Are you looking for the best places to see the vibrant fall colors in the Smoky Mountains? Look no further! With its old-growth forests and stunning mountain ranges, the Smoky Mountains are a popular destination for fall foliage enthusiasts.
There are several places to take in the fall foliage, but here is a quick list that guarantees breathtaking views, beautiful sunsets, and fall colors!
- Clingmans Dome
- Newfound Gap Road
- Alum Cave Trail
- Foothills Parkway
- Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
The Magic of Fall in the Smoky Mountains
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to over 100 species of trees, many of which are deciduous and turn a brilliant array of colors in the fall.
As the green pigments of chlorophyll break down, the carotenoids and anthocyanins take over, creating the stunning oranges, yellows, and purples that we associate with fall foliage.
Best Time to Visit
If you’re planning to see the fall colors in the Smoky Mountains, the best time to visit is from mid-September to early November. The peak season usually falls in mid-October, but the exact timing varies depending on the weather and elevation.
In general, the higher the elevation, the earlier the leaves change colors. So if you want to catch the fall foliage at the highest elevations, plan your trip for late September or early October.
On the other hand, if you prefer to see the colors at the lower elevations, aim for mid to late October.
It’s worth noting that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park can get quite busy during the fall season, especially during the last three weeks of October. To avoid the crowds, consider visiting during the weekdays or early in the morning.
Here’s a breakdown of what to expect during each month:
- September: The fall colors start to appear at the highest elevations, but the lower elevations are still mostly green.
- Mid-October: This is usually the peak season for fall colors in the Smoky Mountains. The landscape is filled with vibrant hues of red, orange, and yellow.
- Early November: The fall colors start to fade, but there are still some beautiful sights to see, especially at the lower elevations.
Top Locations for Fall Colors
If you’re planning a trip to the Smoky Mountains in the fall, you’re in for a treat. The mountains come alive with vibrant colors of gold, red, yellow, and orange, making it a perfect time to explore the outdoors.
Here are some of the top locations to see the fall colors in the Smoky Mountains:
Cades Cove, an expansive valley surrounded by mountains, offers one of the most compelling vantage points for fall colors in the Smoky Mountains.
As the season turns, the gentle hillsides and historic structures of Cades Cove are accentuated by bursts of crimson, gold, and amber. This is not only a treat for the eyes but also an opportunity for photographers to capture the beauty of the season.
The 11-mile loop road offers stunning views of the mountains and valleys, and the trees put on a spectacular show of colors in the fall.
The iconic loop road through the Cove is an immersive route for witnessing the autumnal transformation. Along the path, you’re likely to encounter white-tailed deer, black bears, and turkeys, offering a unique melding of wildlife viewing and leaf peeping.
Additionally, the presence of historic homesteads and churches in Cades Cove, interspersed among the vibrant foliage, provides a sense of stepping back in time.
Newfound Gap Road is a 33-mile drive that takes you from Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Cherokee, North Carolina, right through the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
As it winds its way through the park, the road reveals some of the most scenic vistas in the Smoky Mountains, making it an ideal route for viewing the fall foliage.
The colors range from vibrant reds and oranges at the lower elevations to golden yellows at the higher elevations.
There are numerous overlooks and pullouts along Newfound Gap Road where you can stop and enjoy the stunning views. One of the most famous is the Newfound Gap overlook itself.
At an elevation of 5,046 feet, Newfound Gap is the lowest drivable pass in the Smoky Mountains, and it offers panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. The Rockefeller Memorial, a tribute to the family who donated the land for the park, is located here and is a popular spot for photographs.
Another notable overlook is the Oconaluftee Valley Overlook, which provides a breathtaking vista of the Oconaluftee River valley. On clear mornings, a beautiful layer of fog often blankets the valley, creating a truly magical scene.
Location: Bryson City, NC 28713
Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Smoky Mountains and offers a panoramic view of the entire landscape.
If you walk to the dome, you can see for miles in all directions! This hiking trail is short but steep. Wear very comfortable shoes to get to the top!
The sunrises and sunsets are particularly beautiful. You don’t want to miss it!
Alum Cave Trail
The Alum Cave Trail, despite its name, is not actually a cave but rather a concave bluff, approximately 80 feet in height. The trail itself is an exhilarating 5-mile round trip hike that gains over 1,000 feet of elevation.
Starting at the trailhead, located off Newfound Gap Road, the first mile will take you through archways of rhododendrons and across log bridges over streams.
As you make your way further up the trail, you’ll pass underneath Alum Cave Bluff, which serves as a good halfway point or turnaround spot for those not wishing to complete the full hike.
If you decide to continue, the trail gets steeper and narrower, leading you to some of the most spectacular views in the park.
Witness Mount LeConte, the third highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and enjoy a panoramic view of the range dressed in fall colors.
Remember to carry water, wear appropriate hiking footwear, and allow 3 to 5 hours to complete this hike. I headed to Log Cabin Pancake House around 7am beforehand and had a plate full of delicious pancakes which was much needed for hours of hiking!
Location: Foothills Pkwy, Townsend, TN 37882
Stretching for 72 miles along the rolling foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee, Foothills Parkway is often touted as “the prettiest drive in America.”
The parkway’s western section, which spans 17 miles between Chilhowee Lake and the town of Townsend, provides particularly breathtaking views of the fall foliage.
There are several pull-offs along the parkway where you can stop and soak in the beautiful views. Notable among these is Look Rock Tower, a popular spot for panoramic vistas.
The journey through Foothills Parkway also offers a less crowded alternative to other drives within the Smoky Mountains National Park, making it an ideal choice for those seeking a peaceful and leisurely drive amidst nature’s splendor.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is an iconic and must-visit location in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
This one-way loop road is replete with stunning natural beauty, offering glimpses of rushing mountain streams, old-growth forest, and an array of historic buildings.
As you traverse this 5.5-mile journey, you’ll be enveloped by the dense forest foliage, while the sound of the Roaring Fork creek guides your way.
In autumn, the trail bursts into a riot of vibrant colors, with leaves painting a picturesque canvas of crimson, gold, and orange.
Wildlife lovers would be delighted to know that Roaring Fork is also a habitat for a variety of animals, including black bears, making a chance encounter quite possible if visited early in the morning or late in the evening.
There are plenty of stops along the way where you can park your vehicle and explore the area on foot. Don’t miss the opportunity to visit the historic structures such as the Jim Bales Place and the Ephraim Bales Cabin, offering a peek into the life of the early settlers.
Location: 576 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN 37738
Located in the heart of Gatlinburg, Anakeesta is a unique outdoor family experience that immerses visitors in the beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains.
The journey begins with a scenic ride on the Chondola, a chairlift gondola, that takes you up to Anakeesta Mountain, where a range of adventures awaits.
In the fall, Anakeesta is transformed into an autumnal paradise with stunning views of the vibrant fall foliage that blankets the Smoky Mountains. The treetop walk, a 16-bridge canopy walk suspended 50-60 feet above the ground, provides unparalleled views of the surrounding landscape.
For the adventure seekers, Anakeesta offers ziplining and a mountain coaster that weaves through the forest. Those looking for a more leisurely experience can explore Vista Gardens, which features botanical gardens, interactive exhibits, and the enchanting Treehouse Village Playground.
At the end of the day, relax and enjoy a meal while overlooking the stunning vistas at Cliff Top Grill & Bar or Pearl’s Pie in the Sky. No matter your preference, Anakeesta offers truly breathtaking views of the Smoky Mountains’ fall colors.
Hiking Trails for Leaf-Peeping
Hiking is one of the best ways to experience the beauty of fall foliage in the Smoky Mountains. Here are some of the best hiking trails for leaf-peeping:
Albright Grove Trail
This easy 0.6-mile trail is perfect for families with young children or anyone looking for a short, leisurely hike.
The trail takes you through a beautiful old-growth forest with towering trees that turn brilliant shades of red, orange, and yellow in the fall.
This moderate 3.6-mile round-trip hike offers stunning views of the fall foliage from the summit of Andrews Bald.
The trail takes you through a lush forest and past several streams before opening up to a grassy meadow with panoramic views of the surrounding mountains.
This strenuous 11-mile round-trip hike is one of the most popular in the Smoky Mountains.
The trail takes you through a variety of ecosystems, from dense forests to open meadows, and offers breathtaking views of the fall foliage from the summit of Mt. LeConte.
Rainbow Falls Trail
Location: Rainbow Fall, Bullhead Parking A
This moderate 5.4-mile round-trip hike takes you through a beautiful forested valley and past several streams before reaching the stunning Rainbow Falls. The trail offers breathtaking views of the fall foliage along the way.
No matter which trail you choose, be sure to wear comfortable shoes, dress in layers, and bring plenty of water and snacks.
And don’t forget your camera – you won’t want to miss the opportunity to capture the stunning fall foliage in the Smoky Mountains.