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Smoky Mountains in the Fall: The Complete Travel Guide

Smoky Mountains in the Fall: The Complete Travel Guide

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the top nature areas in the United States. While the area is appealing year-round, thousands of visitors flock to the region every autumn as 500,000 acres of foliage erupt into a symphony of orange, yellow, and red hues. 

If you’re planning a trip to the Smoky Mountains in the fall, you’re well on your way to an outstanding vacation. That said, you need to know the best activities and peak foliage times to make the most of your trip. In this guide, we’ll cover everything there is to know about the Smokies during the fall season.

Smoky Mountain Fall Foliage and Weather

You’re sure to have an unforgettable experience no matter when you visit the Smokies, but autumn is particularly special due to the fall foliage and is a welcome break from the summer humidity. Here are the highs and lows visitors can expect during this season.

Gatlinburg, TN (Low Elevation)

  • September: 55ºF – 83ºF
  • October: 43ºF – 73ºF
  • November: 33ºF – 61ºF

Clingmans Dome (High Elevation)

  • September: 47ºF – 60ºF
  • October: 38ºF – 53ºF
  • November: 28ºF – 42ºF

Source: National Park Service

Smoky Mountains in September

  • September brings in the first wave of fall colors in the higher elevations of the park.
  • Average temperature: 47°F – 83°F

As August comes to a close, the cooler mountain air begins to sweep through the region, paving the way for the first glimpses of fall transformation. Birch, maple, cherry, and other species of trees start their initial changes in the park’s higher elevations, such as Clingman’s dome.

During this time, trees in lower elevations are not yet ready to start changing color — it will typically be a few weeks before that happens.

Smoky Mountains in October

  • October brings intense and beautiful scenery as trees throughout the park reach their peak fall color.
  • Average temperature: 38°F – 73°F

At the start of the month, the leaves look similar to September — just a few changing trees in the higher elevations while the foliage is predominantly green below. However, as the mountain air becomes colder, a beautiful cascading effect engulfs the region, and trees begin to turn colors at lower elevations.

By mid to late October, most of the region becomes engulfed in fall hues. Dogwood, walnut, hickory, and more have all changed colors at lower elevations, and the scenery is perfect for hikes, sightseeing, and other outdoor activities. Whether you come for a family vacation or a romantic getaway, you’ll be greeted by breathtaking views.

Smoky Mountains in November

  • November marks the end of the fall season in the Smokies, but there are still opportunities to enjoy the colors in the early parts of the month.
  • Average temperature: 28°F – 61°F

As the mountain air gets cooler still, colors in the higher elevations of the park begin to fade and fall. However, trees in the middle to lower elevations still proudly show off their colors — species such as dogwood, sumac, and spicebush. This means the start of November is perfect for sightseeing in lower-elevation areas such as Gatlinburg.

The fall colors typically end around the first week of the month. However, if the weather cooperates, visitors can still experience the scenery at lower elevations up to mid or late November.

An overview of the temperature ranges in the Smoky Mountains from September to November.

Fall Activities

The Smoky Mountain scenery and temperate weather make it perfect for spending time outside. Here are a few of the most popular fall activities.

A list of the most popular Fall activities in the Smoky Mountains including hiking, visiting overlooks, observing wildlife, backpacking, fishing, and mountain biking.

Hike in the Fall Colors

With over 800 miles of hiking trails throughout the park, the Smoky Mountains provide plenty of opportunities to spend time in the great outdoors. Visitors flock from all over the globe to explore the Tennessee and North Carolina wilderness — and fall is no exception.

Enjoy the foliage through several suitable trails, like:

  • Clingman’s Dome: This trail takes explorers on a steep, mile-long adventure to the highest point of the park — perfect for sightseeing as soon as early September.
  • Charles Bunion: This trail spans eight miles and nearly 2,000 feet of elevation gain, letting visitors see the fall colors as early as late September. 
  • Ramsey Cascades: One of the most challenging trails, this eight-mile path takes visitors to the tallest waterfall in the region — and its comparatively low elevation makes for a perfect late October to early November adventure.

Get a Bird’s Eye View

Hiking is a great way to explore and take in the scenery, but you may want to enjoy the wilderness in a more relaxing way. In that case, there are many leisurely activities and fall overlooks to get a bird’s eye view of the surrounding foliage without breaking a sweat.

Some of the most popular attractions include:

  • Gatlinburg Skypark: Situated in the heart of Gatlinburg, visitors first take a chairlift up 1,800 feet to the top of Crockett Mountain. From there, explore the cable bridge, Tulip Tower, and the SkyDeck to see the area from every angle.
  • Gatlinburg Space Needle: Take the glass elevator up over 400 feet to experience a 360-degree view of Gatlinburg and the surrounding Smoky Mountains.
  • Great Smoky Mountain Wheel: Located in The Island — an amusement and shopping area in Pigeon Forge — this 200-foot tall Ferris wheel can take you above the treeline to marvel at the surrounding area.

Observe the Local Wildlife

A photo of wildlife grazing in the Smoky Mountains.

Visitors can spot animals throughout the year in the Smokies, but there’s an added dose of magic that comes with sightseeing in the fall colors. Any trail, peak, or camping location can be a prime area for watching local creatures, but a few spots are better than others.

Here are a few of the top places for observing wildlife in the Smokies — make sure to bring your camera:

  • Cataloochee: This valley is a perfect area to see elk, wild turkeys, deer, and other wildlife — not to mention one of the best locations to explore historic buildings from as early as the 19th century.
  • Cades Cove: Like Cataloochee, Cades Cove is home to wildlife and many historical buildings. Spot deer, bears, coyotes, and more in this picturesque valley.
  • Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail: This five-and-a-half-mile loop offers views of foliage, creeks, waterfalls, and more from the comfort of your vehicle. Look for bears, deer, and other wildlife on this leisurely trail. 

Backpack Through the Park

There’s arguably no better way to get immersed in the wonders of the Smokies than by going backpacking. Fill your days taking in the foliage on one of the park’s many hiking trails, and spend your nights exchanging campfire stories and sleeping under the stars — remember, you will need a backpacking permit

Some of the best backpacking trails and experiences in the Smokies are:

  • Mount Cammerer/Mount Sterling loop: This 28-mile hiking trail offers a tremendous experience of the surrounding foliage and wildlife you would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.
  • Fall colors backpacking trip: This four-day, 22-mile guided backpacking excursion takes visitors past waterfalls, creeks, and breathtaking wildlife — all in the picturesque fall scenery.
  • Appalachian Trail: Spanning over 2,000 miles and 14 states, this historic trail cuts right through the Smokies — take part in the popular 19-mile section between Davenport Gap and Max Patch Road.

Fish a Nearby Creek

A father and son fishing while vacationing in the Smoky Mountains.

Fall is a good time of the year to fish in the Smokies. While the water level is typically low — therefore, slower currents and a slightly harder time catching fish — the weather is perfect, and the mosquitos have almost completely disappeared. There are nearly 3,000 miles of creek to explore — but you will need a fishing permit.

A few of the best areas to fish in the area include:

  • Herbert Holt Park: This Gatlinburg creek is child-friendly and handicap accessible, making it a great spot for a leisurely fishing outing.
  • Hazel Creek: Residing in the North Carolina portion of the Smokies, this creek is a pristine fly fishing area, and is considered one of the best trout fishing areas in the park.
  • Abrams Creek: Found in the Cades Cove area, this creek is another of the best locations in the park for catching trout and smallmouth bass. 

Ride a Mountain Bike

Mountain biking is a way to experience the beauty of the Smokies while getting some exercise. It’s important to note that the park has no designated mountain bike routes, and bikes are prohibited on many hiking trails.

That said, a few locations in the park are worth bringing your bike for:

  • Gatlinburg Trail: This two-mile trail in Gatlinburg is a relatively flat and easy excursion that runs alongside Little Pigeon River.
  • Cades Cove Loop: Spanning 11 miles, this one-way road is a popular biking area that is motor-vehicle free on Wednesdays between May 3 and September 27.
  • Oconaluftee River Trail: Near Cherokee, NC, this nearly two-mile trail is a slightly hilly excursion that follows the Oconaluftee River.

Fall Festivals

One of the most beautiful aspects of the Smoky Mountains is the holiday cheer and festivals that visitors can find throughout the surrounding communities. Starting in September, there are endless fall activities in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.

A list of popular Fall activities in Gatlinburg including the Smoky Mountain Harvest Festival, the Gatlinburg Craftsman Fair, Oktoberfest, and holiday lights.

Some of the most popular events include:

  • Smoky Mountain Harvest Festival: Typically lasting from early September to early November, this Gatlinburg festival celebrates autumn with plentiful decorations and activities throughout the season.
  • Oktoberfest: Every year, Ober Gatlinburg holds a multi-day celebration at the end of September, complete with German beer, food, and entertainment. 
  • Gatlinburg Craftsman Fair: This yearly celebration — voted one of the South’s most popular events by the Southeast Tourism Society — features endless stalls of artists, and demonstrations. 
  • Holiday lights: Christmas comes early in Gatlinburg, and starting November 10th, you can take a trolly around town to see the holiday lights and decorations. 

Best Lodging in the Fall

You’ll be able to find the perfect lodging for your trip in any number of the communities around the park, such as Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.

Gatlinburg

A look at the Smoky Mountains in Fall from the "Dear Ben" Elk Springs Resort cabin in Gatlinburg, TN.

See this view in real life by staying at the Bear Den.

If your destination is Gatlinburg, you’ll be able to find cabins, bed and breakfasts, and more that immerse visitors in the expansive wilderness of the Smokies.

At Elk Springs Resort, we offer cabins in Gatlinburg equipped with hot tubs, fireplaces, pools, and more to make your stay unforgettable. Try a creekside oasis for lodging next to prime fishing territory or a cabin with a view to take in the fall colors from the comfort of your deck. 

Pigeon Forge

A photo of Elk Springs Resorts cabins in Sevierville, TN, that are surrounded by foliage changing colors.

Relax amongst the autumn trees and leaves in the Grand Legacy.

If you find yourself in Pigeon Forge, the Dollywood DreamMore Resort — a sprawling resort and theme park founded by country music legend Dolly Parton — is one of the many accommodation options with premium amenities such as spas and pools.

For a more traditional experience, we also offer Pigeon Forge cabins that make you feel more in touch with the surrounding scenery. Try an estate within walking distance from the Great Smoky Mountain Ferris Wheel, or a secluded hideaway close to hiking trails.

Elk Springs Resort Can Help You Experience Fall in the Smoky Mountains

A trip to the Great Smoky Mountains in the fall is an experience you’ll never forget. Hiking, fishing, and exploring the park are magical no matter the season — and even more so when surrounded by the awe-inspiring fall foliage. 

To make your trip perfect, select the right lodging for your needs. At Elk Springs Resort, we have the cabins and accommodations to make the most of your trip and experience the perfect fall getaway.