You can see the leaves change color just about anywhere in the Southern Appalachians, but if you want true drama—and let’s face it, that’s what fall foliage is all about—head to one of our gorges. Over millions of years, the rivers and creeks of the Southern Appalachians have carved deep canyons, some of which are 2,000 feet deep. And while canyons out west are typically characterized by rock walls, the gorges in the Southeast are blanketed with trees. Here are five dramatic gorges whose walls come alive with color each fall.
CLOUDLAND CANYON, G.A.
Cloudland Canyon (formerly known as Sitton’s Gulch prior to being purchased by the state in the 1930s) is the epicenter of the 3,485-acre state park of the same name, which houses some of the most rugged terrain in North Georgia. The canyon is carved into the western edge of Lookout Mountain, with 900-foot walls comprised of sheer sandstone cliffs flanked by evergreen hemlocks and a mixed hardwood forest. Lookout Mountain is a hub of rock climbing in the Southeast, but there’s no climbing allowed inside the state park. That regulation coupled with the fact that Cloudland is two hours from Atlanta, keeps the state park crowd free, so you’ll likely be able to absorb the fall color in solitude. And check the park’s website throughout October for Georgia DNR’s popular Leaf Watch program, where rangers in various parks update leaf color conditions.
Half a dozen trails traverse the park, but for the best views of the canyon, hike the 5-mile West Rim Trail. The path forms a loop, much of which skirts the lip of the gorge with periodic views of the chasm below, enabling you to see the western escarpment of Lookout Mountain as well as Lookout Valley. The trail culminates at a rocky perch with breathtaking views of the canyon in all its fall glory. If you’re looking to immerse yourself in the gorge, hike the 6.5-mile Sitton’s Gulch Trail, which descends the western side of the gorge to the bottom floor, then follows Daniel Creek through the heart of the chasm. On this lollipop loop, you’ll see two waterfalls, get a bottom-up view of the canyon, pass massive boulders, cascades, and pools, and tackle 1,200 iron steps as you descend, then ascend the canyon wall.
Check out the Canyon Overlook via the short Overlook Trail adjacent to the parking area. It’s the most popular spot in the park, and for good reason. From this perch, you can see the canyon in its entirety as it opens into the Cumberland Plateau.
BLACKWATER CANYON, W.V.A.
In a rugged corner of Tucker County, W.Va., the Blackwater River slices an eight-mile path between Canaan Mountain and Backbone Mountain. The 57-foot Blackwater Falls marks the beginning of the gorge, and is a popular spot for day hikers, but venture farther downstream from the dramatic waterfall and you’ll see the canyon at its deepest: more than 1,000 feet from the river to the canyon rim. The canyon walls, which at times are nearly vertical, are covered in a thick hemlock, oak, maple, and yellow poplar canopy that comes alive every autumn. The river is a popular class III-V whitewater run, and hiking and biking trails flank the chasm on either side. Unfortunately, the forest surrounding the canyon is split between private and public ownership. We say unfortunately, because the logging company that owns roughly half of the canyon has been pushing to log the area for years, which would compromise the integrity of the canyon and its trail system.
Blackwater Falls State Park has a number of trails leading to overlooks of the canyon and the dramatic waterfall of the same name. Access to the park’s trails is straightforward and worth a side trip. But outside the park, in the wilder Monongahela National Forest, sits the Canyon Rim Trail, a three-mile, rocky jaunt that traverses the northern rim of the gorge taking the hiker through a thick canopy of hemlocks and hardwoods with the occasional side trail to rocky perches overlooking the canyon proper. You can also take a side trip to the Olson Lookout Tower, which sits on top of Backbone Mountain overlooking the Monongahela. If you want to reach the bottom of the gorge, a number of manways exist throughout the Monongahela and state park. Arguably the easiest path to the gorge floor leaves from the Pendleton Point Overlook inside the state park. The path is rugged, but easy to follow and will take you straight to the river, where you can rock hop upstream to Blackwater Falls, or downstream for more solitude. If biking is your thing, pedal the 12-mile Blackwater Canyon Rail Trail, which hugs the side of the canyon along Backbone Mountain, dropping 1,200 feet from Thomas to Hendricks. You’ll have periodic views and pass a number of gushing tributaries along the way.
Take your pick of scenic canyon views from the rim of the gorge. We like Lindy Point, just outside of the state park boundaries off Canaan Loop Road. From this rocky outcropping on the eastern rim of the canyon, you can see miles of the Blackwater River and the steep, green and multicolored walls that surround it.
For info on Blackwater Falls and the trails within the state park, go to blackwaterfalls.com. For more information about the potential logging within the canyon, go to saveblackwater.org.
BREAKS CANYON, V.A.
Deep inside a remote pocket of Southwest Virginia, the Russell Fork of the Big Sandy River cuts a massive canyon through the Southern Appalachians that locals simply call “The Breaks.” The Breaks Canyon is five miles long and anywhere from 800 to 1,650 feet deep, making it one of the deepest canyons east of the Mississippi. Locals refer to the gorge as the “Grand Canyon With Clothes On” because the steep walls are shrouded with maples, poplars, and oaks. Daniel Boone discovered the canyon in the 1700s while searching for a way around the 125-mile-long Pine Mountain that, at the time, divided the West from the East. The Russell Fork presented the best “break” in the mountain, but the canyon proved too rugged for Boone and his scouting party, who had to turn back after spending a rough winter on the canyon floor. Today, the canyon is the centerpiece of the Breaks Interstate Park, which comes complete with a swimming pool and lodge. But step away from the developments, and Breaks is still one of the wildest forests in the East. The whole canyon is ripe for leaf peeping, and every October, regular releases of the Flannagan Reservoir upstream dump 800-1100 cubic-feet-per-second of water into the river, turning the Russell Fork into a world-class whitewater destination.
Breaks only offers 13 miles of trail, but a whopper of a hike can be put together by combining pieces of the Prospector’s Trail, River Trail, Grassy Creek Trail, Laurel Branch Trail, Geological Trail, and the Overlook Trail. It sounds like a beast, but the total hike covers less than five miles and offers some of the most diverse terrain you can find in the South. The loop starts and ends at the Towers Tunnel Overlook Trailhead. Along the way, you’ll capture massive views of the canyon from the rim, hug sheer cliffs along the Prospector’s Trail, which traverses the gorge roughly midway between the canyon floor and rim, then drop to the river where magnificent falls and massive boulders await. Save some energy for the climb out of the gorge along the strenuous Laurel Branch Trail, and save some time to relax at the various vantage points along the final Overlook Trail.
It’s tough to pick just one view within the Breaks Interstate Park, but most agree that the view from the Towers Overlook is supreme. From this vantage point, you can see the Russell Fork make a horseshoe bend around a pyramid-shaped knob of Pine Mountain, which is capped by two sandstone “towers.” But hike the Overlook Trail (only .75 miles one way) and you can bag the Towers Overlook along with three other stately views. The trail hugs the edge of the cliff throughout its course, giving you almost constant views of the canyon.
TOXAWAY GORGE, N.C.
The Toxaway River dissects the Blue Ridge Escarpment of North Carolina, dropping off the steep mountainsides into the upper piedmont of South Carolina. The river eventually empties into Lake Jocassee at the base of the Escarpment, but some of the most dramatic scenery can be found inside North Carolina’s Gorges State Park, where the Toxaway cuts a 600-foot gorge through bedrock, surrounded by a lush hardwood forest. In 1916, a dramatic flood stripped the Toxaway Gorge walls of its trees, and today, the river is still surrounded by more stone walls than perhaps any other ditch in this corner of the Southern Appalachians. The river is often banked by sheer cliff walls, and hiking access to the deeper recesses of the gorge is limited to bushwhacking. Three of the state park’s official trails lead to different vantage points along the river, but one of the best views can be bagged from the side of a highway.
From the Frozen Creek Access of Gorges State Park, hike or bike the Auger Hole Trail for three miles to its junction with the Toxaway River. The trail is actually an old roadbed that primarily follows the Auger Fork Creek. If you’re able to cross the Toxaway River, an old side trail will take you to Bearwallow Falls on Bearwallow Creek deeper inside the state park. Another option is to hike the Canebrake Trail for five miles from the same Frozen Creek Access. Canebrake meets the Foothills Trail at the junction with the Toxaway River, where a long suspension bridge across the river offers a good vantage point of the gorge upstream. If the water is low, you can rock hop upstream for an hour to High Falls, a river-wide ledge drop set deep inside the gorge.
The 125-foot Toxaway Falls marks the entrance to the Toxaway Gorge. The waterfall is a twisting slide over sheer bedrock running beneath Highway 64. From a makeshift overlook adjacent to the road, you stand at the top of the falls, seeing the cascading water and the multicolored foliage that surrounds the gorge downstream.
BIG SOUTH FORK, TENN.
The Big South Fork of the Cumberland River cuts a 600-foot-deep chasm through the Cumberland Plateau, sitting at the heart of the 125,000-acre Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. The massive park is littered with smaller gorges and bluffs formed by tributaries to the free-flowing river, but the Big South Fork is the most dramatic ditch in the region. The gorge is over 80 miles long, filled with class I-V whitewater that’s choked with massive boulders and banked by sheer rock cliffs and steep tree-covered walls. Hardy adventurers find their way into the Big South Fork looking for sandstone arches, climbing crags, solitude, and whitewater, but in the fall, the gorge comes alive with splendid color.
The Big South Fork has 150 miles of hiking trails to choose from, so it might be tough to hone in on a single hike. You could thru-hike the 48-mile John Muir Trail. Or you could hike the easy one-mile Sunset Overlook trail to the self-described vantage point. But for a tour that encompasses the best of the Big South Fork, you’ve got to hike the Grand Gap Loop Trail. This 7-mile piece of skinny singletrack follows the rim of the gorge for the majority of its journey, giving you an unprecedented amount of exposure without ever having to clip in to a climbing harness. You’ll pass through rock houses and mini gorges, skirt bluffs, and bag more long distance views of the gorge and its vibrant colors than your SD card can handle.
It’s hard to beat the scene from the East Rim Overlook, off Highway 297 in the Tennessee portion of the Big South Fork. From the East Rim, you can stand on the lip of the gorge and survey the free-flowing river and the gorge it has cut directly below. But we like the Angel Falls Overlook, which provides a more encompassing view of the river as it bends around a knob. Plus, you must hike the 5.5-mile (out and back) Angel Falls Trail to reach the rocky outcropping overlooking the gorge, so you won’t have to jockey for space to soak in the view. •
OTHER GORGES FOR LEAF PEEPING
Hickory Nut Gorge, N.C.
Climb to the Chimney (or take the elevator) in Chimney Rock State Park for a view of the rocky cliffs of Rumbling Bald, Lake Lure, and all the surrounding forests that are ablaze with fall colors. Most of the land you can see, including the rocky perch you’re standing on, is part of the new Chimney Rock State Park. Several other trails traverse the rock walls surrounding Chimney Rock proper offering dramatic views of the gorge, but at press time, many paths were closed for rehabilitation. Check with the park before planning your trip.
Tennessee River Gorge, Tenn.
It’s massive, it enjoys nearly mythical status, and it’s a leaf peeper’s delight. The Tennessee River cuts a winding 26-mile long swath through the Cumberland Mountains of East Tennessee. The most dramatic section of the gorge sits on the edge of Chattanooga, and is easily viewed from the trail system within Prentice Cooper State Forest. Hike a choice piece of the Cumberland Trail within the forest to Edwards Point Overlook for a killer view of the river below.
New River Gorge, W.Va.
You know the New for its famous whitewater, but an unprecedented amount of energy is being put into the New River National Recreation Area’s land-based trail system. Within the next few years, the New will sport a brand new collection of paths that traverse the walls of the gorge. Today, you can explore the already extensive yet underrated system of roads and singletrack that wind along the rim and base of this deep, rocky gorge. We like the Endless Wall Trail, which offers magnificent views of the river and its 1,000-foot gorge.
Little Stony Gorge, Va.
In the Wise County section of the Jefferson National Forest, the Little Stony Creek cuts a 400-foot gorge at the bottom of Lookout Mountain. Boulders and short cliffs punctuate the riverside, but the gorge is dominated by a mixed hardwood forest that pops with color during the fall. You can follow the Little Stony National Recreation Trail as it travels 2.8 miles through the heart of the gorge. The path is surprisingly steep and rugged for a railroad grade, but it offers up-close views of the gorge walls as well as the 40-foot Little Stony Falls.