Few sights are more profoundly soul satisfying than the sharp, rich colors of a wooded landscape in fall. Artists and photographers have tried to capture the essence of this elusive magic since man discovered he could draw using paints made of red and yellow ochre. Needless to say, it is a magic that can only be fully appreciated firsthand. Only, we live in Florida, and fall just doesn’t seem to offer quite that splash of color our senses seek.
Now, in all fairness, here in Central Florida, we do have a whole different perspective on color in fall (Coleus, Cassia, Stromanthe, Plumbago, to name a few), which, fortunate for us, can last all the way through a mild winter and into the next spring. But, if it’s real fall colors you’re looking for (maple, hickory, poplar), then it will require at least a couple of tanks of gas and a three-day-or-more weekend to view the magic up close and personal.
Our nearest neighbor to the north, Georgia, is just a couple of hours drive away, but to reach the really brilliant fall colors harbored in the sweetgum, dogwood and hickory stands, you’ll have to continue on a bit farther… but it’s worth every mile!
The Peach State is home to more than 65 state parks and historic sites that are surrounded by thousands of acres of pristine woodlands. These areas offer great views of fall foliage. However, if your cup of tea is just cruising the highways and byways, then try U.S. Routes 301 and 441. That’s right, Ocala’s main north-south thoroughfare splits off just north of town and runs the entire length of the State of Georgia—in many places meandering through some of the most scenic fall areas in the entire southeast.
Take your pick, U.S. 301 travels through the eastern part of the state and U.S. 441 heads north through the middle of the state. Both offer great views of the woodlands housed in the Piedmont Plateau and are home to many small attractions located along the way.
If you feel really adventurous, check out the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway Tour in the quaint town of Blue Ridge. “Ticket Agent Steve” says the tour is well worth the trip into the depths of the Chattahoochee National Forest.
“Our Fall Foliage Tour begins on September 29 and continues until the second week in November,” he says. “It’s a four-hour, 26-mile train trip that winds its way along the stunning Toccoa River. The colors are absolutely amazing and well worth driving up here from Marion County. The view is so awe inspiring that we book our tours up to a month in advance. We have open-air or closed-coach and prices range from $37.45 for children, 2 to 12 years of age, up to $95.03 for adults on the premium first-class tour.”
While in Blue Ridge, check out the town’s beautiful rustic cabins for rent, visit the beautiful mineral springs and enjoy a horseback ride through the peaceful mountain countryside.
The best viewing time for fall colors in Georgia is from mid-September to mid-November.
A splash of Georgia
10 State Parks known for brilliant fall colors:
- F.D. Roosevelt
- Sweetwater Creek
- Red Top Mountain
- James H. Floyd
- Amicalola Falls
- Smithgall Woods
- Cloudland Canyon
- Fort Mountain
- Tallulah Gorge
- Black Rock Mountain
Alabama is home to four national forests, 22 state parks and countless small backroads that afford a panoramic view of fall at its very best. Just hop on I-75 and travel north to Atlanta. Take I-20 west, and before you know it, you’ll soon find yourself sweeping through the Talladega National Forest amidst an explosion of fall colors.
Take Exit 199, and follow the signs to State Route 281, also known as the Skyway Motorway. Then, pick your poison, head north toward Liberty Hill or south toward Cheaha State Park. Either direction provides an equally stunning view of natural Alabama at its best. The Motorway is approximately 30 miles in length and traverses the crest of the beautiful Talladega Mountain Range. It is well worth the time to drive the entire Motorway, so you could travel south and then backtrack your way north along the full length of this picturesque mountain highway.
According to representatives at the National Park Service in Alabama, the Skyway Motorway provides one of the best views in the state any time of year but is especially beautiful in the fall. The Talladega National Forest consists of upland hills and low mountains filled with hardwoods and pine that provide a wide range of fall colors.
If you do choose to visit the forest, it’s just a short ride west on I-20 to the Talladega Superspeedway in Lincoln, one of NASCAR’s biggest and baddest racetracks. The Superspeedway hosts a series of fall events that you can plan to coincide with your fall foliage road trip.
Another great Alabama highway that provides not only spectacular views in the fall but also year-round is the Lookout Mountain Scenic Parkway. This 93-mile roadway stretches from Gadsen, Alabama, to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and provides breathtaking views of waterfalls, valleys and gorges and also hosts numerous small towns and villages that make the entire trip an excursion you won’t soon forget.
Once you reach Chattanooga on the Parkway, don’t forget to visit Ruby Falls. What makes Ruby Falls so special? Well, it’s only a 145-foot waterfall… located more than 1,100 feet underground… inside a mountain… and it’s only been waiting about 250 million years just for you to come and visit. It truly is a sight you’ll never forget.
Alabama’s fall foliage season runs from early October to mid-November with its peak lasting from the last week of October through the first week in November.
Alabama’s Splendid Seven
- Oak Mountain State Park
- Monte Sano State Park
- Cheaha State Park
- Guntersville State Park
- Little River Canyon
- Covered Bridges in Blount County
- Bankhead National Forest
A hidden fall gem lying just 50 miles beyond the westernmost point of the Florida Panhandle is the state of Mississippi. Mississippi is home to 22 state parks and 6 national forests that put on a blazing fall display second-to-none.
You can take I-75 north to I-10 west, and then get on Hwy. U.S. Highway 98 in Mobile, Alabama, or you can take the ultimate scenic route and drive over to U.S. Highway 19/98 on Florida’s west coast and take that route all the way into the beautiful state of Mississippi. The latter route takes a bit longer to drive, but the collateral views of Florida’s Gulf coast are simply spectacular.
Once you enter Mississippi, head north on Highway 63, and then continue north on Highway 45. You can drive the entire length of the state on Highway 45 and see some spectacular views, or you can take I-22 west in Tupelo and visit beautiful Holly Springs National Forest. The forest is home to a hardwood color display of maple, hickory and oak that will literally take your breath away.
And if you’ve come this far, maybe you’re willing to go a little further. That’s right, the bustling city of Memphis is less than an hour’s drive away… and there’s nothing that can compare to “Walking in Memphis”… in the crisp fall air.
The Mississippi fall color season ranges from mid-October to early November.
Colorful Mississippi Fall Locales You Don’t Want to Miss
- The Natchez Trace Parkway
- Homochitto National Forest
- The Freedom Hills Overlook
- Holmes County State Park
- Jeff Busby Campground
- Tishomingo State Park
- Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge
If you’re a serious leaf-watcher, then South Carolina offers the ultimate southeastern U.S. fall road trip—the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway. This iconic roadway starts as you cross the Savannah River into the state on Interstate Highway 85 out of Georgia and traverses practically the entire length of the state, ending in the town of Gaffney just south of the North Carolina border.
Points of interest to see along the way include: the Hagood Mill Historic Site and Folklife Center in Pickens, Lake Jocassee near Salem, the Cowpens National Battlefield outside of Gaffney, Campbell’s Covered Bridge in Landrum, Sassafras Mountain (the highest point in South Carolina) and Caesar’s Head State Park, to name a few.
For the true fall colors, stay inland from the coast, because the woodlands near the ocean are mainly pine and have minimal color change. Areas west of Columbia afford the best views… and a short jaunt up I-26 to Asheville, North Carolina, is well worth the time. The Blue Ridge Mountains offer some of the best autumn displays in the country.
Fall color appears in mid-October and lasts through mid-November.
South Carolina Sites to See
- Poinsett State Park
- Devil’s Fork State Park
- Table Rock State Park
- Jones Gap State Park
- Symmes Chapel – Cleveland, S.C.
- Keowee-Taxoway State Park
- Lake Hartwell State Park
- Musgrove Mill State Historic Site
- Chester State Park
- Oconee State Park
- Camera for still photos and videos
- Binoculars for close up views of particularly colorful areas
- Cool-weather clothes… it may be 90° when you leave Florida, but mountain evenings and nights can get chilly
- Comfortable shoes suitable for short hikes (It’s almost impossible to simply look from a distance.)
- Rose-colored glasses (Believe it or not, seeing the fall world through rose-colored glasses makes fall colors even more spectacular.)
Trees to look for:
- Red Maple – yellow and deep red
- Gingko – golden yellow
- Sugar Maple – yellow, orange and red
- Smokebush – yellow, orange-red, purple and scarlet
- Sweetgum – yellow, purple and red
- Sourwood – yellow, purple and crimson red
- Black Tupelo – yellow, orange, bright red, purple and scarlet (Many times you can find all colors on the same branch.)
Fall color sites in the Appalachian Mountains:
- The Blue Ridge Parkway
- The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Grandfather Mountain
- Chimney Rock
- Clingmans Dome
- Blowing Rock