North Carolina might just possibly be at its best as summer gives way to fall. In the mountains, the leaves turn brilliant colors, and the days are still warm enough for beachcombing at the coast. But that’s just the beginning. Here are four reasons why October just might be the best month to visit the Tar Heel State.
Hit the highways
Leaf-peepers driving the beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway get a two-fer in the autumn -- not only are the hills ablaze with fall color, but the monarch butterflies begin their annual 2,000-mile migration to Mexico in mid-September, which lasts for several weeks.
Near Cashiers, in the southwestern part of the state, this is when the “Shadow of the Bear” emerges from hibernation. This bruin-shaped shadow, formed by the sun setting behind Whiteside Mountain, begins its gradual appearance about 5:30 every evening and lasts through early November.
Go for an adventure
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is in its fall-color glory in October, and one of the best ways to get out of the car and into nature is on a two-and-a-half-hour horseback waterfall ride (a two-and-a-half-hour ride with Smokemont Riding Stable costs $75).
North Carolina is home to the first-ever zip line in the country, and today it boasts more than 20 zip-line tours -- a great vantage point for dropping through fall foliage. In Saluda, The Gorge drops 1,100 feet over the Green River Gorge, making it the steepest zip line in the continental U.S ($95 per person).
On the coast, warm weather and fewer crowds make this a great time to try stand-up paddling through the salt marshes on the Outer Banks, or a sunset kayak tour in Southport ($20 for two hours).
Eat and Drink
Fall is ripe pickings for those looking for local, seasonal fare, and the state is awash in chefs who cleave to the farm-to-table ethos -- including Vivian Howard, star of PBS’ A Chef’s Life (season 2 starts in October), whose Chef & the Farmer has put Kinston on the culinary map. James Beard semi-finalist Matt Kelly blends Iberian flavors and local ingredients in his Southern dishes at Mateo Bar de Tapas in Durham, home to another James Beard nominee, Phoebe Lawless, whose Scratch serves up hand-crafted, seasonal baked goods made from locally sourced ingredients. In Asheville, Posana -- overlooking historic Pack Square -- has attracted a fierce local (and beyond) following for its seasonal farm-to-table offerings.
When you’re ready to quaff, North Carolina has over 100 breweries. Try a “Death by Hops” IPA at the Olde Hickory Brewery in Hickory, a “Boar Bitter” ale at Pig Pounder Brewery in Greensboro, or a “Fire in the Hole” red ale at the Beer Army brewery in Trenton.
And the state is home to a good number of destination artisan micro-distilleries -- including such imbibables as Covington yam vodka in Snow Hill, Piedmont gin from TOPO in Chapel Hill, and Defiant American Single Malt Whisky from Blue Ridge Distillers in Bostic.
Pick a festival
If you can think of it, there’s probably a festival for it. It goes without saying that there are your tried-and-true fall festivals, like the Autumn Leaves Festival in Mt. Airy (October 10-12). But why stop there?
There’s the Poultry Jubilee in Rose Hill (October 3-4), a Peanut Festival in Enfield (October 3), a Ava Gardner Festival (October 3-5) in Smithfield in honor of their hometown celebrity -- there’s even a festival for the Woolly Worm (which is really a caterpillar), featuring a wooly worm race that the locals swear accurately predicts the severity of the oncoming winter (October 18-19).