The Great Smoky Mountains boast over 2,000 miles of streams and rivers and precipitation levels that match that of a temperate rainforest. The result? Over 100 waterfalls and cascades to discover within the park borders!
And autumn is one of the best times to explore these natural treasures of the Smokies. Say “hello” to crisp air, fewer bugs, and pumpkin seed trail mix in your pack. Be sure to bring your camera to capture the brilliant contrast of vivid oranges, reds and yellows against a backdrop of foamy white waterfalls.
Check out these five Smoky Mountains waterfalls that hit their peak in autumn! Reach the first three via hiking trails of varying difficulties. You can drive to the last two on the list.
The Famous Four (Especially Abrams Falls)
The Smokies’ iconic waterfall quartet—Abrams, Laurel, Grotto and Rainbow—often tops visitor lists. For good reason! The hikes to reach these cascading gems range from uphill and challenging (Rainbow Falls) to paved and popular (Laurel Falls). In every case, the waterfalls waiting at the end of your hike will leave you speechless.
While each of the “Famous Four” waterfalls gets a spectacular autumn makeover, Abrams Falls wins our team’s vote for best of the bunch. Imagine a brilliant burst of color above the falls—almost as if the falls were on fire! Pack a lunch and claim a rock for your front-row seat.
The moderate 5-mile round-trip hike to Abrams Falls begins at Cades Cove Loop Road. Slippery rocks around the falls require extra caution, and sturdy boots with ankle support are highly recommended.
For adventurers, the hike to Ramsey Cascades is a formidable challenge. This difficult, 8-mile trail gains over 2000 feet of elevation before you reach your finish line reward. But that reward is pretty spectacular! The tallest waterfall in the park at 100 feet, the Ramsey Cascades tumble into a shallow pool with a meditative, mind-clearing hush.
The beauty of journey is nothing to sneeze at, either: the Ramsey Cascades Trail meanders beside rivers and streams lined with spectacular yellow birch, which burst into their namesake gold color in autumn.
Note: This challenging hike can pose real dangers. Do not climb on the rocks at the Cascades and be sure to wear sturdy boots with ankle support.
Spruce Flat Falls
Located in the Tremont section of the national park, the Spruce Flat Falls fly under the radar for most visitors (at least for now), so you may find you have them all to yourself. Even better, the hiking trail to reach the falls is just 2 miles round-trip—great for a shorter, last-minute excursion. You will find some steep, moderately difficult sections on the trail, including the final descent to the falls.
Begin the Spruce Flat Falls trail just behind the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont.
Meigs Falls (Drivable)
Like the idea of hopping in the car and arriving at a gorgeous waterfall? Check out Meigs Falls. Stay in the warm comfort of your car at the roadside pull-off and enjoy the view of the falls, about 500 feet away through the trees. This 28-foot waterfall is framed by autumn foliage in photo-worthy fashion. In late autumn and winter, when the foliage drops away, the view becomes even more dramatic!
Find the pullover vantage point for Meigs Falls on Little River Road, about halfway between Townsend and Gatlinburg.
The Sinks (Drivable)
Just before Meigs Falls on Little River Road, stop at The Sinks. Neighbor to Meigs Falls, The Sinks’ wading/diving pool makes it a summertime hit. In autumn, take a short walk to the water and listen to the rush of the small-but-mighty falls as the gold light filters through the trees. Bonus: all of Little River Road is beautiful this time of year, making it a destination in itself!
When your hike (or drive) concludes, return to the warmth of a flickering fireplace and mountain-view hot tub at a gorgeous Smoky Mountains vacation rental cabin.