5 short road trip destinations to enjoy colorful foliage this fall

Red Mountain Expressway. Photo by @cotton_state on Instagram.

Before you know it, fall will be upon us and the leaves will start to show off their brilliant colors. If you want a change in scenery we’ve rounded up 5 destinations known for their stunning landscapes during autumn.

Fall leaves—when + where to see them

If you just peep your head outside during late September until November, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to enjoy Birmingham’s fall foliage. However, if you want some stellar views of all that my personal favorite season has to offer, head deeper into the mountains.

A cabin in the mountains during the fall season sounds like something straight off my Pinterest board, but you can make it a reality. After all, Birmingham’s in a prime location to take some quick scenic drives. Here are the probable dates in 2020 for peak fall color depending on which state you visit:

  • Alabama: October 19- November 4
  • Georgia: October 19- November 4
  • Tennessee: October 12- October 28
  • North Carolina: October 12- October 28 (Inland) + October 19-November 4 (Coastal)

1. Mount Cheaha, Alabama

Mount Cheaha, formally known as Cheaha Mountain, is the highest point in Alabama. Standing at over 2,400 feet above sea level, you can get some of the best landscape views of the state. Since it sits at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, you’ll take one look at the colorful, fall landscape and forget you’re in Alabama for a second.

Things to do at Mt. Cheaha

Mt. Cheaha sits in Cheaha State Park and is surrounded by the Talladega National Forest. If you’re not a fan of heights, take a visit to the six-acre Cheaha Lake. There’s a wide variety of activities like paddle boat rentals, swimming (although it may be a little chilly during the fall) and fishing.

For those looking for a stunning view of Alabama, you’re best bet is to hike the Pulpit Rock Trail or Rock Garden Trail. Both are moderate difficulty and a rewarding view at the top.

Vista Cliffside Restaurant. Photo via Adventures With Violet Sky

Have a meal with a view at Vista Cliffside Restaurant located within the state park. This rustic-style venue has indoor and outdoor seating with a burger that’ll hit the spot after a day of exploring.

  • Drive time from Birmingham: 1 hr 30 min

2. Ft. Payne + Mentone, Alabama

Come late September, Northeast Alabama bursts with autumn foliage which brings visitors from all over the Southeast. The cooler temperatures and hardwood forest rival the sights you’d see in the Northeast. At the southern foot of the Appalachian Mountains sits Fort Payne and Mentone, Alabama. Lookout Mountain provides an impressive backdrop to all the natural beauty that these towns offer.

Things to do in Fort Payne and Mentone:

DeSoto State Park is a wonderland for nature hobbyists and outdoor enthusiasts. It’s home to notable state attractions like Little River Canyon Nature Preserve, Desoto Falls and Walls of Jericho.

I don’t know about you, but horseback riding through the fall foliage sounds like a major mood to me. Shady Grove Dude Ranch has a cool name and offers trail rides along Lookout Mountain that’ll allow views of Veil Falls and the famous Desoto Falls.

Wildflower Cafe. Photo via Wildflower Cafe’s Facebook

When researching Fort Payne and Mentone, Wildflower Cafe kept popping up so there’s a good chance this little cafe is a must-try. The restaurant is described as a hippie-chic mountain hangout serving American fare with local art and live music. Count me in!

  • Drive time from Birmingham: 1 hr 35 min

3. Blue Ridge, Georgia

Blue Ridge is a charming, mountain town in Northern Georgia. They have a thriving artistic community, a thriving craft brewery scene and tons of restaurant options. Agritourism is popular in Blue Ridge with farm-to-table restaurants, unique farmer’s markets, vineyards, u-pick farms and more. The town sits at the Southern portion of the Appalachian Mountain Chain so fall colors are bursting through the streets.

Things to do in Blue Ridge:

All aboard! Blue Ridge is home to antique trains and the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway. Riders start at the historic depot in downtown and take a four hour, roundtrip journey along the Toccoa River. You’ll get glimpses of gorgeous countrysides and mountain views.

Downtown Blue Ridge, GA. Photo via Explore Georgia

If you’d like to take matters into your own hands, embark on a self-guided driving tour through the mountains. Georgia’s Fannin County Chamber even put together the perfect map so you can just put it in drive and enjoy the adventure.

Of course, we can’t leave you without some food recommendations. Blue Ridge has an entire directory of their options including vineyards, barbecue joints, cafes and breweries.

  • Drive time from Birmingham: 3 hrs 30 min

4. Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Gatlinburg is a classic mountain vacation destination. The town sits in the picturesque Great Smokey Mountains National Park and is a popular destination in the Southeast. With tons of attractions, outdoor activities and lodging options, you could consider Gatlinburg your basecamp for adventure.

Things to do in Gatlinburg:

I hate to break the news to you, but you can’t go to Gatlinburg without visiting one of these vista points. I’m afraid of heights and was able to enjoy a ride on the tram so if I can do it, I’m positive you can too. Here are some of the best ways to catch a sprawling view of the autumn colors:

  • Clingman’s Dome: an observation deck at the highest point in Tennessee
  • Sky Bridge: North America’s longest pedestrian suspension bridge giving you unparalleled views of the Smokies
  • Space Needle: the tallest structure in Gatlinburg standing at 407-feet tall with an observation deck
  • Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway: a 2.1-mile ride on an aerial tram with panoramic views of the Smokies
Don’t look down! Photo via Smoky Mountain Dream Vacation

If you’re ready to keep things closer to the ground, take a trip through Cades Cove— a mountain valley tucked in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. It was once home to a thriving community, but now it just holds the preserved rustic, log cabins, barns and mills. It’s like taking a step back in time. The 11-mile loop that runs through the cove allows you to drive, bike or hike. Either way, you’re guaranteed some stunning views of the fall foliage surrounding you.

Don’t forget to head down to the downtown area, “The Strip“, for tourist attractions like Ripley’s Believe It or Not, The Village Shops and food galore.

  • Drive time from Birmingham: 4 hrs 40 min

5. Asheville, North Carolina

The city of Asheville becomes a dream during the fall. The crisp air and the Blue Ridge Mountains is worth the road trip. It’s known for its vibrant art scene which can be seen throughout the downtown area with tons of murals and art installations. Once you take a peek past the buildings, realize you’re surrounded by scenic mountain views. Just take a look for yourself.

Things to do in Asheville:

Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the most scenic drives on the East Coast. This 469-mile road flows along the ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains and has a ton of outstanding vista points. Don’t forget to hop out of the car and enjoy one of the many trails that offer plenty of mountain scenery.

Biltmore Estate is one of the most popular attractions in Asheville. One look at the place and you understand why. Biltmore is a French Renaissance castle and also happens to be America’s largest home. The 8,000-acre estate boasts forested trails, stunning gardens and the nation’s most-visited winery. You can get tickets online or at the Asheville Visitor Center for a $10 discount.

Biltmore Estate. Photo via WJHL.com

Asheville’s food scene is known as “Foodtopia“. The chefs in town see every meal as a celebration and from first-hand experience, I can honestly say there’s something for everyone to enjoy. The restaurants in Asheville have taken a Stay Safe Pledge as a shared commitment between businesses and travelers to practice safety during COVID.

Drive time from Birmingham: 5 hrs 30 min

What road trips are you planning this fall? Let us know on social: InstagramFacebookTwitter and LinkedIn

  • Chaise is a brunch-loving Content Producer and helps manage the Bham Now Instagram account.