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Fall Outdoor Adventures to Take in the Blue Ridge

red river gorge fall foliage

Floating above the Blue Ridge Mountains, Amanda Rossano can look out from her balloon’s basket and see beautiful scenery in every direction. As owner and pilot of Monticello Country Ballooning, she has taken thousands of flights over Charlottesville in more than two decades of piloting hot air balloons in central Virginia and she loves every single one of them. 

fall smoky mountains
Fall starts to set in across the Smoky Mountains. Photo courtesy of The Swag

Flying at sunrise and sunset in perfect weather conditions, ballooning offers a whole new perspective on the area. Floating between 500 to 1,500 feet in the air is an incomparable sensation. “You actually get a chance to be really interactive with the environment at all altitudes,” Rossano said. “I call it the world’s slowest zipline. Because we move with the wind, there’s no relative motion except for the launch and the landing.”

Rossano’s flights offer everything from a bird’s eye view to cruising along at treetop level and touching down on local lakes, and there’s no better time to take it all in as fall descends on the region. 

Despite all of the cliches about the changing of seasons—the waxing poetic about the foliage and breathing in the crisp air—getting outside in the fall never gets old. There’s no better place to experience it than the mountains and waterways of the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast. Whether it’s trying something new, like a hot air balloon ride, or a favorite pastime, we scouted some of our favorite destinations that will have nature’s changing hues on full display as the temperatures start to cool off. 

Bike the Western Maryland Rail Trail


Snaking about 28 miles from Big Pool to Little Orleans, the Western Maryland Rail Trail is a fairly flat path that shows off some of the mountain’s best fall colors. Running parallel to the C&O Canal Towpath while offering a smoother paved riding surface, you can make it a morning ride or an-all day excursion. Keep an eye out for views of the Potomac River, rock outcroppings, and wildlife as you ride. You can also stop into Hancock for a walk through a historic town, a meal, and bike rentals to outfit the whole family from C&O Bicycle

Wet a Line in the South Holston River


A nationally recognized trout fly fishing destination, the South Holston River and its many tributaries offer perfect opportunities for fall casting. With float and wade trips available depending on the water levels, you can reel in trophy wild brown trout and, if the 21 miles of river aren’t enough for you, South Holston Lake is another excellent spot to spend a few hours on the water. Cherokee National Forest borders most of the shoreline, providing a stunning and remote backdrop for both paddlers and anglers. Also, a number of nearby outfitters provide a variety of guided trip options for those who want deeper insights on the river. 

Paddle the Waccamaw River

North Carolina and South Carolina

With almost two dozen boat ramps and countless natural attractions along the way, the Waccamaw River Blue Trail offers diverse habitats to explore. Float through marshes and past islands as you watch for migratory birds heading south for the winter along 140 miles of this blackwater river. The starting point at Lake Waccamaw State Park features several boardwalks from which to take in the unique habitat of a Carolina Bay while Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge is an excellent place to stop for lunch, cast a line for largemouth bass and catfish, or explore the Great Pee Dee River, a State Scenic River.

Laurel Lake at Breaks Interstate Park
Cool breezes and colorful leaves over Laurel Lake at Breaks Interstate Park. Photo by Ellen Kanzinger

Hike the Trails of Breaks Interstate Park

Virginia and Kentucky

Carved out over millions of years, the Russell Fork Gorge at Breaks Interstate Park is a sight to behold in the fall. Take a stroll around Laurel Lake for serene reflections on the water’s surface, descend the steep terrain of the River Trail down to the banks of the Russell Fork, or loop together several trails to view a variety of habitats throughout the park. Several overlooks along the gorge’s rim provide excellent views of the scenery year-round. In October, expert whitewater paddlers take on the rugged class IV-V rapids during release weekends. 

Ride Through the Southern Appalachians on Horseback


What better way to spend a crisp fall afternoon than a scenic horseback ride through the Southern Appalachian Mountains of north Georgia. From Cashes Valley to the Little Tennessee River, several outfitters in the region, including Dillard House Stables and Cowgirl Up Stables, offer a variety of trip lengths and difficulties for new to experienced riders. This relaxing ride will take you through open pastures, along forested trails, and across rivers with a horse paired to fit your riding ability. The trails of Chattahoochee National Forest and several state parks offer additional opportunities to take in the splendor of Georgia in the fall. 

Follow the Greenbrier River Trail

West Virginia 

Tucked away in a secluded part of West Virginia, the Greenbrier River Trail is a 78-mile rail trail open for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. As you traverse this remote section of the Mountain State, you’ll pass by Greenbrier State Forest, Watoga State Park, Seneca State Forest, and Cass Scenic Railroad State Park for even more miles of fun, plus several small towns and bridges. Leave your phones in your bag as they won’t work traveling through the National Radio Quiet Zone. For runners, the Greenbrier River Trail Marathon at the beginning of October is a great way to cover a scenic stretch of the trail under autumnal colors. 

couple hiking
No matter your activity of choice, take some time this fall to enjoy being outside. Photo courtesy of The Swag

Pitch a Tent in Daniel Boone National Forest


It’s a large area to cover, but that just means you’ll have to make Daniel Boone National Forest a place you return to every fall. From climbing and hiking in the Red River Gorge Area to paddling Cave Run and Laurel River Lake, there’s a variety of activities and terrain to keep you occupied. With over a dozen campgrounds, plus backcountry camping allowed in most parts of the forest, there’s plenty of room to spread out and find a spot for a night or three. You can also cover a big part of the area on foot with a multi-day backpacking trip on the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail. 

Cruise Through Little River Canyon Preserve


Take the scenic 11-mile drive through the preserve on the Little River Canyon Rim Parkway as the river flows through the canyon below. Several overlooks along the way open up for dramatic views, including towering waterfalls and rock formations, raptors soaring through the air, and a band of colors dancing in the light. With sharp turns and steep hills, the parkway can be tough on those who get motion sickness easily, but it’s also known as a scenic ride for cyclists wanting to take on the rolling hills. When you’re done with your drive, a number of trails lead down to the banks of the Little River and the waterfalls that dot the landscape. 

Climb into the Trees 


Do you remember the days of climbing trees as a kid? At Riverside Outfitters in Richmond, Va., you can relive those moments from your childhood with recreational tree climbing. Get up close and personal with the leaves as you ascend into the canopy. Wearing a helmet and harness, you’ll learn the skills professional arborists use in their work to safely climb trees. While you’re in town, the James River Park System offers more than 22 miles of trails for hikers and bikers with quiet spots, class III-IV rapids, and views of the city skyline all within minutes from each other. 

The Healing Power of Forest Bathing

If you’re a southerner like me, fall is really about soaking up the beautiful weather before having to pull out the puffy for a few months. After a hectic summer, there’s nothing better than taking the time to slow down and appreciate the changing of seasons as much as you can.

“Nature is this place for healing,” said Steven Reinhold, owner of Appalachian Adventure Company and expert in residence at The Swag, a resort on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina. “It’s not just for these rigorous activities of hiking, biking, climbing, and things of that nature. One of the most beautiful trends of late is that the definition of nature is expanding.” 

Reinhold leads forest bathing excursions for The Swag, a term roughly translated from the Japanese principle Shinrin-yoku. “In the 80s, the forest service in Japan started prescribing for folks to get out into nature for small amounts of time to destress and escape from their hectic city lives,” Reinhold said. “They found that there was a very quick and noticeable benefit for people who went out on these excursions, both physical and mental.”

This is not a challenge to push yourself to reach the summits of mountains or to hike longer than you ever have before. “The goal is to be present to elicit all five of your senses, to bring you closer to nature, and to really hone in on the calming and physical and mental health benefits of time outside the house,” Reinhold said. And, of course, spending time away from screens and gadgets. Whether it’s sitting on your porch to watch the last of the daylight fade away, or taking your shoes off to feel the cool grass beneath your feet, here’s to the little moments of fall that remind us what it’s really all about.

Cover photo: Fog rolls in through the Red River Gorge in Daniel Boone National Forest. Photo by Ellen Kanzinger

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