Personally, I have the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina on speed dial. I love the Smokies (who doesn’t), but my preference for road trips is the pyramids of multiple hues of blue spread across the horizon. They wear clouds like casually tossed boas.

And now, in autumn, Mother Nature paints these peaks and valleys with broad swaths of reds, oranges, yellows, gold and purple. October blue skies meet the mountains head on.

I love the small towns and villages from Blowing Rock to Highlands to Cashiers to Waynesville. They’re all charming, welcoming and immersed in nature. But I also love Asheville, an eclectic city that beckons visitors of all ilk, including hikers. Hundreds of trails and thousands of miles to explore lay out a welcome mat of options.

Choose easy to moderate to strenuous hikes. Lace up those hiking boots and take to trails by roaring waterfalls, steep summits with views of forever, pathways filled with wildflowers or mountain streams.

Among the trails close to the city are the Biltmore Estate trails, Craven Gap and Lookout Mountain. There’s even an easy 1.5-mile path through botanic gardens.

Hop on the magnificent Blue Ridge Parkway by vehicle. The scenery is stunning with myriad trail heads from which to choose. The drive is magnificent and even more so for convertibles and motorcycles.

The Parkway leaves civilization in the rearview mirror. Ahead, nature’s crowning glories with heart stopping vistas any time of year, but of course, particularly beckoning immersed in autumn’s bold palate. These original masterpieces by Mother Nature calm the soul and heart. And redefine social distancing.

A bonus for hikers and leaf peepers, Asheville is known for having one of the world’s longest fall color seasons. These mountains boast extreme elevations, from 1,500 feet in the valleys to 6,684 feet at Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi River.

Both brilliant and subdued color descends the mountains for a transition that can span multiple months. Color began in late September and is expected to last into mid-November. More than 100 species of leaf shedding trees are rooted in micro-climates, awash with color and wildlife.

The ExploreAsheville.com website offers weekly color reports, and even an animated color-progression map of peaking fall leaves. Also, ask Alexa for the Asheville Hike Finder. She even assists with insider guidance to help select trails, both prominent and off the beaten path.

Who knew?

Asheville is unique in offering hikers numerous picnics packed to go, blanket included. No need to forage a grocery store for snacks or a meal. The Asheville Picnic Company creates locally sourced to go meals to slip into a backpack. One of my favorite picnic meals comes from The Rhu Bakery and Café by award-winning chef John Fleer, a Blackberry Farm in Tennessee acclaimed alum. He also owns Rhubarb, one of my favorite eateries in town.

If hiking isn’t your thing, rest assured Asheville has a stacked deck of other calling cards like the Biltmore Estate, a historic estate nestled on 8,000 acres. It’s a must see at least once. With COVID-19 safety at the forefront, tickets are less numerous; reservations a must.

Asheville itself is a time warp eclectic mixture of open-air markets, tailgate farmers markets and independent shops and boutiques. Masks are mandated inside and outside in North Carolina. People watching is superb as folks dressed in tie dye mix and mingle with golf shirt clad locals.

My favorite spot in town is Pack Square, packed with numerous restaurants and cuisines where eatery owners have taken the spirit of creativity that defines Asheville to create dining in the time of COVID-19. Parks, sidewalks and even tented parking lots offer virus defying al fresco tables with a view.

For fine French dining, Buchon is a two-thumbs-up experience. Tables are separated by plexiglass; the food is divine.

First-time Asheville visitors Donna and John Brevard visited Asheville over Labor Day weekend.

“We were taken aback by the atmosphere of the city. It’s earthy and organic. There’s lots of 1970’s fashion, strappy sandals, jeans, long skirts, all in a very casual atmosphere. We were overdressed with John in a golf shirt and I in a dress,” Donna says. “We wandered the streets enjoying the people and places. We highly recommend the French Broad Chocolate Lounge for dessert. A long line at the door and our 30-minute wait was well worth it. We had the most decadent chocolate ice cream and shared a chocolate dipped cookie.”

The couple stayed downtown at the Foundry Hotel, an old steel factory that provided steel during the construction of the Biltmore. They also visited the Biltmore and a number of delectable restaurants.

They liked Asheville so much, they extended their visit. All bets say they’ll go back, now that they’ve discovered it, and so will you, whether a first-time visitor or a seasoned one. It’s just such a special, eclectic place.

Accommodations are plentiful, from four-star hotels like the Inn on Biltmore and the historic Grove Park Inn to cabin rentals and B&Bs. For cabin rentals, check out Greybeard Rentals, Carolina Mornings and Yonder Luxury Vacation Rentals.

Despite COVID-19, Asheville is bustling here in autumn. Don’t overlook the B&Bs on Montford Avenue in the historic district. Spacious with few guests, these are my go-to accommodations.

In these dreadful COVID-19 times, Asheville feels like a safe place to land for a weekend or a week. Mountain trails sure aren’t high traffic; downtown is filled with safety and mask signage. Crowds are certainly smaller this year.

From my first visit decades ago, Asheville has been an A in my book. Oh, and I hear the phone ringing. The Blue Ridge Mountains are calling; I can’t answer the phone fast enough.

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