The South isn't the first place that comes to mind for seeing fall foliage in the U.S., but the truth is that autumn is one of the best times of the year for visiting the Southeastern United States. Not only has the oppressive heat of summer begun to quell, but the scenery across the region also changes color into dramatic hues of red, orange, and yellow that is worth a trip for anyone interested in leaf peeping.
The exact dates of peak fall colors vary from year to year depending on local weather conditions but, as a general rule, the leaves first begin to change in the northern states and then work their way south. Each state offers its own resources for local foliage, so the best way to stay informed about up-to-date leaf progress is to visit the websites listed for the states you would like to visit.
The Southeastern state of sweet Alabama is especially lovely to visit during the fall, when bursts of color and a welcome relief from the mugginess of summer provide an excellent setting for outdoor enjoyment. For the most comprehensive tour of fall foliage, the Circle of Colors Trail is a scenic drive across the state that takes visitors through the best of autumn in Alabama, including stops in Oak Mountain State Park, Noccalula Falls, and Cheaha State Park.
Alabama's trees typically begin to change color in mid-October, reaching their peak near the end of the month and throughout November. You can track the changing colors through the Alabama Tourism Department for each county, so you can be sure that you don't miss the prime viewing time for the specific locations that you plan to visit.
The most colorful fall foliage in Georgia can be seen in the northern part of the state, where you will find the Blue Ridge Mountains, scenic mountain trails, and many state parks. The trees in the north of Georgia are the first ones to reach peak fall colors, usually around the end of October or beginning of November. However, trees at higher elevations may peak even earlier, so if you're visiting the Blue Ridge Mountains you should err on the earlier side rather than later.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources offers a Leaf Watch each season with the most current news on fall foliage, so you can stay up-to-date on what zones to visit. The website also lists some of the best state parks for experiencing fall in Georgia, such as Amicalola Falls State Park and Black Rock Mountain. Any of the parks would be excellent for hiking or, if you have the time, for a weekend camping trip. However, campsites fill up quickly in the fall, so plan ahead and make reservations early.
Another popular resource is following #GALeafWatch on Instagram.
The first bursts of red, yellow, and gold fall foliage begin to appear in some areas of Kentucky as early as mid-September. According to the Kentucky Department of Travel, color changes first appear in the mountainous eastern regions of the state, working their way west to the lower elevations throughout the first half of October.
The Daniel Boone National Forest in the eastern mountains is one of the best places to see fall colors, with vibrant displays from the native dogwoods, maples, and hickory trees. If you arrive later in the season, the Woodlands Trace National Scenic Byway in the western half of the state is perfect for an October road trip or day of hiking. The state's natural parks are the best way to experience fall foliage, but even city visitors have options. Within and around major cities like Louisville or Lexington, there are urban parks, historic cemeteries, college campuses, and more options for leaf peeping.
North Carolina's earliest and most vibrant fall foliage occurs in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains in the western part of the state, although leaf peepers may also enjoy good fall color a little later in the season in many areas of the North Carolina Piedmont. Because of the high elevation of many of the North Carolina mountains—some of the tallest in the eastern United States—the peak fall foliage period in the higher areas usually precedes peak foliage periods in more northern regions.
Because the elevation varies so much around North Carolina, it makes it easier to schedule your trip in advance without worrying about missing the peak colors. Instead of having to drive across the state and move around cities, you can stay based near one place and just move up or down the nearby mountains. Asheville is an ideal location for enjoying the convenience of a city but with the majesty of the mountains right in your backyard.
The colorful foliage displays in the mountains of South Carolina normally peak later in the season because of the state's warm fall weather. The most brilliant leaf changes usually occur sometime between the end of October and early November, although bursts of color often start in early October. Throughout November, and sometimes extending a bit later, the fall color changes progress across this Southeastern state.
In addition to the traditional beauty of fall leaf foliage, South Carolina's autumn displays also feature other picturesque sights. Along the coast, the marsh grasses change dramatically from the summer shades of soft greens to shimmering fall hues of gold and amber. Across the interior farm country, fields of bright white cotton bolls create illusions of freshly fallen snow.
The South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism posts weekly updates throughout the fall with the regions experiencing peak colors along with a list of the best state parks to enjoy them, such as Chester State Park and Oconee State Park.
Tennessee has many areas to see beautiful fall colors, but many people head to the mountains, especially Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The sheer diversity of trees in America's most visited national park makes it one of the most impressive places in the country to see fall foliage, rivaling even the states of New England. The last three weeks of October are generally the best time for enjoying the leaves, but it's also one of the busiest times of the year in the park. Expect heavy traffic, reserve campsites far in advance, and check out routes recommended by the National Park Service with great views and fewer crowds.
But the Great Smokies aren't the only place to enjoy the autumn in Tennessee; you can also visit one of the many state parks. Trees in the eastern half of the state usually peak first, around mid-October, before making their way west toward Memphis near the end of the month and into November. Tennessee State Parks lists top picks for enjoying the foliage by region, from Roan Mountain in the east to Chickasaw State Park in the west.
The state tree of Virginia—the dogwood—is commonly found throughout the commonwealth's rich forests and turns deep scarlet and purple in the fall. Add that in with the bright red oaks, the fiery beeches, and the golden ash trees, and Virginia is easily one of the best places to experience fall foliage in the American South. The most popular area to visit is Shenandoah National Park, which experiences high season in the fall and fills with visitors, although the dramatic leaf displays are often worth dealing with crowds.
According to the Virginia Department of Forestry, peak fall foliage in Virginia tends to begin in the western mountains around early October and end in the eastern areas of Virginia in the latter part of the month. The Department updates the site weekly throughout the fall with the best locations to see peak fall colors at that moment and is the best way to stay up-to-date. The National Forest Service oversees the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests in the Appalachian Mountains and also publishes regular leaf reports.
West Virginia, nicknamed the Mountain State, is a wonderful destination for fall road trips and hikes. Maps put together each year by WV Tourism show that the trees in the eastern Allegheny Mountains bordering Virginia are the first ones to peak in color, usually at the end of September, while the southwest of the state is the final region to change, usually at the end of October. You can see maps from previous years to get a better idea and even download a free fall foliage guide to get the most out of your trip.
West Virginia's state parks offer some of the best nature excursions for seeing the changing trees. Blackwater Falls State Park is good for early season visits in late September or early October, but if you miss the peak season there, try Coopers Rock State Forest in the northern part of the state and just 90 minutes outside of Pittsburgh. For late October leaf peeping, try Hawks Nest State Park, which overlooks the breathtaking New River Gorge.