Stunning Fall in the Great Smoky Mountains: Best Things to do + Travel Tips

Planning a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains in fall?

The Great Smoky Mountains are renowned for their splendid fall foliage and fall colors.

Visitors from all over the world come to this beautiful national park to see the fall color display.

Here is an ultimate guide to planning a fall foliage viewing visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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Where is Great Smoky Mountains National Park located?

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most visited national parks in America.

Over 11 million visitors visit the park every year from all around the world.

So exactly where are the Smoky Mountains located?

The Great Smoky Mountains straddle the border of Tennessee and North Carolina and are a part of the Appalachian mountain ranges.

Also Read: Ultimate Tennessee Road Trip Itinerary

The Smoky Mountains National Park has two main entrances.

The Sugarlands Visitor Center is the northern entrance and it is close to Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

The southern entrance is located near Cherokee, North Carolina and is located at the intersection of the Parkway / US 441 and the Blue Ridge Parkway. 

Fun fact: The mountains got their name because they look foggy, smoky blue from a distance.

Also, there is no entrance fee to Smoky Mountain National Park.

Why see the Smoky Mountain fall foliage?

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most popular fall destinations in the USA.

We have been to several national parks known for their fall foliage including Shenandoah National Park and Hot Springs National Park but few can compare to the fall colors in the Smokies.

Fall foliage in the Great Smoky Mountains is known for its diversity, with deciduous trees such as oak and maple covered in reds, oranges, and yellows and conifers like spruce which tend to keep a lot of their foliage throughout fall season.

Best time to see Smoky Mountain Fall Foliage

The best time to plan a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains to see stunning fall foliage is from early October to early November.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is so huge that there are several ‘peak color periods’ for different elevations.

Here is essential information you need to know before planning a trip to see the peak fall colors.

September end to early October

The first leaves start showing fall colors in the Smoky Mountains region around mid September to September end at higher elevations.

This period of scattered fall colors continues to early October.

However, if you visit during early fall you might see an odd splash of color on the scenic drives such as Balsam Mountain Road and Newfound Gap Road but the mountain side will mostly appear green from the overlooks.

On the hiking trails, you can see a few scattered maples and other colorful trees showing fall foliage.

Early October to Mid October

The first noticeable fall colors can be seen during this period.

Trees like sugar maple, scarlet oak, yellow birch, pin cherry, and American beech turn color at higher to mid elevations.

Balsam Mountain Road, Clingmans Dome Road, and the Blue Ridge Parkway are great places to see the fall foliage.

Mid October to October end

Mid October to Late October is a great time to visit to see spectacular display of autumn colors in the park.

Mid and lower elevations are bursting with colors from yellow birch trees, scarlet oak, sugar maple, red maple, sourwood trees, and American beech trees.

The peak season for fall color display usually occurs around the last week of October.

This is also the busiest time of the year for the park as thousands of visitors throng to see the spectacular fall colors.

The native trees in the old growth forest can be best seen from overlooks such as Clingmans Dome, Morton Overlook, and Mt Cammerer Lookout Tower.

The views from higher elevations are stunning at this time.

Hiking is also a great way to experience the fall colors.

October end to early November

This is another great time to visit the Great Smoky Mountains for fall foliage.

The fall colors at higher elevations are past peak but the lower elevations are stunning.

If you visit during this time, plan more waterfall hikes and scenic drives that will let you enjoy the fall colors rather than hiking to summits or observation towers.

Little River Trail is amazing hike to see the fall color in the mid and lower elevations.

Early November to Mid November

Scattered and less vivid fall colors can usually be seen in the Smoky Mountains from early November to mid November, unless a storm occurs.

If you visit around the end of the season, then you might see a lot of bare trees and leaves on the ground as opposed to colorful mountains.

Fall Foliage Report 2021
The earliest reports will be available in Mid September. Check back then for more details.

In general, fall color in the smokies moves from higher elevations in early October to lower ones in early November.

The national park rangers are your best bet to get recommendations for the best fall color viewing areas at the time of your visit, so be sure to stop at the Visitor Centers. 

Overall, fall is one of the most popular time to visit the Smokies.

We would recommend planning your trip early on to get good hotel rates and cheap airfare. 

Related USA Fall Travel Posts:
16 Best Things to do in New York in the fall
Best fall foliage drives in the USA
9 Best Places to view fall foliage in September

Things to do in Smoky Mountains National Park in the fall

Smoky Mountain is popular with outdoor lovers and has plenty of activities like hiking, scenic drives, waterfalls, river tubing, and camping – and all of them are more fun in the fall!

Scenic drives and hiking are two of our favorite ways to explore the fall foliage in the Smokies.

The national park and its gateway towns, as well as smaller communities in the area, also have many fall and harvest festivals.

Fall is also a good time to spot wildlife such as black bears and elk.

Here is a list of our favorite things to do in the fall in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Get fall foliage recommendations at the Sugarlands Visitor Center

Sugarlands Visitor Center, located near Gatlinburg, is the northern entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains.

This is a great place to start your trip.

Visitors can check out the informative exhibits, pick a park map, get souvenirs, and supplies.

The park rangers can recommend age-appropriate activities for kids and even give a Junior Rangers kit.

The park rangers can also help you with fall foliage reports and recommendations as well as recent wildlife sightings.

See the gristmill at Cades Cove amidst fall colors

The Cades Cove Loop Road is one of the most popular  areas of the park.

The 11 mile long loop road can be accessed via the Little River Road from Sugarlands Visitor Center.

Along the route you can see a variety of historic buildings built by early pioneers such as log cabins, churches, and a working grist mill.

The scenic drive is also good place to watch the Smoky mountain wildlife such as deer, black bears, and birds.

The loop also has many trailheads such as the Abrams Fall Trail and the Cades Cove Nature Trail.

Cades Cove also has stunning fall scenery and is one of the best places to see fall colors in the park.

To know more about all the attractions in Cades Cove such as the John Oliver Cabin and Cades Cove Visitor Center,  Rich Mountain scenic drive, and the views from  Gregory Bald, read our guide to Attractions in Cades Cove.

We recommend at least 2 to 4 hours to drive the loop at a leisurely pace. Start early to avoid crowds.

Enjoy one of the best waterfall hikes in America

The Smoky Mountains are home to several famous and gorgeous waterfalls.

It rains heavily in the Smoky Mountains, leading to the formation of many small waterfalls and rivulets throughout the park.

In fact, there are over 100 waterfalls in the park!

While the waterfalls in the Smokies look pretty surrounded by lush green foliage, they look truly magnificent amidst the colorful fall foliage in autumn.

Photographers love the hikes too; the moving water framed by red and orange leaves at show shutter speeds is one of the iconic pictures of the Smoky Mountains!

To choose the best waterfall hike for your next trip, read our guide to the Best Waterfalls in the Smoky Mountains.

So which waterfall trail do you hike?

There are many waterfall hikes inside the Smokies for all skill levels.

For an easy hike, try the pretty Grotto Falls (2.6 miles round-trip) or the cascading Laurel Falls (2.6 miles round-trip).

Grotto Falls can be accessed from Roaring Fork Motor Trail while Laurel Falls is located on the way to Cades Cove.

The parking area and trailhead for Laurel Falls get full pretty fast during fall.

If you are up for a longer trail, hike the 5-mile round-trip Abrams Fall.

Another good option for small kids and families is the less crowded, easy, 1-mile long Cataract Falls trail. 

Spot the Smokies wildlife

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is known for its abundant wildlife.

The park is home to animals such as bears, deer, elk, fox, and bobcats. Several birds also call the Smokies home.

Fall is a great time to see the park wildlife because of cooler temperatures and favorable conditions.

Most visitors are probably excited to see the famous black bears of the Smokies.

The park is also home to a large black bear population of over 1500. The bears are active in the fall as they prepare for hibernation.

You can easily spot the black bears in areas such as Cades Cove Loop Road, around Gatlinburg, on the Laurel Falls and Abrams Falls hiking trails, and in the Cataloochee Valley.

Those who enjoy bird watching can spot many species of resident as well as migratory birds in the fall.

Read our guide on wildlife in the Smokies to maximize your chance of animal sightings.

Admire the fall foliage panoramas from Clingmans Dome

Clingmans Dome is the highest point in Tennessee as well as in the national park.

A short and steep trail takes you up to the spiral viewing platform and observation tower.

The view from the platform is simply gorgeous.

On clear days, you can easily see up to 100 miles.

During fall, you can see the mountains bursting with color dotted by the evergreen spruce and fir trees.

Clingmans Dome can be accessed via the Newfound Gap Road or Parkway US 441.

To reach the trailhead, take the turn to Clingmans Dome Road after Newfound Gap.

You will find a small visitor center and parking lot with stunning views.

The trail is paved and half a mile long but pretty strenuous as it ascends 332 feet in the short distance.

The steep incline can easily tire most visitors and the altitude of 6600 feet above sea level can make things harder – it is common to face breathing difficulties.

We recommend taking things slow, resting on benches along the trail, and sipping water as you reach the top.

You should also plan to go early as the parking lot gets full around noon on busy days.

Keep aside an hour or two for Clingmans Dome and bring warm jackets – if you visit mid-October onwards, the temperature can feel like under 40F due to the wind. 

To know more about the trail and see amazing pictures of the area, read our guide to Clingmans Dome Trail.

Experience the elk rut in Cataloochee Valley

Cataloochee Valley is located in the North Carolina Smokies and is popular for elk watching.

In the 19th century, the Smoky Mountain elk population was almost down to single digits due to extensive hunting. 

About two decades ago, large scale conservation efforts began to reintroduce elks to the area .

Since then the original elks have thrived and grown into a large herd.

They can be easily seen in the wild in the Cataloochee Valley area of the Smokies.

While visitors can spot the elk year-round, fall is the best time to see them in large numbers.

You can also experience the elk rut on a fall trip to the Smokies.

During the rut or mating season, the bulls bugle and fight with other bulls. 

You can take fascinating pictures of the beautiful male elks locked in combat with their horns.

Visitors can take the road to Cataloochee Valley from I-40 and see the elk in the fields from the safety of your car.

Stepping inside the fields is not allowed during the mating season.

Keep your distance from the elks and do not approach or feed them.

The best time to view the herd is around sunrise or sunset.

We would recommend bringing binoculars and telephoto lens to see and photograph the majestic elks. 

Before you head over to Cataloochee Valley, fill up on gas and supplies as there are no amenities in this remote area.

To know other areas where you can see the elk, read our post on Elk in the Smoky Mountains.

Be amazed by the stunning fall colors on scenic drives

The Smoky Mountains have many can’t miss autumn drives!

The Newfound Gap Road is one of the most popular drives for stunning fall foliage views.

The road is 31 miles long and can get quite crowded in the fall.

Some of the best stops along the Newfound Gap Road include the Mingus Mill, Newfound Gap, Appalachian Trail intersection, and Clingmans Dome.

The scenic drive is one of the best places to observe fall colors late in the season.

Also Read: Best scenic drives in the Smokies

Other favorite fall drives are Little River Road and Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

Little River Road is an 18-mile road that begins near the Sugarland Visitor Center and leads to Cades Cove.

The road has several interesting attractions such as the popular Laurel Falls, Meigs Falls, the Sinks, and charming picnic areas along the Little River.

For a road trip away from the crowds, drive along the 5.5 mile Roaring Fork Motor Trail.

Here you can enjoy fall colors, historic cabins, waterfalls, and grist mills located along the Roaring Fork Stream.

Looking for some thrill?

The Tail of the Dragon or Highway 129 is another scenic road that is great for motorcyclists.

Read our Guide to driving the Dragons Tail at Deals Gap here.

Things to do near Gatlinburg and surroundings in fall

The towns and cities in the Smoky Mountains have many events and festivals lined up in fall.

These charming mountain towns look pretty when decorated in harvest themes and are very popular with visitors.

From arts and craft festivals to Oktoberfest, here are the best things to do in the Smokies in fall.

Attend the Smoky Mountain Harvest Festival in Gatlinburg

Gatlinburg’s Harvest Festival is one of the biggest fall festivals in the Smokies region.

The Festival lasts from mid September to mid November and has a variety of events to enjoy Autumn in the Smokies.

During the festival, you will find charming harvest and fall-themed décor throughout the town of Gatlinburg: pumpkins, scarecrows, fall wreaths, and pinecones galore!

You will find storytelling events where Appalachians dressed in period costumes narrate about early settler life in the region and share local legends.

Gatlinburg Ghost Walks are held at night to celebrate the spooky side of the town.

Arts and crafts fairs display works of local artists and are great for those who like to shop locally.

Take a Fontana Lake Fall Foliage Cruise

One of the most underrated attractions in the Smokies is the Fontana Lake located near Bryson City, North Carolina.

The Fontana Dam and Visitor Center is also located here.

Fontana Dam is the largest dam east of the Mississippi.

The Visitor Center has lots of interesting information on the dam and offers great views of Fontana Lake.

The lake looks especially lovely during fall when the surrounding trees are bursting with fall colors.

Visitors have several options to explore the fall colors from the water.

Take a guided fall foliage cruise on Fontana Lake or rent your own pontoon to spend a day on the water.

Outdoor lovers can also launch kayaks or canoes from the Fontana Marina. Bring your own or rent one from the nearby gear suppliers.

Celebrate Oktoberfest at Ober Gatlinburg

Ober Gatlinburg is an amusement park & ski resort located in the mountains above Gatlinburg.

It has indoor as well as outdoor amusement area including attractions such as ice rink, chair swing, mini-golf, rock climbing wall, restaurants, gift shops, etc.

You can reach Ober Gatlinburg by taking an aerial tram from Gatlinburg.

The aerial tram offers some of the best views in the Smokies.

In fall, Ober Gatlinburg celebrates Oktoberfest.

You can drink beer by the liter in the signature Oktoberfest mugs and eat German food such as pretzels, schnitzels, bratwurst, and more.

Other attractions during Oktoberfest include Bavarian music and dances to celebrate the festival. 

Enjoy the frights at Anakeesta

Anakeesta is an adventure theme park in Gatlinburg.

It has zip lines, gondola rides, treetop play areas, hikes, kids playground, rollercoaster, and swinging bridges.

Anakeesta is located on the mountain top, just like Ober, and you need to take a chairlift to reach the park.

The views from the top of the mountain are beautiful.

In October, Anakeesta celebrates Halloween by having special fright attractions such as the Legend of Hallow Mountain.

As part of the event, you can experience ziplining at night along with the zombies and explore a haunted graveyard in the dark.

While we won’t recommend this attraction for younger kids, it is perfect for preteens and teens. 

Ride the Great Smoky Mountain Steam Train

Last, but not least!

The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad is an amazing way to experience the fall foliage in the Smokies.

You can ride either the steam train excursions or the electric train.

The ride will take you through the mountains, tunnels, and bridges of the Smokies.

Along the way, you will be treated to beautiful fall views.

The special fall foliage excursion will take you along the Tuckasegee River, over Fontana Lake, and the Fontana trestle bridge through the Nantahala Gorge.

The ride is a favorite with families and kids. 

Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway

Another great destination near the Great Smokies to witness fall foliage is the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the best road trips in America.

The Blue Ridge Parkway connects the Smoky Mountains to Shenandoah National Park and is an excellent fall road trip.

The parkway has many scenic overlooks and stops where you can pull over, get out of your car and take a moment to enjoy the views.

Where to stay near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park?

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has a couple of gateway towns and communities.

The most popular gateway town is Gatlinburg in Tennessee.

Try the Belle Aire Motel for a central location and budget options.

The Southern Appalachian communities of Pigeon Forge and Sevierville, which are located close to Gatlinburg, are also great bases for your visit to the Smokies.

If you are coming from the North Carolina side, then the communities of Cherokee and Bryson City are good for a stay. 

Whichever town you chose to base yourself, you need to rent a log cabin.

The Smokies are popular for their rustic style pine or other cabins that feel so warm and cozy!

Alternatively, you can go camping to spend more time in the park itself.

Many Airbnb cabins are also located close to the Smokies. 

Also Read: Best National Parks to Camp in the US

With so many things to do in the fall in the Smokies, the national park is one of our favorite fall destinations in America.

Did you enjoy our post on fall activities in the Great Smoky Mountains?

What are your favorite fall activities in the smokies? Let us know in the comments!

Other Smoky Mountain Travel Guides

Gatlinburg and Smoky Mountains Itinerary

Atlanta to Smoky Mountains Road Trip

1 thought on “Stunning Fall in the Great Smoky Mountains: Best Things to do + Travel Tips”

  1. One of my favorite highlights on our visits was the beautiful section of the Foothills Parkway in Cosby, Tn. The beautiful fall foilage and the gorgeous Cosby valley is breathtaking and not much crowds. We continue on and take I 40 to Maggie Valley and visit Cataloochee.

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