The Smokies are famous for their colorful trees in fall. Drive or hike to the higher elevations for sweeping views over the park’s 100-plus tree species, including sugar maples, scarlet oaks and hickories, painting the hills in bright oranges, yellows and reds. Peak leaf season is impossible to predict since it is dependent on rain, temperature and other factors. But every year, you can count on the leaves first starting to turn colors in the high elevations where it is cooler. As it gets later in the season, you'll discover leafs changing colors in lower elevations. Target mid-September to early October for higher-elevation colors and mid-October to early November for lower ones.
Top Places for Leaf Peeping Inside the Park
Four high points in the park give you sweeping views above the trees. Reach Clingmans Dome after a .5-mile steep-but-paved trail from the parking lot. Drive to Look Rock on the west edge of the park and hike the 1-mile roundtrip route to Look Rock Tower. Or hike up the third-tallest peak in the park, Mount Le Conte.
Drive underneath the falling leaves at four scenic roads in the park. Bears will be eating berries in the autumn at Cades Cove. Drive up the rustic Cove Creek road to listen to elk bugling during rut in Cataloochee. Cruise Foothills Parkway on the west edge of the park before you take the "Tail of the Dragon" challenge. Or leisurely drive Roaring Forks Nature Trail, convenient to Gatlinburg.
Be advised that you won't be the only one driving around the park admiring the fall brilliant fall colors. During the last three weeks in October, you can expect traffic delays in the Cades Cove area and Newfound Gap Road. If you want to avoid other cars, the National Park Service suggests two alternative routes. One, take the Blue Ridge Parkway north of Cherokee, N.C., on US 441. Or two, take the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. From downtown Gatlinburg, turn a the eighth stoplight onto Historic Nature Trail/Airport Road. Follow it into the park and travel on Roaring Fork Nature Trail, stopping at the many pull-offs along the way to snap photos or stroll into the amazing forests of Great Smoky.