6 Hikes for Early Fall Color

As soon as Labor Day passes, we’re eager for Fall hiking: for great color, cool temps, that special Fall feel. 

Trouble is, it doesn’t happen immediately — in fact, Summer doesn’t officially pass the torch to Fall until Sept. 23. But there are a handful of places where you can get a feel for fall hiking early on. Today, we share some of our favorites. Most make the list because they’re along water, where Fall color tends to first become evident. Some make the list because they have plenty of edge forest, where color also tends to pop early. All but one is in the piedmont — and the one that isn’t is pretty darn close. 

We use a bulleted, quick-hit format to share our findings. The less time you spend sifting through words, the more time that’s left for hiking. 

Falls Lake State Recreation Area

fall hiking
Fall on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail at Falls Lake.

Durham, Wake counties

  • Mountains-to-Sea Trail
  • 60 miles of trail tracing the coves ducking in and out of this man-made lake.
  • 14 access points, which stretches ranging from just under a mile to not quite 7 miles. Shuttles are easy to set up.
  • Recommended stretch: Red Mill Road to Red Mill Road, 4.9 miles. Spends a little time on the north end along Falls Lake, spends a lot of time throughout clinging to edge forest. Very few hikers, making it and ideal hiking spot during the popular fall hiking season.

Details here

Greensboro Watershed Lakes


  • Mountains-to-Sea Trail
  • 42 miles of trail
    • Some multi-use, mostly the trail along the south shores of the lakes
  • 14 access points
  • Recommended: Piedmont Trail, 3 miles (one way), from near Strawberry Road, along north shore of Lake Brandt. Another generally quiet stretch of trail in fall, with constant exposure to Lake Bryant.

Details here

Lake James State Park

Nebo (Morganton)

Fonta Flora State Trail

  • 30+ miles of trail
    • Some multi-use
  • 3 access points
  • Recommended: Fonta Flora State Trail leading east toward Morganton (it’s eventual destination to the east; to the west, it will extend to Asheville). Highlight: Right outside the park, the trail passes through the Fonta Flora Brewery!

Details here

Smith Mountain Lake State Park

Huddleston, Va

  • 15 miles of trail
    • Some multi-use
  • 8 access points
  • 500 miles of shoreline (much of it, however, is private)
  • Recommended: Striper Cove Trail, 3.1 miles, nearly all along the lake.

Details here

Lake Norman State Park

Troutman (Charlotte area)

  • 38 miles of trail
    • Some multi-use
  • 3 access points
  • Cove hiking
  • Recommended: Lake Shore Trail, 5 miles, most along coves

Details here

Moses Cone Memorial Park

Blue Ridge Parkway, Milepost 294 (near Blowing Rock)

  • 25 miles of trail
  • Access from the Manor House up top and Bass Lake at the base, in Blowing Rock
  • Wide, smooth carriage trail paths
  • Recommended: Bass Lake (bottom), Flat Top (top)

Details here

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