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Fall Foliage in the Smoky Mountains: Everything You Need to Know

fall in the smoky mountains
August 26, 2023

There is nothing like fall in the Smoky Mountains! With over 100 species of native trees, the national park offers some of the most spectacular Smoky Mountain fall colors you’ll ever see. In fact, Gatlinburg, TN was named one of the top 10 autumn destinations in North America. This time of year is especially popular because of the Smoky Mountains fall foliage, and you may be wondering where you should go to see the incredible color changes. To help you make the most of your next vacation, we’ve put together a guide to everything you need to know about the fall foliage in the Smoky Mountains.

Why the Leaves Change Color

Beautiful fall foliage in Cades Cove in the Smoky Mountains.

While the changing of the leaves has an almost magical quality to it, it is science, not magic, that explains what causes the beautiful Smoky Mountains fall foliage. During the spring and summer, the leaves are green because of photosynthesis, the process in which plants turn energy from the sun into “food.” As part of photosynthesis, a pigment called chlorophyll absorbs light and gives the leaves their green coloring.

When the days start to get shorter in the fall, trees aren’t able to absorb as much sunlight. This slowing of photosynthesis ultimately destroys the leaves’ chlorophyll and allows other pigments to shine through. In the Smoky Mountains, the fall brings a gorgeous variety of red, yellow, and orange leaves.

The Best Time to See the Fall Foliage in the Smoky Mountains

According to the experts, the Smoky Mountain fall colors will be at their best in high elevations around mid-October. Then, about a week later, the trees in the lower elevations will show off their most vibrant colors. The autumn foliage typically sticks around into early-mid November.

You can use this fall foliage map that’s updated frequently to see when the fall foliage will be at its peak in the Smoky Mountains.

Check out this video to get a better idea of when the best time to visit is based on the Smoky Mountain fall colors:

Guide to Spotting Trees Based on Their Fall Leaves

The changing of the leaves makes it much easier to identify trees in the Smoky Mountains because each species has its own unique shade of color. Here is a quick look at some of the most well-known varieties of trees in the Smokies:

  • Shining Sumac: red
  • Dogwood: deep red
  • Sourwood: brick red
  • Red Maple: bright scarlet or orange
  • Oaks: red, russet, or brown
  • Birch: bright yellow
  • Tulip Poplar: golden yellow
  • Black Maple: glowing yellow
  • Hickories: golden-bronze
  • Sugar Maple: orange-red

Best Fall Hikes in the Smoky Mountains

A trail in the Smoky Mountains covered in fall leaves.

Hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the best way to get an up-close look at the lovely leaves. Here are a few of our favorite fall trails, along with their round-trip mileage and the best time to hike them :

Early-to-mid October

  • Sugarland Mountain Trail – 7 miles
  • Albright Grove Loop Trail – 6.7 miles
  • Spence Field – 10.3 miles

Mid-to-late October

  • Little River Trail – 4.9 miles
  • Porters Creek Trail – 4 miles
  • Baskins Creek Falls – 3 miles
  • Grapeyard Ridge Trail – 5.8 miles
  • Rich Mountain Loop – 8.5 miles
  • Charlies Bunion – 8.1 miles

Early November

  • Abrams Falls – 5.3 miles
  • Schoolhouse Gap – 3.8 miles

Best Fall Drives in the Smoky Mountains

scenic drive in the fall

Of course, you can also see the Smoky Mountains fall foliage right from your car! Here are the best scenic drives in the Smokies:

Early-to-mid October

  • Newfound Gap Road – 32 miles long
  • Clingmans Dome Road – 7 miles long

Mid-to-late October

  • Cades Cove – 11 miles (loop road)
  • Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail – 5.5 miles (loop road)

More Great Places to See the Smoky Mountains Fall Foliage

The cities of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are home to a number of attractions that offer impressive views of the mountains and the Smoky Mountain fall colors. Here are a few destinations that you will definitely want to visit during your vacation:

Where to Stay to See the Smoky Mountains Fall Foliage

hot tub on cabin deck

When you stay in one of our Smoky Mountain cabin rentals, you will be immersed in the wonderful fall foliage in the Smoky Mountains. Located in the foothills of the Smokies, our cabins offer stunning views of the autumn colors. With everything from 1 bedroom cabins to 15 bedroom cabins, we are sure to have the perfect property for your vacation. To start planning your getaway, browse our selection of cabins in the Smoky Mountains!

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