Crisp air, zero humidity, leaf fall and pumpkins are all signs of the time when summer transitions to fall in North Carolina. It’s no surprise that North Carolinians and out-of-staters alike turn to the great outdoors in North Carolina this time of year. From the mountains to the coast, North Carolina offers stunning fall foliage and a multitude of outdoor recreational activities for all ages and all fitness levels. North Carolina state forests are beautiful, safe places to have outdoor fall adventures and to experience the best of our state’s amazing natural landscape during the fall season.
Currently, across the state, there are nine state forests open and available to the public for a variety of recreational activities. Whether you’re interested in breathtaking views of foliage and water or observing forest management and conservation at work or hiking and biking along some of North Carolina’s best known and lesser known trails, you’ll find what you’re looking for in a North Carolina state forest.
Best of the Mountains
The mountains of North Carolina are home to five state forests, all of which are within reasonable proximity to other public lands including national forests, national parks and state parks. During the fall season, these five state forests are bathed in color, offering expansive views of foliage against backdrops of mountains, creeks, lakes and waterfalls. DuPont State Recreational Forest (DSRF) is our only state recreational forest and is managed primarily for natural resource preservation, scenic enjoyment and recreational purposes including horseback riding, hiking, bicycling, hunting and fishing. DSRF features spectacular waterfalls, unique ecological communities, lakes and an extensive trail system. If you’re looking for that perfect fall forest hike and some of the most amazing and popular waterfalls in our state, DSRF should be on your list of stops. If you’re looking to experience similar hikes and views but in a more primitive forest setting with far less foot traffic, consider Headwaters State Forest. Headwaters State Forest is minutes away from DSRF, and according to Assistant Regional Forester Michael Cheek, “the views from Dolves Mountain Lookout and the top of Bursted Rock offer great fall colors and panoramic landscapes,” two of his fall favorites.
For a unique and interactive forest experience during the colorful fall season, try visiting one or all three educational state forests located in Western North Carolina. While enjoying the colors of fall and scenic vistas, take advantage of a series of well-marked trails, accented by exhibits and displays depicting the ecology of the managed forest. Holmes Educational State Forest, Rendezvous Mountain Educational State Forest and Tuttle Educational State Forest are great options for a low-key family adventure or a peaceful hike sans company.
Important things to consider: DSRF is quite popular and can get busy and crowded quickly during weekends. Parking is limited during busy times, even with all parking access areas open. For a safer, more low-key experience, consider visiting the forest during the week and early in the morning or later in the day. Come prepared to share trails with hikers, bikers and equestrians as most of the trail system at DSRF is multiuse. Headwaters State Forest is open to foot traffic only. It has no public facilities, limited cellphone service and should be considered a rugged experience for avid hikers and experienced outdoor enthusiasts.
Best of the Piedmont
Are you looking for fall color and panoramic views in central North Carolina? Clemmons Educational State Forest (CESF) and Jordan Lake Educational State Forest (JLESF) are convenient options located between the Piedmont and Coastal Plain. Both forests showcase a mix of pines and hardwoods as well as a variety of wildlife. Whether lakeside or streamside, you’ll get great fall color and vantage points in either forest. Conveniently located near the Triangle, both CESF and JLESF are within proximity of other public lands and North Carolina attractions, providing visitors with the opportunity to experience a mixed bag of outdoor fall fun.
Best of the Sandhills
The Sandhills are home to two neighboring state forests, Bladen Lakes State Forest and Turnbull Creek Educational State Forest. Spanning more than 33,000 acres, Bladen Lakes State Forest (BLSF) is the largest state-owned forest in North Carolina. Experience the colors of fall in BLSF and simultaneously enjoy hiking, bicycling, horseback riding, stargazing, birding and hunting. With more than 130 miles of forest roads and 30 miles of public roads, you can experience plenty of hiking, biking and horseback riding. Turnbull Creek Educational State Forest (TCESF), adjacent to BLSF, is located among Bladen County’s numerous ‘Carolina Bays.’ Immerse yourself in displays and authentic relics of our rich naval stores’ history. Hike along Turnbull Creek and the Jones Lake Drain. If you’re short on time, TCESF is a great stop to consider because TCESF is the only state forest with a Driving Path Loop trail, which allows you to “hike” through the forest without ever leaving your car! Like the other state forests, BLSF and TCESF are within proximity of other public lands and North Carolina attractions, providing much opportunity to experience tons of outdoor fall fun.
Before visiting a North Carolina state forest this fall, plan and prepare for your visit. State forests are often confused with state parks. While most state forests are located near state parks, state forests and state parks are different. Make sure you check hours of operation and rules before visiting. Choose the state forest that checks the most boxes on your recreational and outdoor adventures list. Keep in mind that many forest amenities, including offices, education and visitor centers, restrooms and picnic shelters, are temporarily closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Come prepared to wear a face covering and to practice social distancing while in the forest. Recreate responsibly and practice leave no trace principles, such as packing out your trash, during your visit. For maps, rules, recreational opportunities and to learn more about your North Carolina state forests, visit www.ncforestservice.gov > State Forests. For the latest information about social distancing and how COVID-19 is impacting your state forests, visit https://ncforestservice.gov/COVID19.htm.
If North Carolina state forests could talk…
“In addition to the overall enjoyment of witnessing the coming of autumn and the color show that unfolds, I love the opportunities for discussions about trees with the public. As brilliant leaf color begins to surface in the forest around us, people who normally wouldn’t pay much attention to trees are drawn into wondering how the color change happens. This leads to explanations of photosynthesis and the role of chlorophyll and allows for connections to be made about the importance of our forests and trees’ intimate involvement with some of the basic life processes we all take for granted. Any time I can impress upon someone the importance of forests in providing clean air and clean water along with many other benefits, it is a good day!”
– Jane Dauster, Aleen Steinburg Visitor Center manager, DuPont State Recreational Forest
“I enjoy everything about DuPont [SRF] during the fall season! I just love the incremental and subtle changes in color and texture that take place daily on the forest, no matter where you are. Each day is a different mosaic. Autumn is such a contrast of transformation from the lush deep green of summer to bright golden hues tinged with oranges, reds and browns. It’s always amazing how the same scene can look so different from season to season, and during the fall, from day to day. Cedar Rock and Big Rock trails are two of my favorites to hike during this time of year; on the upper slopes and summit, you get the full effect of fall’s visual splendor and the crisp, biting breeze that signals change is in the air.”
– Michael Santucci, assistant forest supervisor, DuPont State Recreational Forest