Scenic Drives for Fall Foliage in Carolinas

The colorful array of fall foliage in the Carolinas is a bit less dazzling than usual this year, but experts say it's still worth a trip to check out the colors.

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The colorful array of fall foliage in the Carolinas is a bit less dazzling than usual this year, but experts say it's still worth a trip to check out the colors.

Blame the spotty showcase on a hard frost in late March that hit budding trees at exactly the wrong time of year, Western Carolina University botany professor Kathy Mathews said.

When an early spring freeze kills young leaves, trees have to use a lot of energy to replace those leaves, often resulting in less vibrant hues come October, Mathews said.

But it’s all a matter of degree, she added.

“Those leaves will still be beautiful,” she said. “Probably not as much as last year though.”

Ideal conditions for optimum fall foliage occurred in 2006 – a dry spring, followed by a moist summer. “That’s the ideal pigment-producing situation,” she said.

Art and Science
Predicting the intensity of fall colors is “a little bit of an art and a little bit of a science,” Mathews said.

Carolina is home to some 200 species of trees, but only about 20 of those produce autumn’s signature burst of yellow, gold, orange and red leaves. Red maples, oaks, hickory, sourwoods and dogwoods are traditional trees to watch for vibrant color; other trees feature muted leaves that blend into the scenery.

Together, they create a palette that invites a steady stream of leaf lookers to head to the mountains in October.

Temperature fluctuation has an effect too, said Bill Bauerle, an assistant professor of tree physiology at Clemson University. In the Carolinas, the seasons change gradually; summer becomes fall slowly, over a period of weeks. In the Northeast, seasonal shift is more abrupt, and that produces brighter, more vibrantly colored leaves.

Conventional wisdom calls for colors to peak five days to a week after the first frost of the fall, Mathews said. Leaves start to change colors first at higher elevations, and if we have a dry autumn, with sunny days and cool nights, colors will intensify and last a little longer.

Mathews’ top recommendation for splendid leaf watching: Any drive along the winding Blue Ridge Parkway. She said she likes to stop at overlooks and take in wide vistas.

“When you’re up like that, you can see so much at one time, so much color at once,” Mathews said. “The views and colors are just amazing.”

Bauerle’s favorite drive is along S.C. Highway 11 between Gaffney and the Georgia state line. “And of course, there’s nothing like the Blue Ridge Parkway,” he added.

Before you hit the road, call 800-VISIT-NC or go to for updates on when and where to spot the best fall colors. In South Carolina, call Discover Upcountry South Carolina at 800-849-4766 for leaf reports.

Scenic Drives in North Carolina
  • From Robbinsville, take U.S. Highway 129 North to N.C. Highway 143 West to Tellico Plains, Tenn. (40 miles)
  • From Gastonia, take U.S. Highway 321 North through Hickory and into Blowing Rock. (83 miles)
  • From Hendersonville, take U.S. Highway 64 West to Franklin. (82 miles)
  • From Asheville, take Interstate 40 East to Exit 53 to Blue Ridge Parkway. Follow the parkway north to Grandfather Mountain. (112 miles)
  • From Shelby, take U.S. Highway 221 to Linville Falls. (78 miles)

Scenic Drives in South Carolina
  • From Greenville, take U.S. Highway 276 West to Cleveland to S.C. Highway 11 to West Union. Take Highway S.C. Highway 28 north into Franklin, N.C. (110 miles)
  • From Walhalla, take S.C. 11 to Salem to S.C. Highway 130 to S.C. Highway 107 (connector from S.C. 130 to S.C. 107 not shown on most maps, but does exist). Follow S.C. 107 north to Sylva, N.C. (70 miles)
  • From Aiken, take S.C. Highway 19 to U.S. Highway 25 to U.S. 378 West to S.C. 28 and follow it through Walhalla and into Oconee State Park. (168 miles)
  • From Greenville, take U.S. 276 north to Waynesville. (94 miles)
  • From Aiken, take Interstate 20 to S.C. 28 into Anderson to U.S. Highway 76 to Clemson to U.S. Highway 123 west to Westminster. At Westminster, take U.S. 76/2 to Clayton, Ga., then take U.S. 441 north to Dillard, Ga. (188 miles)