Often overlooked amid the brilliant gold aspens of Colorado and the stunning red maples of New England, the Southern Appalachian Mountains have a rightful place of their own among the top fall-color destinations in the United States.
Possessing some of the country's most diverse forests, Western North Carolina boasts a wide spectrum of magnificent fall foliage from orange and yellow to bright red and deep burgundy. The region's unusually long leaf season typically begins in late September at elevations from 5,000 to 6,000 feet and rolls down the mountains into November, splashing the area's small towns and cities with a kaleidoscope of colors.
The centerpiece of it all is Asheville, North Carolina. An anomaly in the traditional Appalachian culture that pervades its neighboring towns, Asheville is an artsy, eccentric city that takes its epicurean endeavors seriously. Its culinary credentials are nationally renowned, and Asheville's craft-beer scene has earned worldwide attention in recent years and become a focal point of Asheville's economy. With a dozen and a half breweries in a city of 80,000, Asheville has more breweries per capita than any U.S. city, with another two dozen in the surrounding mountain towns.
In Asheville, beer and the outdoors go hand in hand, which is why three big-name craft brewers -- New Belgium, Oskar Blues and Sierra Nevada -- chose the area to locate their East Coast expansion facilities.
Here is a three-day itinerary that takes in the best of both:
DAY 1: Mount Mitchell State Park
From Asheville, start your day by heading north on one of America's iconic roads, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the most visited site in the national park system. A few miles from Asheville, the scenic roadway ascends quickly, providing sweeping views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and its autumn color show. Watch for wildlife including wild turkeys, deer and black bear.
At milepost 355, about 35 miles from Asheville, turn north on N.C. 128 and follow signs to the entrance to Mount Mitchell State Park. At 6,684 feet, Mount Mitchell is the highest peak in the eastern United States, and a one-mile trail leads to the summit for postcard-worthy vistas.
Returning to civilization, visit Highland Brewing Co. in East Asheville (828-299-3370, highlandbrewing.com), the one that started it all back in 1994, to catch a tour, some live music and a pint of Clawhammer Oktoberfest.
DAY 2: Pisgah National Forest
Today you'll head in the opposite direction -- south -- on the Parkway, but the views are equally stunning.
Get started early for the drive to milepost 418 and one of the most popular recreational areas on the entire 469-mile roadway, Graveyard Fields, so named years ago for the tree stumps that resembled grave stones.
The area, which got a new restroom facility and upgraded parking lot last year, has hiking trails, two beautiful waterfalls and a stream crossing with lots of rock-hopping and photo opportunities, plus one of the best fall foliage spots around, though the colors come early here. On the way, you'll pass overlooks for Looking Glass Rock and Cold Mountain. The latter was the inspiration and title of the Charles Frazier novel and 2003 Hollywood film.
Return north on the Parkway 10 miles to the Pisgah Inn (828-235-8228, pisgahinn.com), at the base of Mount Pisgah, for lunch. The views from the huge dining room windows are breathtaking. Return south on the Parkway 3.5 miles to U.S. 276, go left, and head down the mountain through Pisgah National Forest, with some of the finest leaf peeping anywhere. Stop at Looking Glass Falls -- the most photographed cascade in Transylvania County's "Land of Waterfalls" -- a 60-footer viewed right from the road or from the base via a series of stairs.
After exiting the forest, head just around the corner to Oskar Blues Brewery (828-883-2337, oskarblues.com) in Brevard, producer of nationally acclaimed Dale's Pale Ale and a slew of other popular brands.
Get on N.C. 280 and head east to arguably the most impressive brewery on the planet, Sierra Nevada (828-708-6242, sierranevada.com) in Mills River, about 10 miles south of Asheville near the airport. The $100 million facility includes a full-service restaurant, outdoor beer garden and amphitheater and one of the finest guided tours in the industry, though they fill up about three months in advance on weekends.
DAY 3: Biltmore Estate
The Biltmore Estate -- George Vanderbilt's magnificent, 250-room French Renaissance chateau -- continues to be Asheville's single largest tourist attraction, drawing 1 million visitors a year. The 8,000-acre estate includes the Biltmore House -- America's largest private home -- as well as an on-site winery, spectacular garden and greenhouse, gift shops, restaurants, a hotel, walking trails and a wood-lined roadway offering plenty of fall color. Daytime tickets, including a self-guided house tour and winery tour/tastings, range from $50 to $60 per person, and $20 to $30 for youth ages 10-16. Visit biltmore.com for more information.
After a day of gawking at Vanderbilt's paradise, soak up some of your own indulgences with a brewery jaunt in downtown's rejuvenated South Slope neighborhood; seven breweries within a two-block radius makes it a walking-friendly tour, indeed.
IF YOU GO
In downtown Asheville, it's hard to beat the location of the pet-friendly Aloft Downtown Asheville Hotel, just a couple blocks from South Slope (rooms from $257 weekdays, $301 in October, 828-232-2838, aloftashevilledowntown.com).
South of the city, the Hampton Inn in Fletcher is within shouting distance of the airport and the Sierra Nevada brewery (rooms from $189 weekdays, $219 weekends, 828-687-0806, hamptoninn3.hilton.com).
Near the town of Brevard, the Key Falls Inn is a charming, historic bed-and-breakfast close to the Pisgah National Forest gates and Oskar Blues Brewery (rooms from $99, cabins from $165, 828-884-7559, keyfallsinn.com).
Atop the Blue Ridge Parkway, you'd be hard-pressed to find better views than at the Pisgah Inn, milepost 408.6. The inn's 51 rooms were recently renovated and feature private balconies or porches with rocking chairs, though rooms sell out many months in advance for the fall. Call at 3:30 p.m. the day of arrival for possible cancellations (828-235-8228, pisgahinn.com)
These and many other Asheville area accommodations are booked solid on weekends this year in October.