Everyone knows about New England’s showcase of vibrant fall colors that draw visitors to its storybook villages and rolling hills. But did you know that the Smoky Mountains puts on its own stunning display of gold, red, yellow, and orange as the temperatures cool down and the days shorten? It’s another great reason to venture out to eastern Tennessee and take a break from your hectic everyday life.
Once a fairly well-kept secret, the Smoky Mountain fall colors also now bring waves of visitors to the Gatlinburg and Asheville areas, mostly in October. While not as numerous as the summertime crowds, they are still quite massive and often flock to the most popular areas of the park.
Running along the Tennessee and North Carolina border, the Great Smoky Mountains is a subrange of the Appalachian Mountains. Covered in old growth forest, the mountain range is a beautiful sight to behold during the fall. People from the Southeast and beyond visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park every autumn just to see the blanket of colors.
We often get questions about planning to see the Smoky Mountain fall colors, so we’ve put together a guide with everything that you need to know. Keep reading to learn about fall leaves, when you should plan a visit, and the best ways to see the colorful trees.
How Smoky Mountains Fall Foliage Works
The gorgeous, vibrant colors of tree leaves mark the end of summer and tree hibernation for the winter. Perennial trees hibernate in order to protect themselves from the freezing temperatures.
This process starts with the slowed production of chlorophyll, which is what makes leaves green. Trees slowly close the veins that carry nutrients and water to their leaves. At the same time, a new layer of cells forms to protect their limbs and trunks. As the chlorophyll fades, other components that produce different colors become more prominent — beta-carotene makes leaves orange, anthocyanin makes them red, and flavonol makes them yellow.
The leaves on different species of trees show an array of colors depending on how much of these components that they contain or produce. That’s why the Smoky Mountain fall colors are so amazing. The mountain range has more than 100 native tree species, and most of them are deciduous trees.
The purpose of the leaves falling is twofold. First, it protects the trees from becoming damaged and dying. Without nutrients and water, the leaves weaken at the stem and eventually fall to the ground. Second, the leaves decompose and act as fertilizer for the soil and healthy plants when spring arrives again.
Best Time to Visit Smoky Mountains for Fall Colors
The best time to see Smoky Mountain fall foliage is anywhere from mid-October to early November in the mid and lower elevations. The landscape here is populated with sugar maples, hickories, sweetgum, scarlet oaks, red maples, and nearly 100 other species of native trees. This colorful show from Mother Nature will last seven weeks or more, depending on temperatures, the length of the day, and other factors. For that reason, it’s always difficult to determine a peak foliage forecast in the Smokies.
Basically, the farther up the mountains that you go, the cooler the weather and the earlier that the colors begin to emerge. In the Great Smoky Mountains, trees begin to enter hibernation as early as mid-September, especially deciduous trees — such as American beech, pin cherry, and yellow birch trees — at high elevations of over 5,500 feet. Such areas include Chimney Tops, Newfound Gap, and Mt. Le Conte in Tennessee as well as Andrews Bald, Balsam Mountain, and Clingmans Dome in North Carolina.
As a result, the colorful trees can last for seven or more weeks depending on the weather. In fact, you could see fall foliage in the Smoky Mountains as late as early November. Rain is vital during the month before the process begins. After that, the trees need the weather to be cool, dry, and sunny for the colors to pop.
However, you’re guaranteed to see fall foliage during the early to mid-October peak. During this time, trees at elevations of 2,000 to 3,000 feet turn color — such areas include Cataloochee Valley and Oconalufee in North Carolina. During this time, you’ll also be able to see the spectacular display of hickory, red maple, scarlet oak, sugar maple, and sweet gum trees.
Despite that, there’s still an opportunity to see fall colors in late October to early November. This is when trees at lower elevations begin to hibernate — such as in Cades Cove in Tennessee.
When You Should Plan Your Smoky Mountains Peak Fall Colors Trip
You should plan your visit to the Great Smoky Mountains based on where you intend to go and when the trees at that elevation start to produce color. During early October, you can see bold yellows on American beech trees and yellow birch trees. You should see rich reds on mountain ash trees, mountain maple trees, and pin cherry trees.
Smoky Mountain fall colors in mid-October include bold reds on black gum, dogwood, sumac, and sourwood trees. You can also see golden yellow leaves on beech, black walnut, birch, hickory, and tulip tree species. Similar colors from these species of trees continue to emerge down the mountains.
Because of the fall foliage peak, October is a busy month in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and surrounding areas. The last three weeks tend to have the most visitors. If you plan to visit during this time, we recommend that you schedule your trip at least two or three months in advance. Doing so will ensure that you can reserve lodging for your stay.
Best Places to See Smoky Mountain Fall Colors
Since fall foliage lasts for so long across the Great Smoky Mountains, there are plenty of ways to see the colors.
You will find countless places to enjoy stunning views of the fall colors in the Smoky Mountains around both Gatlinburg and Asheville. Plan on traveling to Clingmans Dome Road, the Foothills Parkway, and the Blue Ridge Parkway. If you head into the Cosby entrance into the National Park, you’ll also likely encounter less traffic and fewer crowds. Asheville has many options to enjoy the foliage and activities when you are done with your outing. Gatlinburg has plenty of fall-related events as well.
Below is a comprehensive list of the best Smoky Mountains fall scenic drives, hiking trails, attractions, and aerial tours.
Smoky Mountain Scenic Drives in Fall
It’s no surprise that visitors love to see the Smoky Mountain fall colors by taking scenic drives through the national park. Because the park is so expansive, many roads offer scenic views of the fall foliage. Keep in mind that you may come across traffic as others visit the mountains to see the colorful show. Allow plenty of time to reach your destination and leave in the morning if possible.
The Foothills Parkway runs from Wears Valley to Tallahassee, and plans to extend it to Cosby are ongoing. Without traffic, it takes about 45 minutes to drive the entire 33-mile stretch of road. We suggest pulling over to stretch your legs and take in the breathtaking views.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
In Gatlinburg, you can drive the 5.5-mile Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. This winding loop is a narrow, one-way road that involves driving Cherokee Orchard Road to access it. Along the way, you can stop at Noah “Bud” Ogle Cabin — a historic site that consists of a walking tour of a late 19th-century log cabin, four-pen barn, and tubmill.
Just after the farmstead, you’ll come to the 2.7-mile Rainbow Falls trail, which is one of the most popular in the park. Next is the entrance to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, which passes by the 1.3-mile Grotto Falls trail, 3-mile Baskins Creek Falls trail, Grapeyard Ridge trail, Alex Cole Cabin, and Place of a Thousand Drips.
Cades Cove Loop Road
In Cades Cove, there’s an 11-mile, one-way loop road that allows you to sightsee at your leisure. With traffic, it could take about four hours to circle the entire cove. However, the trip is worth it for remarkable views of the fall colors.
Newfound Gap Road
At 5,046 feet in elevation, Newfound Gap has the lowest drivable pass through the national park. It stretches from Gatlinburg in Tennessee to Cherokee in North Carolina and has one of the most diverse forest ecosystems, making for exquisitely colorful leaves.
Blue Ridge Parkway
Stretching for 469 miles through North Carolina and Virginia, the Blue Ridge Parkway isn’t far from Gatlinburg. Actually, Newfound Gap Road connects to the south end shortly after passing the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Cherokee. It has tons of overlooks and other places where you can stop to gander at the changing leaves.
Balsam Mountain Road
Officially named Heintooga Spur Road, Balsam Mountain Road is a one-way scenic drive that starts from the Blue Ridge Parkway in Laurel Springs, North Carolina. Eventually, the road turns into Straight Fork Road, which connects to Big Cove Road and returns to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Along the drive are several overlooks with wonderful views of the mountains and valleys.
If you prefer to be closer to the fall colors, hiking is a wonderful alternative to taking a scenic drive. In addition to the hiking trails that you’ll come across on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, the Great Smoky Mountains has tons of trails that let you walk among the colorful leaves. Here are a few of our favorites in Tennessee:
- Lower Mount Cammerer Trail is an 11.1-mile, moderately difficult trail in Cosby
- Albright Grove Loop is a 6.7-mile, moderately difficult trail in Cosby
- Little River Trail is a 4.9-mile, easy trail in Elkmont
- Goshen Prong Trail is an 8.6-mile, difficult trail that connects to the Little River Trail
- Sugarland Mountain Trail is a 7-mile, moderately difficult trail on Clingmans Dome Road in Gatlinburg
- Chestnut Top Trail is an 8.6-mile, moderately difficult trail in Townsend
- Rich Mountain Loop is an 8.5-mile, moderately difficult trail in Cades Cove
Another incredible option is the Appalachian Trail, which runs along the Tennessee border with North Carolina. This massive trail actually stretches across 14 states, starting at Springer Mountain, Georgia, and ending at the northern terminus at Katahdin, Maine.
On the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains, you’ll find even more hiking trails. While Clingmans Dome Road in Bryson City is nice to drive, hiking to Clingmans Dome gives you more of an opportunity to photograph the fall foliage. The 0.5-mile trail can be moderate to difficult to trek to this highest point in the park.
In Cherokee, the Smokemont Loop is moderately difficult and 6.5 miles. The Oconaluftee River Trail is a 3-mile path in the reservation that’s easier to trek.
Although a less common way to see the Smoky Mountain fall colors, aerial tours offer some of the most breathtaking experiences. Several helicopter and plane tour companies provide sky-high views of the changing leaves. We put together a list of them all for you:
- Scenic Helicopter Tours
- Smoky Mountain Helicopters
- Sevier County Choppers
- East Tennessee Helicopters Inc.
- Sevier County Aviation
- Sky High Air Tours
Attractions in Pigeon Forge & Gatlinburg
Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg have a number of attractions that take you to impressive heights to see the fall foliage. In Pigeon Forge, The Island has the Great Smoky Mountain Wheel and Dollywood has the Drop Line. In Gatlinburg, Anakeesta and Gatlinburg SkyLift Park have multiple ways to see the colors. The city is also home to the Gatlinburg Space Needle and Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway.
Where to Stay to See Fall Foliage in the Smoky Mountains
For a respite from exploring the Smoky Mountain fall colors, book a stay at Christopher Place. We’re hidden among 200 acres of forest, and our luxury bed and breakfast overlooks the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
While you’re here, you can relax in a tranquil room or suite and take advantage of our upscale amenities. Additionally, we offer romantic, intimate fine dining in our Mountain View Dining Room. Contact us to learn more and reserve lodging for your fall getaway.