Image: Asheville, N.C.
AP
A hot air balloon above Asheville, N.C., with the Blue Ridge Mountains in the background
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updated 9/13/2010 1:58:31 PM ET 2010-09-13T17:58:31

They're called the Blue Ridge Mountains, but in Asheville in the fall, they might as well be called the orange, red and yellow.

The city of 76,000 in Western North Carolina with a small-town, artsy feel, has become a big-time fall foliage destination, not just for the leaves but also for festivals celebrating the area's arts culture, beer and bluegrass music. The mix of things to see and do is especially appealing for fall travelers looking for an alternative to New England's better-known but sometimes crowded autumn byways.

There's no better place in the Asheville area to see the leaves than the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. The parkway intersects Asheville in several places and has miles of scenic overlooks, as well as the highest peak in the eastern U.S., and connections to hiking trails.

Starting Sept. 15, the Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau will send out its weekly color reports to help tourists plan foliage excursions with hiking, viewing and activities tips.

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And unlike New England and other parts of the Northeast, where foliage radically fades after Columbus Day, the season is longer in the South.

"We see color here all the way through, well into November, depending on the weather," said spokeswoman Dodie Stephens, though she noted that "If we start to see those cold snaps early on, it can go relatively quickly."

Here's how to make the most of this fleeting, natural spectacle:

NATURE: Pick up the Blue Ridge Parkway, a stretch of 469 miles from the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Its roads wind and climb through the mountains, giving expansive views of Western North Carolina. You can travel the roadway by car or bicycle. Make sure to visit the top of Mount Mitchell, an easy, but scenic hike from the parking lot. Check out the park's restaurant on top of the mountain and enjoy the views. Sign up for the visitors bureau's color reports at http://www.fallinthemountains.com or follow them on Twitter at FallColorHunter.

ACTIVITIES: With fall foliage as your backdrop, take a hike or go a little faster on a tour by Segway or Jeep. The visitors bureau lists activities at http://www.fallinthemountains.com and ranks them based on difficulty to make planning easy. Free hikes are separately listed for early, mid and late fall, and because leaves change first at higher altitudes, the earliest hikes of the season are higher up. You can even go in the company of a llama. The animals will carry your bags and enjoy your hike with you, promises English Mountain Llama Treks at http://www.hikinginthesmokies.com/. One-day treks with lunch range from $75 to $100.

Zip-line tours, new this year to Asheville, let you fly through the trees and climb bridges up high. Navitat Canopy Adventures at http://www.navitat.com offers 3.5-hour tours for $85 per adult.

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Float in the clouds as high as 2,000 feet in a hot air balloon ride for $225 per person with Asheville Hot Air Balloons, http://www.ashevillehotairballoons.com/.

Or glide along on the ground with the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, http://www.gsmr.com/. Its October Leaf Season trips run daily, while the Great Pumpkin Patch Express runs on weekends. The Express has Peanuts characters, apple-bobbing and more. Wear your costumes. Round-trip coach is $53 for adults and $31 for children under 12 in October.

FESTIVALS: The biannual Lake Eden Arts Festival, or LEAF — http://www.theleaf.com/ — runs from Oct. 20-23 this year in nearby Black Mountain at the site of the former Black Mountain College, an influential part of the Beat movement — and part of the reason for Asheville's artsy vibe. The festival offers arts, activities such as yoga, musical headliners (Indigo Girls this year) and onsite camping. Tickets must be bought in advance. Attendance is limited to 5,500 people.

The North Carolina Mountain State Fair — http://www.mountainfair.org — has crafts, farm animals, and music from Sept. 10-19 in Fletcher ($7 for adults).

The Biltmore — the Vanderbilt family estate and America's largest home — has concerts on its expansive terrace, with beautiful views of the changing trees. Remaining dates this fall are Sept. 24 featuring Christopher Cross and on Oct. 1, with Kathy Mattea. (Tickets for the concerts and general admission to the mansion start at $78.) To just visit the home, buy your tickets online for a discount. Adult one-day tickets are $5 off ($55) through October. You can get two days for the price of one for tickets booked online in September.

Plan ahead — as in, next year — for tickets to Asheville's flagship beer event, the Brewgrass festival, which perennially sells out, as this year's Sept. 18 event did. It pairs local breweries and bluegrass music; http://brewgrassfestival.com/.

GETTING THERE: Flying into Charlotte may save you several hundred dollars over flying into the smaller airport at Asheville. And the savings will more than pay for a rental car to drive you the pleasant two hours between the cities. A weekend trip from New York to Charlotte costs about $160 nonstop, but to Asheville on the same dates it's $340.

Lodging options abound, from rates of about $100 for Best Western and Holiday Inn, to the more expensive The Residences at Biltmore for $260 per night.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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