Western North Carolina is known as the "Land of the Sky" for its overwhelming array of heavenly vistas. But the sky is only one element of this region's ancient, mountainous beauty.
North Carolina's billowing hills, deep forests and chilled streams in the region's state parks and national forests are just a quick drive away. And the drive alone is worth your while.
To get even more mileage out of your trip, head to these parks in autumn -- when the mountains known for their deep misty blues are ablaze with fiery colors.
For information on these and other parks, visit www.ncparks.gov or www.fs.usda.gov/main/nfsnc/home.
Lose track of time in the Nantahala National Forest
Descend into the Nantahala Gorge for world-class rapids ripe for rafting and kayaking. And bring your fly-fishing rod -- the Nantahala River is packed with trout.
Bikers can hit the Tsali Recreation Area, which is nationally known for its challenging 42-mile mountain-bike trail system.
There are plenty of choice camping spots, including Standing Indian Campground, which has easy access to the Appalachian Trail.
Hike about 11 miles (round-trip) to Cheoah Bald, a section of the Appalachian Trail that brings you up to a grassy meadow with a stunning panoramic view. Don't be alarmed if you automatically burst into song -- it's just that gorgeous.
Don't miss Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, which is home to acres of centuries-old trees. Some of the oldest yellow poplars are more than 20 feet in circumference and stand more than 100 feet tall.
For more info: Visit www.fs.usda.gov/main/nfsnc/home and click on Nantahala, or call 828-257-4200. Or learn more from the Nantahala Outdoor Center at www.noc.com or 800-232-7238.
Source: National Forest Service
The Blue Ridge Parkway: The destination is the journey
Drive to Craggy Gardens for high-altitude floral fanfare: May -- apple blooms, Turk's Cap lilies, violets and, most spectacular, rhododendron, which hits its peak in June.
Head up to Mount Pisgah for mile-high views, hiking trails, camping and a hearty supper and healthy night's sleep at the Pisgah Inn.
Don't be dissuaded by the sinister-sounding names of Devil's Courthouse and Graveyard Fields. These are just two worthwhile hikes along the parkway with views fit for angels.
For more information on the N.C. parkway experience: Visit www.blueridgeparkway.org, and choose North Carolina under the Explore By Region tab, or call the local Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center at 828-298-5330.
Source: Blue Ridge Parkway Association
Take the plunge in Pisgah National Forest
The forest is probably best-known for the giant, bare-faced monolith Looking Glass Rock and for the dazzling, 60-foot plunge of Looking Falls.
Feel like taking a dip? There's no limit to prime swimming holes in this forest. Head to Sliding Rock for a 50-foot natural water slide that spills into a 7-foot-deep pool of water.
Learn about the history of American forest conservation at the 6,500-acre Cradle of Forestry. The site offers trails, interactive visits and a Forest Discovery Center. For more info, visit www.cradleofforestry.com.
Exploring Davidson and North Mills Rivers? Choose the most relaxing means of travel: tubing, which is accessible from the campgrounds at both rivers.
While you're in the area, swing by DuPont State Forest, which is home to a stunning system of waterfalls, including Triple Falls and Bridal Veil Falls.
For more info: Visit www.fs.usda.gov/main/nfsnc/home and click Pisgah, or call 828-257-4200.
Source: National Forest Service
Mount Mitchell: The peak that surpasses them all
Soaring well over 6,000 feet, Mount Mitchell's summit is the highest point east of the Mississippi. Once you're at the top, it will be hard to pull your eyes away from the blue, misty ranges and deep forests surrounding you on all sides.
Location: 2388 State Highway 128 in Burnsville, N.C.
For more info: Visit hwww.ncparks.gov/Visit/parks/momi/main.php or call 828-675-4611.
Source: North Carolina State Parks
-- Compiled by staff writer Kate Harrison