy a 16.2-mile alternative to interstate driving on the Big Walker Mountain Scenic Byway. The drive passes through Jefferson National Forest and ascends the mountain to a 100-foot lookout tower. From I-81, take exit 70 to U.S. 52 N; from I-77 take exit 47 to Va. 717. Proceed west on Va. 717 and drive 2.3 miles to Stony Fork Campground.
Leave your car: Walk along the Stony Fork Nature Trail or hike the moderate Seven Sisters Trail. Head back to the car to ascend the mountain for a stop at Big Walker Lookout. This privately owned tower was built in the 1950s when U.S. 52 was new (open April-Oct., 540/228-4401). View several states at this halfway point on the byway. Stop for a picnic under a canopy of oaks at 4,000 feet in Big Bend Picnic Area (four miles from U.S. 52 on FS Rd. 206). Access the Appalachian Trail, where U.S. 52 intersects Va. 615.
The byway ends where U.S. 52 crosses I-77.
Information: Wytheville Area CVB, 1-877-347-8307 or 276/223-3355; Jefferson National Forest, 540/228-5551, trail info: www.fs.fed.us/r8/gwj/recreation/hiking/index.shtml.
Three Forests of Autumn Leaves
The Cherohala Skyway, which runs from Tellico Plains, Tenn. to Robbinsville, N.C., began with annual wagon train trips organized by area citizens pleading for a road from Southeast Tennessee to the western North Carolina Mountains.
Today, this 40-plus-mile, two-lane road crosses the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests, from which it takes its name. The skyway follows an old Cherokee trade route past rivers, 15 scenic pull-offs and the shoreline of a North Carolina mountain lake. There are few passing zones on this road; the byway was designed for travelers, not commuters.
Begin at Tellico Plains (Tenn. 165), where the first view of mountain peaks and deep valleys is milepost 14. Turkey Creek Overlook between mileposts 15 and 16 offers a picnic stop. Next, the skyway passes a black bear refuge after East Rattlesnake Rock and ascends to the highest overlook – Santeetlah (5,390 ft.). The last 10 miles of the skyway offer views of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, one of the last remaining old-growth forests in the east, and ends at Robbinsville, N.C. (Hwy. 143).
Leave your car: Trailheads lead from five byway overlooks. Hike up Hooper Bald, milepost 8 in the North Carolina stretch. Walk among 100-foot-tall trees in the Joyce Kilmer forest (a 1- to 2-hour walk, excellent for novices or families with small children – 828/479-6431).
Driving time for the Cherohala Skyway is about two hours. Tennessee information: 423/253-8010. North Carolina information: 1-800-470-3790.
Yesteryear’s Work, Today’s Nature Path
Western Maryland’s industrial heritage and natural beauty is the focus of the Catoctin Mountain Byway in Frederick County. Enjoy part of the byway beginning at the junction of Catoctin Furnace Road, Md. 806, and U.S. 15; head north on Md. 806 to see the ruins of the Catoctin Iron Furnace, in operation from 1774-1903. Next, Md. 806 becomes Frederick Road as you head north to Thurmont, first settled around 1751. At Thurmont, head west on Md. 77, Thurmont-Foxville Road, into Catoctin Mountain National Park. The road crosses Catoctin Mountain, descending beside Big Hunting Creek and Cunningham Falls.
Acquired in the 1930s, this national park has several paths that trace the industrial use of the mountain. Camp David, the presidential retreat is located here (not open or accessible to the public).
Leave your car: Near the visitor’s center, follow a short trail to Blue Blazes still, where 25,000 gallons of corn whiskey were made each day until it was shut down in 1929. The Charcoal Trail traces the lives of wood cutters and colliers, workers who practiced the obsolete art of charcoal making. The 0.2-mile Spicebush Trail is handicapped accessible and teaches forest ecology.
Peak visitations is October when autumn colors are best. Open year-round during daylight hours; 301/663-9388 or www.nps.gov/cato.
Hiking Can Be Different In The Forest
Hiking in a national forest can be different than what you may have experienced in a national park. While park trails are usually heavily traveled and well-marked, forest trails are often not as clear-cut and are marked by blazes on trees. Here are some tips for hiking in a national forest:
- Let someone know where you are going. Some forests are wilderness areas.
- Leave the forest the way you found it, or better; pick up litter.
- Be alert, and use common sense.
- Start early in order to be out of the forest before dark, which comes earlier in heavily wooded areas.
- Take high-calorie snacks.
- Take sufficient water.
- Stay on the trail.
- Walk softly – don’t disturb the quiet of the forest, or its flora and fauna.
A Beautiful Route
Bronze leaves drift lazily down the Whitewater River, and gentle pools reflect red and orange. The river appears unintimidating as it slips beneath the N.C. 281 bridge. Barely around the next bend, though, the water will gain momentum over a couple of small drops, crash 411 feet, tumble two miles through a narrow gorge and then pour over another waterfall that’s nearly a twin of the first.
An overview of Upper Whitewater Falls, spectacular even without autumn colors, is just footsteps from a parking area off 281. A few miles down the same highway, a longer trail leads to a lower-falls vantage. For travelers riding the Southern Highroads Trail, a 364-mile scenic loop through the mountains of the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee, this series of falls – considered as a set, the highest collection in the East – is just one of many outstanding roadside attractions.
The route follows well-maintained highways, and despite staying in or very near the mountains, most stretches don’t twist and turn too much (emphasis on most). Also, these roads don’t tend to crowd up when the mountains light up during October.
You need at least a weekend to enjoy even bits of what you’ll discover along the Southern Highroads Trail. A week would be better. As a loop, the trail has no beginning or end. Pick it up at any point, make the rounds, and return home from the same point.
We’ll begin our tour at Upper Whitewater Falls. The best overlook is less than a quarter mile down an easy trail. The trail continues to the base of the falls, but there’s no waterfall view from the bottom, and the return hike climbs the same 400 feet that the falls plunges.
Back on the highway and just past the South Carolina line, parking for the 1.7-mile hike to Lower Whitewater Falls is inside a gate for the Bad Creek Hydro Station. The gate opens when cars approach it, and signs point to the trailhead.
Past the Bad Creek entrance, the Highroads Trail turns right onto secondary road 413, a short connector to S.C. 107, and then left on 107, which parallels the Chattooga National Wild and Scenic River atop a ridge. To the left, forest breaks reveal long looks off the Blue Ridge Escarpment. To the right, dirt roads and very steep trails wind toward the Chattooga.
S.C. 107 ends at S.C. 28, and the trail continues straight on 28 south. Where the roads meet, watch for HillSaturday evening for a good old-fashioned bluegrass jam.
Just past the junction, don’t miss Stumphouse Tunnel Park – and don’t forget your flashlight. It’s dark inside the dead-end tunnel, an abandoned railroad project. Also check out Isaqueena Falls while you’re at the park.
S.C. 28 takes the route into Walhalla, where it turns right onto S.C. 183. Antique shops and food stops line Walhalla’s old-style downtown. S.C. 183 leads to Westminster, where the trail turns right again, onto U.S. 76.
Apple orchards and old homes border 76 as it winds toward the Chattooga River, which forms the South Carolina/Georgia border. The 76 bridge divides two of the South’s premier rafting sections. Within Georgia, 76 makes a long east-to-west sweep through the mountains, connecting five mountain towns.
Just off the route, following U.S. 441 south from Clayton, the Tallulah River drops close to 1,000 feet in only two miles, between vertical walls. Each autumn, special water releases cause the river to roar through Tallulah Gorge like it did 100 years ago, prior to the damming of the head of the gorge.
Between Clayton and Hiawassee, the route crosses the Blue Ridge and the Appalachian Trail at Dicks Creek Gap. The town of Hiawassee sits on the edge of Lake Chatuge, which impounds 7,050 acres along the Hiwassee River.
Young Harris begins where Hiawassee ends and sits in the shadows of Brasstown Bald, Georgia’s highest mountain. Brasstown Bald, which stands apart from the main spur of the Blue Ridge, appears ablaze in its October foliage.
The town of Blairsville, just west of Brasstown Bald, wraps around a turn-of-the-century, red brick courthouse. The Highroads Trail then runs straight west through the town of Blue Ridge, passing two more mountain lakes along the way.
Ellijay, next along the route, lies in Georgia’s apple country, and numerous large orchards in and around town serve cider and doughnuts during fall. Hillcrest Orchards, located just east of Ellijay on Ga. 52, hosts an Apple Pickin’ Jamboree each fall (Sept. 22-23 and 29-30), which includes cow milking, pig races, wagon rides through the orchards and a host of other fun family stuff.
In Ellijay, the Highroads Trail finally departs 76, picking up Ga. 52 but continuing a westerly course. Outside town, the highway begins climbing almost immediately to skirt the southern edge of the Cohutta Mountains.
A couple of overlooks along 52 provide outstanding views of western Blue Ridge ranges in Georgia and Tennessee. Along 52, Fort Mountain State Park has a cool lookout tower, a mountain lake, an extensive trail system and a strange rock wall of unknown origin near its highest point.
On the other side of the mountains, the trail hits Chatsworth, where it turns right to head north on U.S. 411. Beginning in Chatsworth, the trail follows a very flat valley, with the mountains rising abruptly well to the right of the road. Several shops and restaurants in Chatsworth show off great mountain views.
U.S. 411 runs straight north, eventually carrying the Highroads Trail into Tennessee, where it will turn right onto U.S. 64. Past this turn, the Southern Highroads Trail becomes extra easy to follow, because 64 carries the entire west-to-east portion through Tennessee and North Carolina.
On 64, the trail borders Parksville Lake for a while before getting to the Ocoee’s famous paddling sections. Above the lake, the river narrows, and depending on water-flow schedules, the riverbed may be rocky and lazy or roaring and white.
The traditional Ocoee rafting section serves up two hours of nearly constant action with wild and powerful rapids. The five-mile upper section includes the 1/4-mile Olympic course. The Ocoee only “runs” on weekends through the fall, with upper Ocoee water releases even more limited.
While the Ocoee attracts the most attention along the Tennessee section of the Highroads Trail, much surrounding land lies within the Cherokee National Forest, and practically every road and trail leads to a place to hike, canoe, camp or enjoy a picnic. Past the Ocoee, 64 winds over the edge of Big Frog Mountain and dips through Ducktown before crossing into North Carolina.
In North Carolina, 64 winds gently through very a rural mountain stretch before dropping into a valley, where Murphy borders Lake Hiwassee. The Cherokee County Courthouse in Murphy, built of locally mined blue marble, is on the National Register of Historic Places, as is the entire campus of the John C. Campbell Folk School in neighboring Brasstown.
The Folk School, with its rustic setting in Brasstown Valley, long history of cultural education and outstanding craft shop, warrants a stop any time of the year. During the first weekend of October, a huge fall festival adds excitement.
Continuing east, the Highroads Trail cuts through Hayesville and then skirts the northern shore of Lake Chatuge, before beginning its climb over the Nantahala Mountains. The highway ascends to more than 3,700 feet at Winding Stair Gap, where the Appalachian Trail again crosses the Highroads Trail.
East of the Nantahala Mountains, U.S. 64 skirts the south end of Franklin. Though larger than other towns along the route, Franklin still has a small-town feel with its old downtown district. Franklin, although rich in a variety of things, is best known for its gem-rich soils. Several mines around town have flumes to allow you to sift out your own treasures. The Franklin Gem & Mineral Museum, located in the old jail, offers a good starting point.
East of Franklin, the Cullasaja River appears beside 64, and the road climbs and twists into the river’s stark gorge. The river sometimes disappears from sight as it pours over numerous drops, including 150-foot-plus Cullasaja Falls. The waterfall is unmarked, so passengers (not drivers) must watch for it. Two other falls in the gorge, Dry Falls and Bridal Veil Falls afford “inside out” waterfall views – one by car and one by foot.
At the far end of Cullasaja Gorge, the Highroads Trail goes through Highlands, which, at 4,011 feet, fits its name. Past Highlands, 64 continues to wind through the mountains, staying at high elevations and sometimes straddling the Tennessee Valley Divide.
Eventually it winds into Cashiers, a great shopping town and one unlike any other in the North Carolina mountains. Despite having numerous stores of various sorts, Cashiers has no real downtown. The businesses are scattered along two main roads, U.S. 64 and N.C. 107, which cross to form the center of the town.
Less than 10 miles past Cashiers, a right turn onto N.C. 281 takes the Southern Highroads Trail back to a bridge over the Whitewater River and then to Whitewater Falls, where we began.
Planning Your Trip
- Southern Highroads Trail, 706/633-6706, www.SouthernHighroads.org.
- Discover Upcountry Carolina Association, 1-800-849-4766, www.upcountry-sc.org.
- Northeast Georgia Mountains, 404/231-1820, www.georgiamountains.org.
- Northwest Georgia Mountains, 1-800-733-2280, www.georgiahighcountry.org.
- Polk County, Tenn., 1-800-633-7655, www.ocoeetn.org.
- Smoky Mountain Host of North Carolina, 1-800-432-4678, www.visitsmokies.org.