The National Wildlife Federation says there are benefits to letting leaves decompose naturally. Leaves are a natural mulch and fertilizer. Instead of buying mulch, just use the leaves in your yard. Butterflies and songbirds depend on the leaves in your yard. Leaves and yard waste take up a lot of room in landfills, so leaving the leaves where they fall is environmentally friendly. So, even though they might look unsightly, it's good to leave the leaves in your yard.

5 small towns near Atlanta that offer more than just leaves changing colors

The leaves are beautiful, but these towns also have festivals to make a weekend trip complete

This is the time of year to get in the car and go in search of leaves changing color. Mother Nature’s palette of orange, red and yellow tells us cooler weather is near.

If you have only an afternoon to take in the fall grandeur, one of these parks or trails in Atlanta will fill the bill.

But if you have a weekend, take a drive to a small town that offers not only beautiful landscapes but also festivals and other activities indicative of autumn. CarRentals.com researched the best places in the Pacific Northwest, New England and Appalachia, and ranked them based on the number of fall festivals, nearby national parks, outdoor activities and local breweries, wineries and restaurants.

Five of their small towns in Appalachia are just a few hours from Atlanta.

Blue Ridge, Georgia

Although a ride on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway is a must when visiting this area, there are festivals throughout the fall that will make the hour and half drive more than worth it. 

The John C. Campbell Folk School holds its annual fall festival the first weekend in October. “Visit over 200 fine craft exhibitors tucked along the school's winding wooded paths. Watch more than 30 artisans demonstrate traditional and contemporary crafts. Fill your ears with bluegrass, gospel, folk, and Celtic music on both days,” the event’s website states.

Or head over to the Cherry Log community for the Cherry Log Festival, which takes place the first three weekends in October. You can enjoy delicious homemade breakfast and lunch, arts and crafts, homemade cakes, pies and canned goods, and bluegrass, gospel and country music.

» Blue Ridge among Southern Living’s best retirement towns

» Fall is prime time to go to Blue Ridge

Photo: CarRentals.com

Helen, Georgia

Even though the town has fewer than 500 full-time residents, it’s the third most visited city in Georgia. Many of those visitors come to celebrate Oktoberfest in Helen’s Bavarian charm. Now in its 49th year, this is the longest running Oktoberfest in the United States. You have until October 27 to get in on the fun.

If you have the kids with you, head over to Georgia Mountain Coaster. This alpine coaster is kind of like a roller coaster, in that the cart moves along a tubular steel rail system. But with an alpine coaster, the rider controls the speed, which tops out at 25 mph.

And while you’re hiking in the forest looking at the changing leaves, make sure you visit Anna Ruby Falls. Anna Ruby Falls is a tumbling pair of waterfalls that spill in tandem from a tall cliff. It's located just north of Helen in the Chattahoochee National Forest. atlantatrails.com

» Alpine coaster opens two hours north of Atlanta

» 40 must-visit waterfalls in North Georgia

Photo: CarRentals.com

Ellijay, Georgia

Ellijay is the heart of Georgia’s apple country, “thanks to its loamy, acidic soil and cool nights, which produce flavorful fruit. Fall visits provide opportunities to pick them ripe from the tree or taste their tart goodness laced with cinnamon and brown sugar in a fresh-baked pie,” Suzanne Van Atten wrote for the AJC

So it’s no surprise that apple festivals are on the calendar. The Georgia Apple Festival brings two exciting weekends to Ellijay — October 12-13 and 19-20 — with hundreds of vendors offering food, art, crafts and more. The Apple Pickin’ Jubilee is held each weekend through October 27. In addition to food and music, the festival will have giant slides, train rides and apple picking. You can buy a half peck or full peck bag and head out to the orchards.

Photo: CarRentals.com

Gatlinburg, Tennessee

It’s never a problem finding something to do in the Smoky Mountains. From Ripley’s Aquarium to Dollywood, the area has an abundance of entertainment. 

Special for fall, Gatlinburg is extending its Smoky Mountain Harvest Festival through November 21. “We want to capitalize on the seasonal beauty by extending our Harvest Festival through November thus giving visitors more opportunities to experience Autumn in the Smokies,” said Mark Adams, Gatlinburg CVB CEO and president. 

Take the the SkyLift up Crockett Mountain and spend time at the SkyCenter with a cafe, gift shop and bar; and the SkyDeck , which has a fire pit and seating for those not looking to explore the bridge. The 680-foot-long SkyBridge is the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America and is the perfect spot to see fall foliage.

» Gatlinburg SkyBridge: Best times to go and how to get discounted tickets

» A new kind of roller coaster opens in Pigeon Forge

Photo: CarRentals.com

Walhalla, South Carolina

Walhalla’s name is derived from Norse mythology, meaning “The Garden of the Gods.” Because German immigrants founded Walhalla, the town has its own Oktoberfest and is a great destination if you want a mix of outdoor activities, scenic views and community. 

Not only will Walhalla’s festival have German bands and dancers, but you can enjoy authentic German fare of bratwurst and sauerkraut, funnel cakes and apple strudel.  There will also be barbecue, blossoming onions and boiled peanuts. 

» Where you can see the leaves change in Georgia without leaving the car

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