October is the month that is consistently the very best for viewing the spectacular fall leaf color in Robbinsville, Stecoah, Lake Santeetlah, and Fontana Dam. However, the brilliant reds and oranges of sumac and sourwood can be seen as early as the first week of September, and the oaks still show off their dark reds around Thanksgiving in most years. If you prefer short hikes, or views that can be seen without leaving your vehicle, here are our top 10 picks in Graham County for incredible fall color.
Stecoah Gap is the perfect place to watch the sun rise over Stecoah Valley. Photograph clouds nestled between the Smoky Mountains painted with fall colors. The Appalachian Trail intersects with Stecoah Gap, six miles east of Robbinsville on NC143. The Stecoah Valley is home to the Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center, a restored historic school with arts and crafts gallery, mountain music concerts and festivals.
Fontana Dam is the largest dam east of the Mississippi and forms Fontana Lake. The views from the top of the dam are spectacular. Walk through the exhibits in the visitor center, which chronicles the life of early settlers. The creation of the Fontana Dam changed the landscape and the culture of this area. The dam is located just off NC28, just a few minutes from Fontana Village Resort.
Yellow Creek Falls is located north of Robbinsville on US129. This short hiking trail meanders uphill along a mountain trout filled stream. The trail ends at a very large grouping of flat boulders which face the stream and waterfall, a perfect place for a picnic lunch. Immerse yourself in the fall colors of the trees and the wonderful gold and purples of the autumn wildflowers along the way.
The Cheoah River follows US129 as you head from Robbinsville. During scheduled releases, the Cheoah River tumbles over boulders to create Class IV & V white water kayaking and rafting. A favorite place to stop is the swinging bridge, a narrow suspension bridge which travels across the rushing water of the Cheoah River and leads to the Belding Trail, an 11 mile hike to Historic Tapoco Lodge.
Cheoah Dam (Fugitive Dam) was featured in the 1993 movie The Fugitive, which portrays Harrison Ford escaping the law by jumping from the top of the dam. The gorge below this historic dam is striking, especially when water is flowing over the dam. Cascading water from Cheoah River (center right) runs below the Cheoah Dam and into Calderwood Lake.
Maple Springs Observation Deck is located at the end of Joyce Kilmer Road and near Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. This short boardwalk, easily accessible, 900-foot loop trail provides a spectacular panorama of Smoky Mountains. This is a perfect place for taking photos and is especially striking during the late afternoon towards sunset.
The Cherohala Skyway features unspoiled Smoky Mountain views on this drive along the crest of the Unicoi Mountains between Robbinsville, NC and Tellico Plains, TN. There are far less “Leaf Peepers” on this beautiful road and you will see scenery that rivals and even surpasses that of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Skyway crosses through the Cherokee and Nantahala forests, with wide sweeping curves and numerous pull offs for picture taking and picnicking. Because elevation ranges from the highest point near North Carolina mile marker 7 at Santeetlah Overlook (5390′) to the lowest point of 930′ feet near Tellico Plains TN, views of leaf color can be found along the route from late September to November.
Spirit Ridge Trail and Observation Deck is located on the Cherohala Skyway near North Carolina mile maker 10. This short trail is accessible to the physically challenged and leads to a beautiful deck overlooking the Cherohala Skyway and the many mountains of the Santeetlah watershed. The paved trail meanders through a hardwood forest bordered with autumn wild flowers. Two picnic tables are located adjacent to the parking lot.
Hooper Bald Trailhead is located at North Carolina mile marker 8 on the Cherohala Skyway. A stunning vista awaits you from the paved parking lot at the Hooper Bald Trailhead. A quarter-mile hike leads to Hooper Bald, one of the most beautiful balds in the area. In the fall, wildflowers are plentiful in the grassy fields. Mountain Ash trees, covered with clusters of red berries, are numerous. The wildflower meadows are a stopping point for many species of migrating butterflies, including the monarch.
Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest should be a priority during your visit at any time of the year. Named for a poet/journalist who wrote the poem “Trees” and died in World War I, this forest is one of the few remaining tracts of virgin hardwood in the Appalachians. A 2-mile moderate to steep loop trail leads you through a forest of beautiful Tulip Poplar, Birch and Magnolia trees, some over 400 years old. At the parking area there are several picnic tables, including one designed for those with physical challenges, located along Little Santeetlah Creek, a pristine Smoky Mountain stream.
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