Lucky you. You live in some of the most beautiful mountains in the world, mountains that every year about this time begin to draw a brilliantly colored shawl over their shoulders as cooler weather settles in.
You can look out your window to enjoy some of autumn’s splendor. Or you can load your friends and family into the car for a day of leaf-looking that will take you into parts of Western North Carolina you may not have visited before. To help you along the way, we’ve suggested a couple of day trips that will have you home before nightfall. Included are some dining recommendations and some places to stay, in case you want to make your excursion an overnight sensation.
Asheville to Burnsville to Boone and back
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hoever said you get can’t there from here might have been talking about driving from Asheville to Boone. There are several routes, but none of them are direct. Which makes them perfect for leaf peeking. A leisurely drive, a nice meal, some interesting stops along the way, maybe even a stay at one of the many inns between the two cities—it all makes for a perfect getaway.
The Blue Ridge Parkway reigns supreme for views, and during fall, the sides of the undulating mountains are as brightly colored as a bowl of kid’s cereal, circa 1970. Raspberry red, lemon yellow, orange orange—it’s as if each tree asked its neighbors what colors they were coming out with this season, and then chose something distinctly different.
Because it offers such grand views, the Blue Ridge Parkway on fall weekends has the heavy traffic that leaf-lookers hope to avoid. If you’d like to see the colors from this narrow national park, it’s best to go first thing in the morning. You’ll be amply rewarded—the early hours bring about not only the least amount of congestion, but also the largest number of local inhabitants that are more likely to amble out of the woods in search of food than they are during the heat (and traffic) of the day.
A less congested but no less beautiful route to Boone is north out of Asheville on Interstate 26 to U.S. 19-East. If you haven’t been on U.S. 19 out of Mars Hill lately, you’ll be pleased to know that the state has completed construction into Burnsville, and the results are scenic in their own right (indeed, the highway is part of the state-designated Mount Mitchell Scenic Drive). The highway affords vast panoramas of the mountainsides climbing into Yancey County and extensive fields on your way to Burnsville. It’s wide enough to make time if that’s your goal. The added lane also makes it possible to enjoy the trip at a more leisurely pace.
The more adventurous get to Burnsville via Reems Creek Road out of Weaverville. The eight-mile road ends at the end of the valley; then turn left onto Maney Branch Road to climb the S-curves over the mountain (the road turns into Paint Fork Road) into Barnardsville (the views will remind you of the Alps, though without the whitecaps). In Barnardsville, turn right onto N.C. 197, a gorgeous road into Burnsville that is partially unpaved but wholly beautiful, taking you through the stands of poplar and oak in Pisgah National Forest. The road is paved once you get to the Yancey County line, traveling through the old settlements of Murchison and Pensacola before ending up in Burnsville. The 40-minute ride from the end of Reems Creek Road places you on U.S. 19-E. Turn right to head east into Burnsville and Spruce Pine.
Spruce Pine, the quartz crystal capital of the world, is blossoming with new restaurants and shops. Chef Nathan Allen at Knife and Fork (61 Locust St., 828-765-1511, knifeandforknc.com), has garnered considerable press for his locally sourced brunch, lunch and dinner menus. Dry County Brewing Co. (585 Oak Ave., 828-765-4583, drycountybrewing.com) and its pizza shop (try the pesto pizza) are open for lunch on Fridays and Saturdays. Its IPA is made with local hops.
Seven miles out of Spruce Pine, you have a choice of two beautiful routes. If you turn right onto N.C. 194, you’ll wind past the Christmas tree fields and small farms that flank Three Mile Highway, a sometimes serpentine climb through forest and field in a sparsely populated section of Avery County.
In no time, this road puts you onto U.S. 221, a scenic highway that, if the kids are getting antsy, makes a beeline to N.C. 105 into Boone. If things are cool in the car, consider taking 221 all the way into Blowing Rock, a lovely town that is an easy 15-minute drive from Boone. U.S. 221 into Blowing Rock takes you past the entrance to Grandfather Mountain, the highest peak on the eastern escarpment of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Though it is now a state park, there’s still a fee to drive up to and experience Grandfather’s famous swinging bridge ($18 adults, $15 seniors, $8 children 4-12, free for children under 4). But the view, oh my.