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Fall Foliage on Blue Ridge Parkway

posted Oct 13, 2015, 7:01 AM by Justin P   [ updated Oct 21, 2015, 5:24 PM ]
This past weekend, I headed to the mountains of NC to see some early fall colors along the highest parts of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  I left Friday evening after work and stayed at the Ramada in Maggie Valley.  Saturday morning, I woke up early, had breakfast at the hotel and took US-276 up towards the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The sun rose right about when I hit the parkway, but cloudy skies prevented viewing it.  I drove southbound on the parkway to the Graveyard Fields Overlook at milepost 418.8.

Surprisingly, there were only a couple other cars here; usually this parking lot is packed.  But I had never gotten here so early, and the dreary weather may have kept people away.  The fall color from the overlook looking into Graveyard Fields was absolutely beautiful.

Some clouds were lingering among the peaks, but the visibility was still good.

After enjoying the beautiful colors and getting some pictures, I started hiking down the Graveyard Fields Loop Trail (#358) to the bridge over Yellowstone Prong.

From here, I turned right and followed the stairs down to the base of Second Falls.  This waterfall is usually very crowded, but for once, I had it to myself.

After a couple pictures, I headed back up the trail and continued on the loop trail in the counter clockwise direction.  In half-mile or so, I got on the Upper Falls Trail (#358A) and made the three-quarter mile hike to the waterfall.  Except for a group of people who were packing up their campsite, I didn’t see anyone else along this trail either.  By the time I got to the waterfall, it had started raining, though not too hard.  I climbed over slippery rocks to get to the base of the falls for some pictures.

Then I decided to cross the creek and get some pictures from a little closer.  The creek crossing wasn’t too bad, even in the higher water, but the slippery rocks on the other side of the creek were quite treacherous.

I scrambled up a bit to get some pictures of the water from close-up, then had to get back down to the creek and get across.  I decided the safest thing would be to butt-slide back down the rocks; I managed to stop myself just before hitting the creek and only got my butt wet.  I crossed back over the creek and then started hiking back.  There was one tree along this section that had the most beautiful red leaves.

When I got back to Graveyard Fields Loop Trail, I turned right to finish up the loop.  And crossing back over Yellowstone Prong on the footbridge, I could see more beautiful colors looking upstream.

Soon, I was back at the car as the rain picked up more and more.  I made the short drive up the parkway to the Looking Glass Overlook at milepost 417.  I waited in the car for a bit, hoping the rain was stop, but it became clear that wasn’t going to happen.  There were no views of Looking Glass Rock through the dense fog, so I hiked across the road to the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and headed towards Skinny Dip Falls.  It was a short walk to the waterfall, which was flowing much more than the last time I had visited.

Despite the rain, I got a couple quick pictures, then crossed the bridge over the roaring Yellowstone Prong.  I climbed up a bit to get some pictures from close up.

It was raining pretty hard, so I wasn’t sure what to do.  The clouds were thick, so there was no point in driving along  the parkway, so I decided to just keep hiking along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, hoping that the rain would finally quit.  There were a couple points where it seemed it was going to break and then it would start raining harder.  By the time I got back to near Second Falls, it was pretty much a downpour.  So I just started heading back.  It was still raining heavily by the time I got back to the car.  I drove a little further up the parkway and parked at Devil’s Courthouse.  Since eating outside wasn’t too appealing, I ate my lunch in the car.  The clouds had thinned enough that I could see Devil’s Courthouse, though it was a very misty view.

After lunch, I got on NC-215 going north and planned to get a couple more waterfalls.  I first stopped at the roadside camping area that is the trailhead for Wildcat Falls.  However, Bubbling Spring Branch was a raging torrent and there was no way I could get across safely.  I headed a little further down the road and stopped at Bubbling Spring Cascades.  The water level was way up, and along with the beautiful fall foliage, made for a spectacular scene.

I climbed down from the road to get a shot from closer up, but the whole area down here was flooded and there was no way to get across.  I was really striking out on getting these waterfalls.  I did find a small waterfall on a tributary of West Fork Pigeon River, just about a quarter-mile south of the pull-off for Bubbling Spring Branch Cascades.

The tributary is not marked on the topo map and I suspect that it doesn't exit in lower water levels.  But it was worth a stop today and the foliage along NC-215 was just beautiful.

I had planned to get Upper and Lower Waterfalls on Bubbling Spring Branch, but with the water level so high, I knew I would never be able to make it.  So I gave up and went back to the Blue Ridge Parkway, heading southbound.  For 15 miles or so, the road was extremely foggy with very poor visibility.  Finally, as the road headed down in elevation, visibility improved.  I stopped at the Mt. Lynn Lowry to view Woodfin Cascades.  Even in the high water, the waterfall was barely visible behind the leaves.

I think that the only way to see Woodfin Cascades is in the winter or early spring when the leaves are down.  It's too bad as it would have been scenic with the fall color.  I also made a couple more quick stops at some overlooks.  First, Thunder Struck Ridge overlook.

Then I stopped at Fed Cove Overlook, which is the general area of the headwaters of Soco Creek.

From here, I got off the parkway at US-19 and headed to Soco Falls.  This was the first place I visited that actually had a lot of other people.

I went first to the overlook, then climbed down to the base for a couple of pictures before heading back.  I took US-19 back to Maggie Valley, stopping at one point for a view of the pretty fall color.

After dinner, I soaked in the hot tub before heading to bed.  Sunday morning, I checked out of the hotel early and got on the road.  I was in Asheville when the sun rose and from there, got back on the Blue Ridge Parkway heading northbound.  I stopped at a couple overlooks for views of the fall foliage, before heading into the clouds where visibility dropped to zero.  At lower elevations, I was below the clouds so still had good views. I stopped quickly at Tanbark Ridge Overlook with nice views of the clouds lingering in the valleys.

Then I stopped a couple miles ahead at View Lane Pinnacle.

After leaving here, I drove into the clouds and there were no more views to see.  I stopped at the Glassmine Falls overlook, but I couldn’t see a thing.  So I continued on to Mount Mitchell State Park.  Driving up NC-128, I finally broke through the clouds and got some clear skies.  Ironically, the clouds were hovering at about the elevation that deciduous trees reach, so only evergreen trees were visible – no fall foliage.  I parked up at the top and made a quick hike up the tower at the summit of Mount Mitchell.

Way up here, the skies were clear.  All around were low-lying clouds blocking out views of the land, except for where the Black Mountains poked up through.  I thought that they looked like islands emerging from a sea of clouds.

I got some pictures and then headed back down to the parking lot and started hiking the Deep Gap Trail, which becomes the Black Mountain Crest Trail when it leaves the park and heads into Pisgah National Forest.  This trail follows the crest of the Black Mountains for about 10 miles; I was only going to hike for an hour or so, however.  The trail initially descends fairly steeply heading down to the saddle between Mount Mitchell and Mount Craig and then starts heading back up.

The rocky summit of Mount Craig is marked as an environmentally-sensitive area and so hikers are asked to stay on the trail through this section.  I was still able to get a nice view looking back towards Mount Mitchell as well as looking ahead along the ridge line.

Then I started to descend again.  Shortly, I had to go back up to get to the summit of Big Tom, the next Black Mountain peak.  There was a plaque at the summit, but no good views due to all the spruce and fir trees.  From here, the trail started to get more difficult.  The descent from the summit of Big Tom was quite steep and rocky and those rocks were wet from all the rain we had gotten.  There were some ropes at various points to assist in descending through the most difficult portions.  There was another saddle area and then I started heading up to the summit of Balsam Cone.

There was no plaque here and I was unable to find a survey marker, though I was sure I made it to the summit.  From here, I decided to turn back.  Upon reaching the saddle between Big Tom and Balsam Cone, I turned left to get on Big Tom Gap Trail (#191A).  This extremely steep trail headed down and terminated at Buncombe Horse Range Trail (#191).  At this point, I turned right and followed the trail along the flank of the Black Mountains.  Initially, the visibility was pretty good but I hiked through a couple sections where the clouds rolled in and visibility was poor.  The trail was very wet and swampy and I got pretty muddy hiking this trail.  There were a couple of points where small waterfalls were tumbling down from the high peaks above.

I imagine that these only exist after periods of heavy rain.  In about 3 miles, I met up with the Mount Mitchell Trail (#190).  I turned right here and made the steep climb back up to the summit of Mount Mitchell, gaining over 1000 more feet before making it back to the summit.  Near the top, I turned right on Balsam Nature Trail and took that back to the parking area.  Although I was just one of only a few cars in the parking lot when I arrived, it was now nearly full.  Before I left, I headed back up to the tower at the summit for views after the clouds had broken.  What a difference a couple hours makes.

Far to the north, I could see Grandfather Mountain rising above the other peaks.  From here, I departed and headed back down the mountain.

At the base, I turned right on Blue Ridge Parkway and headed back to Glassmine Falls Overlook, hoping the clouds had cleared.  And sure enough, they had.

Glassmine Falls is probably the highest waterfall in North Carolina, 800 feet according to the sign at the overlook, but it usually doesn’t have much flow, especially in the fall.  Today, after all the rains, it was looking pretty good.  And with the beautiful fall foliage, it was quite a sight.

After a couple of pictures, I headed north on the Blue Ridge Parkway, stopping at a couple more scenic overlook on the way.  First, I stopped at Ridge Junction Overlook near the turn for NC-128 with nice views of Potato Knob.

The next stop was at Green Knob Overlook.

Then, I stopped at Laurel Knob Overlook.

Finally, one more stop at Hewat Overlook.  From here, I could see the Black Mountains across a valley, though the summits were shrouded in clouds.

The fall color here was just fantastic.

Continuing on, I turned on NC-80 and headed down the mountain towards Marion.  I went north on US-221 and turned on Huskins Branch Road for one more waterfall.  It’s less than half a mile to Toms Creek Falls, a scenic 60-foot waterfall.  They must not have gotten as much rain down here as the waterfall was not flowing as much as I expected.  But it was still pretty.

The old mica mine that used to be next to the falls appears to have caved in and the Forest Service has placed signs warning people of the danger.  The area was pretty crowded so after a couple pictures, I headed back and made my way home.