Five Fall Destinations Worth the Drive From Chapel Hill

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Centrally located Orange County is the perfect place to kick off a daytrip to other parts of the state

The Cape Lookout National Seashore has ideal conditions for viewing the Milky Way with the naked eye. Photo by Alex Gu, courtesy of Crystal Coast Stargazers

By Brooke Spach

CRYSTAL COAST

Also known as the Southern Outer Banks, this 85-mile stretch of beaches comprises 11 coastal communities, including Atlantic Beach, Beaufort, Emerald Isle and Cape Lookout. Although you may have just stored away your swimsuits, there is plenty to do at North Carolina’s beaches in the late summer and early fall.

The Cape Lookout National Seashore is one of the last natural barrier island systems in the world, and in 2021, was certified as an International Dark Sky Park. Experience the night sky like never before on the Island Express Ferry Starlight Cruise on Aug. 27. The ferry also offers daytime boat rides past or to Shackleford Banks, where you might be able to spot wild horses roaming the island.

In Atlantic Beach, visit the restored Civil War and World War II fort at Fort Macon State Park before checking out the nearly century- old boardwalk, which will receive a $2 million upgrade over the coming months.

The Crystal Coast offers many festivals this time of year: the Emerald Isle Fishing Tournament (Sept. 17), Beaufort Pirate Invasion (Sept. 23-25), the Emerald Isle Beach Music Festival (Sept. 24) and more. Seafood lovers should definitely plan their trip for Sept. 30-Oct. 2 in order to attend the 36th annual North Carolina Seafood Festival on the Morehead City waterfront.

JOHNSTON COUNTY
Inside the Ava Gardner museum in Johnston County
Ava Gardner was an Academy Award-nominated actor, starring in films such as “The Killers” and “Mogambo.” Photo courtesy of the Johnston County Visitors Bureau

Just south of Raleigh is Johnston County, or “JoCo,” an ideal daytrip destination for North Carolina history lovers. Bentonville is rich with Civil War history; visit Bentonville Battlefield, the state’s largest, during a walking or driving tour. Another stop on the tour is Cole Plantation, a site where music legends such as the late Thelonious Monk and Nat King Cole traced their heritage to enslaved family members.

Step back in time to learn about the state’s agricultural history at the Tobacco Farm Life Museum in Kenly. History comes alive on Saturdays at the museum, as experts are on hand to provide more insight about the lives of North Carolina tobacco farmers.

Be sure to also stop by the Ava Gardner Museum in downtown Smithfield in honor of the movie star who was born and raised just a few miles away. The recently completed Ava Gardner Mural and Rose Garden on the side of the museum includes yellow rose bushes – Ava’s favorite flower – installed by Durham’s own Witherspoon Rose Culture. And if you happen to be in town Oct. 7-9, don’t miss the celebration of her 100th birthday at the Ava Gardner Festival. For more fall fun, head to the pumpkin patch and corn maze at Clayton Fear Farm during the day or take a spooky hayride and visit its haunted house at night.

JoCo isn’t just for history buffs, but food and drink lovers, too – in Benson, you can head out on the Beer, Wine and Shine Trail, which features eight destinations where you can sample craft beers, tour vineyards and learn about five generations of moonshiners. Meanwhile, red hot dog fans can determine their very favorite red hot dog by visiting the Red Hot Dog Trail’s 23 stops throughout the county to try franks from local producers like Smithfield’s own Carolina Packers and Stevens Sausage Company. You can also find a variety of sample itineraries for your visit to Johnston County at johnstoncountync.org.

ALAMANCE COUNTY
Salads and sandwiches from Michelle's Kitchen in Alamance County
Enjoy seasonal farm-to-table ingredients at Michelle’s Kitchen in Burlington, North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Visit Alamance

You don’t have to travel far to explore new areas on a perfect autumn day. Just a few miles down N.C. 54 is Alamance County, home to Burlington, Elon, Graham, Saxapahaw, Mebane and the Haw River. Start your day with a cool morning hike on a section of the Haw River Trail, then grab lunch in Saxapahaw at The Eddy Pub or the Saxapahaw General Store. Take your food to go for a picnic at Cedarock Park and Historical Farm, and feed the horses and goats along a guided or independent tour of the grounds. Make a reservation in advance to view the farm on horseback. Cedarock also hosts the Alcovets Balloon Festival on Sept. 9-11.

The textile industry put Alamance County on the map in the early 1900s. Learn more about its impact on the area and see the first commercially produced colored fabric in the South, Alamance Plaid, at the Textile Heritage Museum in Burlington, also home to the state’s first co-op brewery, Burlington Beer Works. Mebane’s Iron Gate Vineyards & Winery, the first female-owned winery in the state, is another good spot for historic beverage fun. Browse the shops downtown before rounding out your day with dinner from 2 Twelve Seasonal Kitchen + Bar or Bright Penny Brewing.

PENDER COUNTY
Waves from the beaches of Pender County
Visit Daddy Mac’s or JM’s on the Water in Surf City for fresh, local seafood.

Even if you don’t know of Pender County, you’ve probably heard of its two most-visited towns: Topsail Beach and Surf City. The county encompasses Topsail Island, Burgaw and Hampstead, North Carolina, and is one of the fastest-growing counties in the state.

On the island, check out the Intracoastal Waterway, take the family to the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue & Rehabilitation Center or visit the Missiles and More Museum, which housed Operation Bumblebee, the U.S. Navy’s secret guided missile testing program, in the 1940s. The results of these efforts helped make NASA’s space program possible. The museum also plays host to Autumn With Topsail, an arts and crafts festival with live music, kids’ inflatables and tons of food and drinks – catch the 33rd annual event Oct. 14-16. Thanks to cooler temperatures, migration patterns and waning beach crowds, fall is a great time for fishing on the island. Pro tip: It’s pronounced ‘Tops’l,’ not ‘Top-sail ’!

Pender County has even more to offer across the bridge on the mainland. It’s one of the largest growing locations for blueberries – try them fresh off the bush along the Pender County Blueberry Trail, which will lead you from the coast to Burgaw. Nicknamed both “Blueberry Town” and “The Town Hollywood Loves,” Burgaw is also known for serving as a backdrop to many movies and TV shows, such as “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and “One Tree Hill.” After a visit to the Moores Creek National Battlefield and a walk through Burgaw’s historic downtown on the Hometown Hollywood Film Tour, be sure to grab a piece of blueberry pie from Olde Carolina Eatery.

ASHEVILLE
Take in the autumnal scenery at one of Asheville’s many rooftop restaurants and bars. Photo courtesy of ExploreAsheville.com

Another great place to spend a fall day is, of course, the mountains. Asheville has a mild climate and elevations that allow for one of the country’s longest seasons of vibrant leaf peeping. Take in the colorful scenery by journeying along a portion of the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, which travels through Asheville. Thousands of Monarch butterflies can be seen migrating to Mexico along the Blue Ridge Mountains’ ridges from mid-September through October.

Proudly known as “Foodtopia,” Asheville is home to James Beard Award-winning restaurants Chai Pani and Cúrate along with hundreds of other restaurants and breweries that help the city live up to its moniker. Be sure to visit Biltmore Estate for an all-encompassing culinary, historical and luxury accommodation experience. Completed in 1895 by George Vanderbilt, the castle was home to his family until the 1950s and remains the largest house in the nation. Another option for an overnight stay is Wrong Way River Lodge & Cabins, which opened Sept. 1. The lodge offers a unique camping experience done the “wrong way:” in stilted A-frame cabins complete with private bathrooms, air conditioning, Wi-Fi and more. Take advantage of the lodge’s curated outdoor adventures, like paddle boarding on the French Broad River or zip lining through Pisgah National Forest, during your stay.

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Brooke Spach

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