Fall, as a season, is associated with cozy aesthetics. But its most notable characteristic is the explosion of fall colors from the trees. Reds, yellows, and oranges abound when temperatures fall, and plants stop producing the chlorophyll that makes green leaves.
Why the Smoky Mountains?
The Smokies are a part of the Blue Ridge Mountain Range and are a renowned location to view fall colors. They are home to over a hundred thousand acres of old-growth forest and are cloaked in a hazy vapor that casts a blue accent over the striking reds, oranges, and yellows of fall.
Great Smoky National Park, which covers parts of North Carolina and Tennessee, is perfect for viewing fall colors because of its drivability and proximity to other areas of interest, like Gatlinburg and the Blue Ridge Scenic Byway. Plus, it’s the only national park that doesn’t charge an admission fee. (More information on why they do not charge a fee can be found here, and information on parking fees beginning in 2023 can be found here.)
When planning your trip, know there is no perfect date to see the fall colors. Changes in weather patterns can overturn years of tracking and evidence-based guesses. Even though there is no “best date” to see the colors, there are “best ways.”
Below are the 10 Best Ways to Experience Fall Colors in the Smoky Mountains.
1. Look Rock Observation Tower
Resting on the top of a mountain on Foothills Parkway is the Look Rock Observation Tower, where you can see up to 40 miles and 360-degree views of Smoky Mountain wilderness. The hike to the tower is paved and a 1-mile roundtrip, and there is ample parking at the trailhead. The quaint town of Townsend, TN, and multiple campgrounds are available nearby.
2. Cades Cove Scenic Drive
Cades Cove is a valley in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park rooted in history and highly accessible. A paved road winds through the magnificent scenery. Get your camera ready, as you’re sure to capture beautiful fall colors, historic settlements, and plenty of wildlife. On average, it takes 2-4 hours to drive through Cades Cove, so plan accordingly.
3. Take a Hike
There are countless hikes throughout the Smoky Mountains. But the hikes with sweeping views will show off those fall colors best. Some of the best options include:
- Andrew’s Bald via Forney Ridge Trail: sometimes, taking in the views from above or away from the tree line enhances the experience. It is 3.6-mile roundtrip.
- Appalachian Trail via Newfound Gap: it takes about a week to hike the Smoky Mountains portion of the AT. But you can sample the infamous trail using the trailhead located on Newfound Gap Road. It is 3.4 miles roundtrip.
- Rainbow Falls: for a more challenging hike, check out Rainbow Falls. You will be encased in the stunning scenery while hiking alongside creeks and finishing your hike at a beautiful 80-ft waterfall. It is 5.4 miles roundtrip and strenuous at times.
4. Cabin Weekend
Enjoy the fall colors for longer by booking a weekend or more in the Smokies. There are countless rental companies, Airbnb, and VRBO options. You can choose how close you want to be to urban areas like Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
5. Camping & Glamping
Another way to experience the colors is through camping. There are few camping options in the national park, so consider camping on the outskirts. Glamping in treehouses and yurts is also an excellent option for those who want a mix of rough and refined.
This kid-friendly option is also fun for the whole family. Experience the incredible world of Dolly Parton and revel in the fall colors and décor inside the park. There are so many festivities offered at Dollywood that will make you feel like you’ve stepped right into a fall festival.
What better way to see fall colors than zipping through the trees? Several excellent ziplining companies are operating in the Smoky Mountains. Double up on activities by booking with a company offering guided adventures like ATV rides and rafting.
Think Dollywood, but a little less country and a little chicer. This new “theme park” in Gatlinburg is an incredible destination for the whole family. Kids can enjoy ropes courses and rides in the tree canopy while adults sip beers around firepits with exquisite views. Anakeesta is a one-of-a-kind destination with sweeping views of fall colors.
9. Guided Fishing Trip
Refine your skills or learn something new by taking a guided fishing trip for trout in the mountain streams of the Smokies. You’ll love watching beautiful red, orange, and yellow leaves float along the streams as you swing flies to hungry wild trout. Check out Little River Outfitters for an excellent experience.
10. Smoky Mountain Llama Trek
Hike the Smoky Mountains alongside a team of llamas. Enjoy views from one of three trails offered by Smoky Mountain Llama Treks. Bring lunch and get to know the llamas at the farm. This is an excellent option for kids as the trails are easy to moderate, and they have llamas!
There are so many ways to experience fall colors it’s hard to choose! But the mountains are calling. Answer them. My best advice is to book a weekend so that you can include several options.
Happy Fall, Y’all!