Are you visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the fall and searching for the best things to do to enjoy the foliage? Read our guide to explore the best of the Smokies in fall along with things to do, best fall hikes, and more. Also, read our post on 17 Best National Parks to visit in the USA for fall foliage.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most popular fall destinations in the USA. It is also one of the most visited national parks in the country and has over 11 million annual visitors. We have been to several national parks in the fall including Shenandoah National Park and Hot Springs National Park, which are also known for their fall foliage but none of them are as spectacular as the Smokies.
So exactly where are the Smokies? The Smokies straddle the border of Tennessee and North Carolina and are a part of the Appalachian mountains. The Blue Ridge Parkway connects the Smokies to Shenandoah and is an excellent fall road trip. The mountains got their name because they look foggy, smoky blue from a distance. Also, did you know that there is no entrance fee to Smoky Mountain National Park? That’s right, the Smokies are basically free! Here is everything you need to know to plan a fall trip to the Smokies.
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When to visit the Smokies to see the fall foliage?
The leaves start turning color in the Smoky Mountains area in early October. Mid-October to October end is a great time to visit to see lots of fall foliage. The fall colors usually continue up to the early-November or mid-November unless a storm occurs. The peak color usually occurs around October end however this is also the busiest time of the year for the park. 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. We would recommend planning your trip early on to get good hotel rates and cheap airfare.
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. The Southern Appalachian communities of Pigeon Forge and Sevierville, which are located close to Gatlinburg, is also a great base 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! We stayed in just such a cabin and I didn’t feel like leaving at the end of our trip. Alternatively, you can camp to spend more time in the park itself. Many Airbnb cabins are also located close to the Smokies. Or try the Belle Aire Motel for a central location and budget options.
Best Things to do in Smoky Mountains National Park in the fall
Smoky Mountain is popular with outdoor lovers and almost all activities in the park are more beautiful and fun in fall. The national park and its gateway towns, as well as smaller communities in the area, also have many fall festivals. There are plenty of leaf-peeping opportunities everywhere and the trails look stunning in fall. Fall is also a good time to spot wildlife. Scenic drives and hiking are two of our favorite ways to explore the fall foliage in the Smokies. Here is a list of our favorite things to do in the fall in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Start your trip at the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg
If you are visiting from Gatlinburg, Sugarlands Visitor Center is a great place to start your trip. We love checking out the visitor centers at National Parks as they have many informative exhibits and the park rangers are great at recommending age-appropriate activities for our kids. Also, fall color in the smokies moves from higher elevations in early October to lower ones in early November and the rangers are your best bet to get recommendations for the best fall color viewing areas.
Climb up to Clingmans Dome Tower to get a panoramic view of the fall foliage
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/observation tower. The view from the platform is gorgeous. On clear days, you can see up to 100 miles. During fall, you can see the mountains bursting with color along with spruce and fir trees. To reach the trailhead, drive along Clingmans Dome Road till you reach the parking lot. Even the parking area has gorgeous views. The trail is paved and half a mile long but pretty strenuous as it ascends 332 feet in that 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.
Hike up to one of the pretty waterfalls
The Smoky Mountains are known for their pretty waterfalls. It rains heavily in the park, leading to the formation of many small waterfalls and rivulets in almost all places within the park. However, the park’s biggest falls are just stunning and waterfall hiking is a must experience in the Smokies. Hikes to the waterfall are popular spots with tourists on hot summer days as well as colorful fall days. The flowing water framed by red and orange leaves is one of the iconic pictures of the Smokies.
So which waterfall trail do you hike? There are many waterfall hikes inside the Smokies. 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.
Experience the elk rut in Cataloochee Valley
Cataloochee Valley is located in the North Carolina Smokies and is popular for elk watching. The Smoky Mountains elk were all but wiped out due to hunting in the 19th century but later conservation efforts reintroduced the elk to the area about two decades ago. Since then the original elks have thrived and grown into a large herd and can be seen in the wild in Cataloochee Valley. While you might spot the elk year-round, fall is the best time to see them in large numbers as well as experience the elk rut. During the rut or mating season, the bulls bugle and fight with other bulls.
Before you head over to Cataloochee Valley, fill up on gas and supplies as there are no amenities in this remote area. Take the road to Cataloochee Valley from I-40 and see the elk 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.
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 decor throughout the town of Gatlinburg: pumpkins, scarecrows, fall wreaths, and pinecones galore! You will find storytelling events with the Appalachians in period costumes narrating about life in the region and 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 shopping.
Drive along Cades Cove loop
The Cades Cove Loop is one of the most popular and hence, crowded, areas of the park. This is one of our favorite scenic drives in the park to watch wildlife including deer, bears, etc. The route is an 11-mile long loop road and also has historic buildings along with wildlife. To experience the history of the Appalachian region, we recommend stopping at the John Oliver Cabin, working Cable Grist Mill, and the Henry Whitehead Cabin. Also, stop by the Cades Cove Visitor Center for some souvenirs and to get a park map. Cades Cove Nature Trail and the 5 mile Abrams Fall trail also start at Cades Cove. The road also has stunning fall scenery. We recommend at least 2 to 4 hours to drive the loop at a leisurely pace.
Watch the Smokies wildlife
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has plenty of wildlife besides the elk. Fall is a great time to see most of the park wildlife because of cooler temperatures and favorable conditions. The elks come down into the valley for the breeding season and can be easily seen in the Cataloochee Valley area. The smoky Mountains is also home to a large black bear population (over 1500) and one of the best national parks in the country to spot one. Some of the popular places where bears might be seen include the Laurel Falls Trail, Cataloochee Valley, and Cades Cove. The national park is also excellent for bird-watching: you will spot many species of resident as well as migratory birds in the fall. Also, expect to see deer on the trails.
Take a Fontana Lake Fall Foliage Cruise
Another one of Smokies underrated attractions is the Fontana Dam and Visitor Center located near Bryson City, North Carolina. Fontana Dam is the largest dam east of the Mississippi. The Visitor Center has lots of interesting information on the dam and great views of Fontana Lake. The lake looks especially lovely during fall when the surrounding trees are bursting with fall colors. You can also take a fall foliage cruise on the lake. You can rent a pontoon boat or kayaks at the Fontana Marina to spend a day on the water.
Experience the stunning fall colors from 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 some of the best stops along the road include the Mingus Mill, Newfound Gap where you can see colors late in the season, and the Clingmans Dome trail. Little River Road is an 18-mile road that begins near the Sugarland Visitor Center and has several interesting spots including the popular Laurel Falls trailhead and ends at Cades Cove Loop. Drive along the 5.5 mile Roaring Fork Motor Trail to see fall colors, historic cabins, grist mills, and the Roaring Fork Stream. The Tail of the Dragon or Highway 129 is another scenic road that is great for motorcyclists.
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 views are beautiful in the fall. In fall, Ober Gatlinburg celebrates Oktoberfest. You can drink beer by the large mugs and eat German food including pretzels, schnitzels, bratwurst, and more. Other attractions 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, swing bridges, etc. 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 will celebrate Halloween by having special fright attractions, 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 and it will take you through the mountains, tunnels, bridges, and show you 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. This is also a favorite with families and kids.
Did you enjoy our post on fall activities in the Great Smoky Mountains? With so many things to do in the fall in the Smokies, the national park is one of our favorite fall destinations ever. What are your favorite fall activities in the smokies? Let us know in the comments!