It’s a subtle switch that sets off fall’s brilliance. In early October, temperatures at western North Carolina’s highest elevations start dropping, breaking down the green chlorophyll in leaves. Encouraged by less daylight, the foliage turns brilliant colors, from the yellows of birches to the deep reds of oaks and dogwoods.
The colors cascade down the mountains, following the falling temperatures to the valley floors by early November. Watch the entire show unfold in cozy Bryson City, located in Swain County, tucked between Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Nantahala National Forest.
Enjoy leaf peeping throughout Great Smoky Mountains National Park, including the popular overlook at Newfound Gap. At 5,046 feet, the gap is the lowest drivable pass across the mountains – 3,000 feet above Bryson City. And due to Newfound Gap's nearly mile-high elevation, temperatures can be 10 degrees or more cooler than the surrounding lowlands. The thrills increase on The Dragon, where motorcycle and sports car enthusiasts are drawn to the 318 curves along this 11-mile stretch of US Highway 129. Driving it takes concentration, so pull over for the views. The Blue Ridge Parkway, which begins in nearby Cherokee, offers equally beautiful fall scenery along a gentler path.
Fall foliage in the national park includes blooming wildflowers such as wide-leaved sunflowers and asters. Those, along with leaves and other sights, are best seen on foot. Follow Deep Creek Recreation Area trails to three waterfalls, ranging from 25 to 90 feet tall. Lakeview Drive takes you to the Road to Nowhere. Bring a flashlight to explore the tunnel on this relic from the park’s construction. Walk through more history at Oconaluftee Visitor Center and adjacent Mountain Farm Museum, where a chestnut-log home that was moved from nearby Bryson City is part of a collection of century-old buildings. Watch for grazing elk in surrounding fields.
While fall colors shine bright, there’s plenty more to catch your eye in and around Bryson City. Feed your sense of adventure on the Nantahala River, which has hosted whitewater rafting for decades. Get your paddling feet wet on an 8-mile stretch of Class I and II rapids that finishes with Class III Nantahala Falls. Outfitters offer trips through the end of October, when a wetsuit will keep you warm.
Some outfitters also offer zip line tours. Soar through about a half-mile of colorful treetops on Wildwater's 11 lines and seven sky bridges. Or glide between ridgelines on Nantahala Outdoor Center’s Mountaintop Zip Line Tour, where the half-mile mega zip is one of the region’s longest. Its Zip Line Adventure Park has 16 aerial elements and a 550-foot dual zip line.
Mountain bikers flock to Tsali Recreation Area’s single-track trails, including 13.9-mile Right Loop. Each day, some of the trails are dedicated to horseback riding; check the schedule, posted online and onsite, to see which allow biking when you’re there. They’re all fast, so periodically tap your brakes and enjoy the sprawling lake and forest views. There’s also camping, boating and fishing here.
There’s plenty to do at family-run Darnell Farms. Visit for the annual Plow Days Festival, which adds bluegrass music, food, crafts and farming demonstrations to its autumnal standbys – corn maze, hay rides and pumpkin picking. Much of its wide selection of produce, which starts with springtime strawberries, is grown throughout 100 acres.
The Bryson City depot is where you’ll catch Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. Watch fall scenery roll by from open-air or climate-controlled cars pulled by a diesel or historic steam locomotive, while guides and musicians share stories and songs. The two regularly scheduled trips each take about four hours, including a 90-minute layover to explore the area. One goes through tunnels and past a movie set for 1993’s The Fugitive to historic Dillsboro. The other trip stops at Nantahala Outdoor Center after crossing Fontana Lake, our state’s deepest lake at more than 400 feet.
Swain County is a fisherman’s paradise, with four rivers and dozens of mountain streams attracting anglers year-round. Fall is an excellent time to partake, and you won’t have to go far from the area’s other attractions when you set out on the Delayed Harvest waters. Designated by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, this 2.2-mile section of the Tuckasegee River flows through downtown Bryson City, and it has one of the highest trout counts in the Southeast, namely brown and rainbow trout. The Tuck is also home to a wide variety of other fish, including smallmouth and spotted bass, crappie, walleye and yellow perch.
Deepen your appreciation for angling at the Fly Fishing Museum of the Southern Appalachians, and get to know the legends of the sport, referred to as “Stream Blazers.” Exhibits take you through the evolution of fly fishing gear, including an antique drift boat. Best of all, it’s close to many lodging options, including cabins, bed and breakfasts, national brand hotels and campgrounds.
There’s plenty more to do in Bryson City’s walkable downtown, including shopping, local art galleries and restaurants. Truly relish the flavors of fall and enjoy craft beer on Mountain Layers Brewing Co.’s rooftop patio or around Bryson City Brewing's fire pits.
This article was produced in partnership with Bryson City / Swain County Chamber of Commerce. All photos courtesy of Bryson City / Swain County Chamber of Commerce.