Autumn is that seasonal sweet spot between the balmy, bug-bitten days of summer and the frigid frost of winter, a time when fiery foliage makes outdoor excursions even more alluring. While leaf-peepers from all over the East Coast flock to the mountains, forests and waterways of North Carolina, some of our state’s most stunning natural spaces remain peaceful and idle. This fall, soak up North Carolina’s show-stopping seasonal color in overlooked wild places.
1 Medoc Mountain State Park
1 Medoc Mountain State ParkHollisterSee on map
Just outside the town of Hollister, Medoc Mountain State Park is an inviting but inexplicably often ignored autumn retreat. Laced with more than 10 miles of hiking trails, the park offers everything from gentle, streamside rambles to more rugged loops over the park’s rocky bluffs. Take to the placid waters of Fishing Creek or bring a picnic and set up shop for the day in the midst of the park’s sprawling, fall-color-tinged meadow.
2 Falls Lake State Recreation Area
2 Falls Lake State Recreation AreaWake ForestSee on map
Enjoy autumn colors at one of our state’s most unique outdoor spaces, Falls Lake State Recreation Area in Wake Forest. A veritable paddler’s paradise, the recreation area actually consists of a series of access sites dotting the forest-fringed fingers of a massive 12,000-acre reservoir. Beyond the water, many of the access points also feature campsites, mountain biking trails and hiking trails, including an extensive segment of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which hugs the lake’s southern shore.
3 Middle Prong Wilderness
3 Middle Prong WildernessPisgah National ForestSee on map
Tucked away in the massive Pisgah National Forest, the Middle Prong Wilderness is one of the vast recreation area’s most rugged and least-visited corners. The 7,900-acre wilderness located near Asheville is loaded with challenging terrain dominated by high peaks, precipitous drop-offs and craggy ridgelines. For real solitude seekers, Middle Prong Wilderness has managed to show minimal signs of human impact. While there are ample hiking options, including access to the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, signage is minimal, so plan on using those well-honed navigational skills.
4 New River State Park
4 New River State ParkLaurel SpringsSee on map
One of our state’s wildest parks, New River State Park showcases one of North Carolina’s most stunning waterways. Distinguished as a National Wild and Scenic River more than four decades ago, the New River flows past dramatic, mountain-loaded landscapes. The park features a handful of hiking trails, but the real highlight is the mighty river itself. The state park is also filled with pristine backcountry retreats, offering an array of primitive hike-in and paddle-in campsites spread throughout the recreation area.
5 South Mountains State Park
5 South Mountains State ParkConnelly SpringsSee on map
Clinging to the Jacob Fork River, South Mountains State Park is a blissful escape for backpackers. There are more than 40 miles of sylvan trails, trout-loaded streams and dispersed backcountry campsites to explore. Besides just hiking, the park also boasts 17 miles of mountain biking trails and 33 miles of bridle trails. High Shoal Falls’ tumbling, 60-foot cascade is a beautiful waterfall that is especially alluring when framed by autumn’s palette of burning colors.
6 Merchants Millpond State Park
6 Merchants Millpond State ParkGatesvilleSee on map
Foliage-seeking shutterbugs will relish in Merchants Millpond's photogenic potential. The tannin-tinged backwater makes for a stunning backdrop of iconic fall portraits. Aside from just aesthetics, hikers can enjoy the state park’s 9 miles of trails while paddlers can explore Merchants Millpond from the water. For a longer getaway, the park also offers family-style campgrounds, backcountry tent sites and even a few rustic paddle-in campsites.
7 Uwharrie National Forest
7 Uwharrie National ForestTroySee on map
About an hour's drive from both Charlotte and Greensboro, the Uwharrie National Forest harbors seemingly untouched backcountry and some of the oldest mountains on the continent. The 50,000-acre national forest is also traversed by many miles of trails, including two extensive routes perfect for color-loaded fall backpacking trips: the 9.5-mile Dutchman’s Creek and 20.5-mile Uwharrie Trail. Beyond the potential for backcountry forays, the national forest also boasts a bounty of scenic lakeside campsites at the Badin Lake Campground.
8 Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
8 Alligator River National Wildlife RefugeManteoSee on map
Fall is still prime paddling season along North Carolina’s coast, and the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge has an abundance of options to suit any skill level. Fringed by the Alligator River and the Albemarle, Croatan and Pamlico sounds, this wildlife refuge includes more than 15 miles of well-marked paddling trails plus plenty of terrestrial trails and bike-able public access roads. The mammoth refuge is also one of our state’s most unique wildlife areas. This sanctuary harbors more than 250 different bird species, a booming black bear population and, most notably, a small population of endangered red wolves, reintroduced from captivity in the late 1980s.
9 Three Top Mountain Game Lands
9 Three Top Mountain Game LandsBooneSee on map
Managed by Blue Ridge Conservancy, Three Top Mountain in the High Country is still off the radar of many weekend warriors. Named for the three distinctive rock outcroppings dominating the protected area, Three Top Mountain is loaded with seasonal color, in large part due to the preserve’s unique geological composition. This includes amphibolite bedrock, rarely found in regional ecosystems. The nearly 3,000-acre preserve’s hiking trails still feel undiscovered and include gritty climbs to elevations of almost 5,000 feet above sea level.
10 Goose Creek State Park
10 Goose Creek State ParkWashingtonSee on map
Nestled along the confluence of Goose Creek and the Pamlico River, Goose Creek State Park showcases a stunning array of coastal ecosystems, from cypress swamps to mixed hardwood forests. The park is also loaded with recreational opportunities including 8 miles of hiking trails and an abundance of recreational paddling on both Goose Creek and the Pamlico River. For a starry night away from the urban grind, pitch a tent in the park’s pine-shaded campsites.