Pat & Chuck Blackley.
The air is crisp and blue, the mountains are on fire with color, and it’s one of the most beautiful times of the year to take the car, a picnic and a map (or not), and head for the hills. Here are some autumn drives for an afternoon, a day or a weekend.
North Carolina: A Photographer’s Favorites
Kevin Adams grew up vacationing in western North Carolina with his parents. Today, the photographer/author of books covering topics from waterfalls to wildflowers to backroads to regional history lives and works there – teaching, taking pictures and writing. Here’s his list of favorite fall drives, and why (more information can be found in Adams’ book “Backroads of North Carolina,” Voyageur Press, 2009):
The drive: Loop drive from Asheville by the Vance Birthplace, up the Blue Ridge Parkway at Ox Gap, side trip to Craggy Gardens, back down to Asheville.
This is a drive that’s “good for someone who’s staying in Asheville and wanted a morning drive or an afternoon drive.” Adams recommends stopping and taking a tour at Vance Birthplace – “it’s a very small place, and from a photographer’s standpoint, it’s very photogenic.” The Mountains-to-Sea Trail passes through at Ox Gap and parallels the parkway for a while. The Folk Art Center makes a nice stop on the way back into the city.
The drive (loop): Start out near I-40 and U.S. 276 west of Asheville; head west onto Cove Creek Road – go seven miles, then turn left onto paved road. Drive three miles, then turn right – Cataloochee Cove is straight ahead. Turn right and drive 12 miles to the community of Mount Sterling in the Great Smoky Mountains, turn left onto Big Creek Park Road, one mile to parking area. Take I-40 back to Asheville.
“A Jekyll and Hyde drive!” Adams jokes – the “Hyde” parts including the speed of the interstate and the sometimes-steep drop-offs on the back roads. Cataloochee’s history and scenic beauty are a highlight; he suggests taking a hike to the summit of Mt. Sterling, where there’s an old fire tower with an “absolutely terrific 360-degree view.”
The drive (“lollipop”): Blue Ridge Parkway south to N.C. 215 at Beech Gap; 215 north to U.S. 276; 276 south to the Blue Ridge Parkway at Wagon Road Gap; parkway back to Asheville.
“You pass through the area which is my favorite section of the parkway, the Graveyard Fields area.” Forest Road 816 (Black Balsam Road) will take you to the trailhead for Shining Rock Wilderness Area’s backcountry.
The drive (loop): I-40 to N.C. 209; 209 to Hot Springs, back to Asheville on U.S. 70.
“This is one of my favorite backroads drives,” says Adams. “N.C. 209 from Interstate 40 to Hot Springs is a North Carolina highway, but it is, as best I can tell and as far as I know, essentially unchanged from when it was first built… it’s a winding twisting road. It passes through a lot of pastoral land, very scenic… and if you take side roads, it gives you access to Max Patch Mountain.” Plus, “Hot Springs is a cool little town… it’s nice to park your car and walk around and explore.”