With fall just around the corner, it’s definitely time to start planning your leaf-peeping adventure in the Great Smoky Mountains! This magnificent range of the Southern Appalachians ranks among the great fall-color destinations in the country, making autumn—and particularly October—justifiably one of the most popular times to visit.
While we strongly advise anybody who’s able to do so to pursue some of this leaf-peeping from the hiking trail, there’s plenty of spectacular, fall-flaming vistas to see via auto-touring in and around Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s worth noting this is a great way to pull off a socially distanced vacation, by the way!
Here are some of the best drives for soaking up the show, plus some info on particular trees and shrubs that really show off this time of year:
When to Check Out Fall Colors in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Because the Great Smokies span so much elevation—from high ridges and peaks above 6,000 feet down to river valleys several hundred feet above sea level—the fall-color show here has quite the prolonged window.
You can start seeing leaves turning at the higher elevations beginning in mid-September, while lower elevations may not peak until early November. You’ll have your richest and most widespread opportunities to see blazing trees and shrubs in October. Keep in mind that the exact timing and the particular intensity of fall colors vary from year to year based on weather.
Great Leaf-peeping Drives in the Great Smoky Mountains
One great way to survey great swaths of multihued forests in the Great Smokies is to hit up some high vantages. And there’s no higher one than Clingmans Dome, which you can reach on a scenery-bedazzled seven-mile-long road in the heart of the park.
The parking area for this highest mountain in the range (and third-highest mountain in the eastern U.S) delivers outstanding vistas that’ll likely be full of yellows, oranges, and reds between late September and October. If you’ve got the time and the lung power to walk the steep half-mile paved footpath to the observation tower at the actual summit (6,643 feet in elevation), you’ll enjoy even grander sightlines.
The 30-odd-mile Newfound Gap Road cutting across the crest of the Great Smokies between Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Cherokee, North Carolina—which you’ll take to get to the Clingmans Dome Road—also delivers loads of leaf-peeping panoramas. Numerous overlooks, including the one at Newfound Gap itself, provide any number of opportunities to get out and gaze.
Another reliable circuit for October glory is the famous Cades Cove Loop, where you’ll get to weave amid valley-floor hardwoods while eyeballing bands of color upon the surrounding mountainsides.
Just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park, don’t miss the Foothills Parkway through the northwestern foothills of the Great Smokies: another world-class route for leaf-peeping behind the steering wheel.
Some of the Stars of the Great Smoky Mountain Fall Color Spectacular
The Great Smoky Mountains harbor some of the finest temperate forests on the planet, without question: not only a naturally superlative variety of species (more than 130 kinds of trees!) but also significant blocks of old-growth timber featuring some very hefty hardwoods. This, along with the spread-out show across this vertical terrain, helps explain the all-around awesomeness of leaf-peeping in these parts.
From mountain maples, mountain-ash, and yellow birches scattered in the highest forest zone, the spruce-fir realm, to the gloriously rich cove hardwood forests of foot slopes and hollows, deciduous trees and shrubs flare across all elevations in the Great Smokies.
Here’s a non-exhaustive run-through of some of the Smoky Mountain trees and shrubs that most dazzle the eye in the autumn:
-A number of maples hog a lot of the spotlight, from the sugar and striped maples of lower to middle elevations to the extremely common and widely distributed red maple, which turns anywhere from yellow and orange to flame-red in the fall. The shrubbier mountain maple is nothing to sniff at, either, what with its bold yellow, orange, and red foliage.
-Scarlet oak is aptly named for its autumn splendor. It’s one of a slew of native oaks—also including northern and southern red oaks and chestnut oak—which add fine color to drier forests and woodlands in the Great Smokies, often contrasting sharply with evergreen pines.
-One of the true giants of the Great Smoky Mountains, tulip-trees (also called tulip-poplars)—which may reach 200 feet or more in height—are also notable for the lovely yellow their uniquely shaped, “duckfoot” leaves wear in fall.
-American beech is another wide-ranging tree in the Great Smokies, well established in lower cove forests but also flourishing higher up in northern hardwood communities and nearly pure upper “beech gaps.” The yellow leaves and the pale, smooth bark of these handsome trees make them seem to glow in autumn.
-Yellow leaves also predominate in the large, majestic yellow birch found in the Smokies’ high northern hardwood and spruce-fir forests.
-Lower and middle elevations feature the black gum or black tupelo, which adds one of the most striking tones to the fall-color palette: foliage ranging from deep yellow to bright red.
-Pin cherries sport yellow to red crowns across a wide range of elevation in the Great Smokies in fall, while their bigger cousin the black cherry spreads its own mighty fetching golden boughs.
-The lovely, maple-like leaves of the sweetgum, a common streamside hardwood at lower elevations, display among the most varied colors of all in the fall: from yellow and orange to red and purplish.
-Another especially arresting fall color in these mountains comes courtesy of the hobblebush, the foliage of which this time of year can range from intense red to purple.
Again, the above species are only some of the broadleaf trees and shrubs adding their “voices” to the fall-foliage symphony in the Great Smoky Mountains. Basswoods, white ashes, black walnuts, hickories—there are many others, needless to say.
Savor the Fall Colors of the Great Smoky Mountains With Scenic Leaf-Peeping Drives
Start getting excited about the eye-popping leaf show in the works in the Great Smokies: We hope you can take a socially distanced, leaf-peeping vacation here this year and experience the autumnal amazements for yourself!