If altitude affects attitude, autumn only enhances the effect with its burst of color. Keeping in mind there could be heavy traffic on winding two-lane mountain roads this time of year, and patience is a virtue, here are some of the best (and highest) places within easy driving distance of Atlanta to take in the foliage and have some fall fun.
Biltmore Estate, North Carolina
Biltmore is much more than the grand Gilded-Age mansion said to be the largest home in America, with its four acres of floor space. The estate contains 8,000 acres of pastoral, rolling countryside surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains and cut through by the French Broad River. Take time to explore the formal gardens and grounds in October when they are brimming with color. Twenty-two miles of trails crisscrossing the estate will immerse you in woodlands and lead to hilltop views. The luxurious four-star Inn on Biltmore Estate atop one of those hills offers long-range views of the mountains. Below the inn sits Antler Hill Village where you’ll find a winery offering complimentary tastings, plenty of shopping, restaurants and the Outdoor Adventure Center, a one-stop spot for scheduling paddling excursions on the river, sporting clays, biking, horseback riding, fly-fishing and much more.
$60-$85 for daytime visits in October. One Lodge St., Asheville. 800-411-3812, www.biltmore.com.
Beech Mountain, North Carolina
At 5,506 feet above sea level, Beech Mountain is the highest incorporated town east of the Rocky Mountains. Beech Mountain Resort makes taking in the views much easier with its scenic chairlift ride ($12) to the summit. At the peak is the 5506’ Skybar, a deck bar with a glass roundhouse for enjoying the view with a cocktail. Rides are available through Oct. 12 on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Other popular fall activities at the resort are mountain biking, hiking and disc golf. When your day of activity on the mountain is done, head to Beech Mountain Brewing Company in the base village. It has a wide selection of house-brewed beers, including, of course, 5506 Pale Ale, and pub-style fare in a mountain lodge setting.
1007 Beech Mountain Pkwy, Beech Mountain. 828-387-2011, www.beechmountainresort.com.
On the clearest of days, Brasstown Bald, Georgia’s highest point at 4,784 feet, offers views of four states and even the Atlanta skyline 100 miles to the south. An observation tower allows for 360-degree views. There’s also a picnic area with great views, as well as hiking trails, a visitors center, museum, gift shop and shuttle service for those who don’t care to make the .6-mile climb up the steep, paved footpath. The shuttle begins running at 10 a.m. and stops at 5 p.m., as does the elevator in the tower. The viewing platform is open all hours, but you’ll have to climb the stairs if arriving after hours.
$5, $3 self-pay after hours. 2941 Ga. 180 Spur, Hiawassee. 706-896-2556, www.cfaia.org.
Jackson County, North Carolina
The quickest way to the Blue Ridge Parkway from metro Atlanta is to head to Jackson County in the mountains of western North Carolina. In less than three hours, you can be cruising the parkway near its highest point, the Richland Balsam overlook, which sits at 6,047 feet above sea level. The 45-mile section of the roadway in Jackson County is one of the highest and more scenic portions of the 469-mile parkway. At the Waterrock Knob overlook, four states are visible, including a panoramic view of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the west. A short hike leads to the summit for even better views, including one of the parkway snaking beneath your feet. The nearby twin mountain towns of Dillsboro and Sylva serve as a good base for exploring the area. Stop at the visitor center on Main Street in downtown Sylva to pick up maps of the parkway and local waterfall hikes.
Jackson County Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center, 773 W. Main St., Sylva. 800-962-1911, www.discoverjacksonnc.com.
The Dahlonega town square is a popular destination for a quick getaway from Atlanta, in part because of its proximity. For an easy immersion in the mountains, head a few miles north of town along the Dahlonega Wine Trail. This is the heart of Georgia’s wine country. Fall is prime time on the trail, which features six wineries — Three Sisters Vineyards and Winery, Frogtown Cellars, Wolf Mountain Vineyards, Montaluce Winery and Estates, Cavender Creek Vineyards and Winery, and Kaya Vineyard and Winery (formerly Blackstock Vineyards). Tastings are available at each stop, and the wineries are different in character from one another, ranging from a fancy French chateau-style setting at Montaluce to more of a rustic, laid-back Georgia family farm vibe at Three Sisters and Cavendar Creek. The trail can be done in an afternoon, or, better yet, split it up over a weekend, allowing more time for relaxing and taking in the North Georgia scenery. Stop at the visitors center on the square downtown to pick up a map.
Dahlonega-Lumpkin County Visitors Center, 13 South Park St. 800-231-5543, dahlonega.org.
Gatlinburg is well-known for its family-friendly, amusement-park vibe, but the fall color is spectacular in this tourist town that serves as the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There are many spots for taking in the view from on high. Downtown has the Gatlinburg Space Needle ($7.95 and up), a 407-foot-high open-air observation platform with 360-degree views of the town and surrounding mountains. The Aerial Tramway ($15 adults, $12 children) carries visitors from downtown on a steep 2.1-mile journey up the mountainside to the Ober Gatlinburg resort. You can go even higher on the scenic chairlift ride, no snow skis or hiking required, to see one of the best views in the area in a quiet, peaceful setting atop Mount Harrison. Back at the base of the resort, plenty of rides, activities and attractions are offered, including an ice skating rink, an alpine slide, a mountain coaster, a rock-climbing wall and a wildlife encounter. Go even higher by heading into the national park to Clingmans Dome. This peak straddling the Tennessee/North Carolina border is the highest in the park, the third highest east of the Mississippi. Aiding with the view is an observation tower reached via a steep, paved half-mile trail from the parking lot.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the transformation of Helen into Alpine Helen, the Bavarian-inspired gingerbread-looking village we know today. Today Helen is one of the more popular mountain retreats within easy driving distance of Atlanta. It’s also home to Unicoi State Park ($5) , one of only two state parks in North Georgia with a full-service lodge (Amicalola Falls State Park is the other). The lodge ($99 and up) is situated near a trout stream, Unicoi Lake and multiple hiking and biking trails. For the adventurous who want to see the fall foliage from a different vantage point, you can soar through the tree canopy and across the lake on the Unicoi Zipline and Aerial Adventure Tour ($39 and up), providing an in-the-air experience that reaches heights of 100 feet.
Helen is also home to Oktoberfest, that runs through Oct. 27 at the Helen Festhalle. New to Helen this year is the Georgia Mountain Coaster ($6-$15, 8409 S. Main St. 706-878-1347, georgiamountaincoaster.com). Riders on this alpine coaster can control their speed as they glide down the mountain and through the woods taking in the scenery along the way.
South Cumberland State Park, Tennessee
To experience the best of the Cumberland Plateau near Atlanta, head to South Cumberland State Park, a series of separate park units covering 100 square miles northwest of Chattanooga. The town of Monteagle atop the plateau makes a good base for exploring the area because it’s easy to reach via I-24 and home to the main visitors center. For first-timers, the don’t-miss spots are the trails in the Fiery Gizzard unit leading to waterfalls, towering cliffs and peaceful swimming holes still swimmable in early autumn, and the Stone Door in the Savage Gulf unit. The Stone Door hike is an easy, level, two-mile round-trip hike to rim overlooks where you can see the soaring stone cliffs and deep gorges below.
South Cumberland State Park Visitors Center, 11745 U.S. 41, Monteagle. 931-924-2980, tnstateparks.com/parks/south-cumberland.