CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Remote mountaintop roadways with tranquil vistas that plummet to valley-tucked creeks filled with silver trout. ... These are the scenes Carolyn Sakowski lives for. The president of John F. Blair publishing is also a traveler - and author.
She was raised in Morganton, and wrote Touring the Western North Carolina Backroads, which the firm published in 1990. It was updated five years later and retooled again this year. The 2011 edition ($19.95) took a year - and 4,000 miles of driving - to update.
We asked her to share four driving trips great for fall. Just grab your road map and car keys.
Elk Knob and the New River
One - right outside Boone on U.S. 421, at Deep Gap - goes to the communities of Todd and Meat Camp, then up to Elk Knob State Park, where you'll see some stunning views. There's a 3.2-mile round-trip hike to the top; on a clear day you can see 60 miles in every direction. And there's stunning fall scenery up there: the kind of maple that gives you stunning color.
Continue to Trade, Tenn., then come back on U.S. 421 to Boone.
It's all paved roads. Going down the backside of Elk Knob, you'll have some switchbacks, but the rest is pretty much through flat valleys. Todd is right along the New River, which is beautiful.
Meat Camp began as an early packing house for long hunters - people like Daniel Boone, who would go to the frontier and bring back a winter supply of deer and bear and even buffalo. They'd hang the meat there to dry while they went out to catch more. There's not much there - a cute community store, a volunteer fire department and a Baptist church.
There's an outfitter in Todd: You can rent bicycles and ride along the New River, or take a float trip.
Shuttles take you up the river and you float back to Todd. The river is beautiful; there's not much development and is edged by largely intact farms. The water there is easygoing: There are no high-class rapids in the area.
Just the drive: If you just drove, it would take an hour and a half. Color peaks in Watauga County's higher elevations around mid-October. Elk Knob, elevation 5,400, peaks first.
Hot Springs and the French Broad River
Leaving Asheville, take U.S. 25/70 to Hot Springs. You'll drive along the French Broad River to a place called Paint Rock, which surveyors used to determine the N.C./Tennessee border. The Cherokee used it as a landmark and at night had fires at the bottom of it; the smoke made some of the rock darker.
Pass that and go on the Paint Creek Corridor, a very scenic, little-known road (Tenn. 70) that follows a creek that has cascades along the way. It's in Cherokee National Forest, and not in an open valley: You follow the creek through an understory of the forest.
Many who fish know about this: It's a big trout area.
At the end of the Paint Creek Corridor, come back into North Carolina along Big Laurel Creek - also very scenic and great for trout. At the community of Walnut, get on U.S. 25/70, which will take you back to Asheville.
There's a lot to do in Hot Springs: Sulphur springs are like hot tubs right along the river. Hot Springs is right on the Appalachian Trail, so there are four or five restaurants, and a beautiful B&B called Magnolia Mountain Inn that was built in 1868. It's formerly a mansion and has been restored.
There are outfitters in Hot Springs, so you can go on rafting trips. There are lots of hiking and picnic opportunities. There are nice picnic grounds all along the river.
Just the drive: Leaving and returning to Asheville, it's probably an hour and a half.
It's one of my favorites, but definitely a weekend trip: The drive starts in Robbinsville, in the western tip of the state, close to 3 1/2 hours from Charlotte.
The Cherohala Skyway is 43 miles, across the ridges of mountains at an elevation of 5,400 feet. It was completed in 1996 and is very much like the Blue Ridge Parkway: There's no commercial advertising anywhere, lots of overlooks and places where you can picnic. It's a popular road for people who want to do a little driving; people with sports cars and motorcycles love it.
It's a designated wilderness area on both sides of the ridgetop; there are terrific panoramic views - mostly of broadleaf trees, so you great deal of color if you're there during early peak season.
At the other end is Tellico Plains, Tenn. Right before you get there, a side road goes to Bald River Falls, a waterfall that's right on the highway. That's nice for those who have a hard time hiking - and it's stunning.
Robbinsville is kind of interesting. It has a museum about Junaluska, the famous Cherokee chief who is buried there. The museum covers a lot of Cherokee history.
Be aware that it's hard to find gas on the Cherohala Skyway: Like the BRP, there are no gas stations or convenience stores. Right outside Robbinsville is probably the last place you can get fuel.
Just the drive: The route takes about two hours. Like the Parkway, the speed limit is 45; just take it a little slowly. Peak for leaves? The first and second weeks of October.
Celo and Burnsville
From Marion, take N.C. 80 northwest to Lake Tahoma, then straight up the mountains to the community of Celo, then west on U.S. 19E to Burnsville. When you're going through the Celo Valley, you're paralleling the Black Mountains, whose peaks include Mount Mitchell, which is an easy side trip near where you go under the Blue Ridge Parkway. You'll get some nice views.
Burnsville is an interesting little community with a little square, lots of shops and several good restaurants - it's kind of an upscale place, with people moving in from crowded Asheville. A good restaurant there is the Garden Deli, a casual place where everything - like sandwiches and salads - is homemade.
Celo is an artistic community. The Penland School is nearby, and many who are in its arts program like the area so much that they stay. Artists, potters and weavers have studios there and along the Celo Valley.
Many visitors go tubing on the South Toe River, and some convenience stores in the valley rent inner tubes. Carolina Hemlock, a national forest picnic area, even has a place where you can easily enter the water with your tube and float down the slow-moving Toe. The water is shallow; this is something even kids can do. You don't have to worry about capsizing.
When you reach Burnsville, you can go due west and hook straight into I-26 and get to Asheville. Or, you can turn around and retrace your way back.
Just the drive: If you started your drive to Marion from Asheville and did the loop, the total drive is 90 minutes to two hours.