A fall drive in Highlands, NC — Photo courtesy of sylvia Westenbroek
U.S. Highway 64 from Hendersonville to Murphy
This route will take you through the towns of Brevard, Rosman, Lake Toxaway, Sapphire, Cashiers, Highlands, and Franklin. Brevard is famous for its world-renowned annual music festival. Highlands, nestled in a valley at 4,118 feet, is one of the highest towns east of the Mississippi River, and has a pedestrian-friendly center city with many nice places to shop and eat. Franklin is the largest town along this drive. Be sure to check out the many day hikes and waterfalls along this route, as well as the spectacular views. Whiteside Mountain is a popular hike, between Cashiers and Highlands. The Cullasaja River Gorge, between Highlands and Franklin, offers a number of large waterfalls right along the drive, and the gorge itself, with sheer cliffs above and below the road, is quite spectacular.
U.S. Highway 129 from Nantahala to Tennessee
This route begins in the Nantahala Gorge from U.S. Highway 74. Known as the Tail of the Dragon, this route is popular among motorcycle enthusiasts. However, the spectacular views along the way will appeal to everyone. The drive passes through the town of Robbinsville where motorists can also access the Cherohala Skyway (another spectacular drive that begins in Robbinsville and ends in Tellico Plains, Tennessee), by Lake Santeetlah, through Deals Gap, and along the southern border of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, on into Tennessee. The stretch beyond Deals Gap, the Tail of the Dragon, has little development and is said to have around 318 curves.
Blue Ridge Parkway South from Asheville to Great Smoky Mountains National Park
This section of the Blue Ridge Parkway contains some of the highest elevations along the entire length of the parkway. The higher elevations of the route lead motorists through evergreen spruce-fir forests and grand vistas of the surrounding mountain region. Highlights of this drive include Mt. Pisgah (three mile roundtrip hike from the parking lot), Graveyard Fields (several waterfalls and short hikes) and the Shining Rock Wilderness (dramatic backcountry hiking and camping opportunities), Devil's Courthouse (two mile roundtrip hike from the parking lot), Richland Balsam (highest point on the parkway at 6,053 feet), and Waterrock Knob. The parkway ends near the Oconoluftee Visitor Center at the southern entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Blue Ridge Parkway North from Asheville to Virginia
This section of the Blue Ridge Parkway also contains some spectacular scenery and access to some high peaks. Highlights of this section of the parkway include the Folk Art Center, Craggy Gardens, access to Mount Mitchell State Park (Mount Mitchell is the highest peak in the eastern U.S. east of the Mississippi River at 6,684 feet), Crabtree Meadows, Little Switzerland, Museum of North Carolina Minerals, Linville Falls and Linville Gorge, Linn Cove Viaduct and Grandfather Mountain, Boone, Blowing Rock, Julian Price Memorial Park, Moses H. Cone Memorial Park, access to Roan Mountain and the Roan Highlands to the north (some of the most dramatic and spectacular hiking opportunities along sections of the Appalachian Trail), Doughton Park and Bluff Mountain, access to Stone Mountain State Park, Cumberland Knob, and Blue Ridge Music Center.
U.S. Highway 441 from Cherokee to Tennessee through Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The town of Cherokee, although a bit touristy, just outside of the National Park, offers some interesting history of the local Cherokee culture. Once you enter Great Smoky Mountains National Park, stop at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center to check out exhibits about the area, such as the mountain farm exhibit, and information about the most visited national park in the U.S. Further into the park, the route follows the Oconaluftee River and then begins to gain elevation, heading up to Newfound Gap on the North Carolina/Tennessee border. There are several overlooks along the way, as well as some short hikes. A side road takes visitors up to Clingman's Dome, the highest point in the park at 6,643 feet (closed in winter). Park at Newfound Gap (elevation 5,046 feet) and take in the scenic views to the north and the south. You may want to do a short hike along the Appalachian Trail in either direction from Newfound Gap. The trail heading east from the gap offers some spectacular views. Driving north from Newfound Gap takes you further into the Tennessee side of the park, with more spectacular scenery and hikes. Eventually, U.S. 441 will lead you into Gatlinburg, just outside of the national park to the north.