Autumn is Leaf-Peeping Season in the Smokies

Publish date:
Sunset over the Smoky Mountains in autumn

Sunset over the Smoky Mountains in autumn

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. 

If you must plan well in advance, target the second half of October for higher-elevation colors, and late-October through the first week of November for lower elevations.

Also view the Farmers Almanac for their prediction based on past years at

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.


An aerial view of Lake Fontana in North Carolina

What Weather to Expect in Every Season at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The weather you’ll find up on the high peaks can be very different from what’s going on in the lower valleys. Always be prepared with warm layers.

Screenshot of YouTube video about the Great Smoky Mountains Nordic Ski Patrol

Nordic Ski Patrol of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

If you venture out on the closed road to Clingmans Dome in winter, you may run into volunteers on cross-country skis, ready to assist visitors in trouble.

Entrance sign to Great Smoky Mountains National Park at Gatlinburg

Park Entrances to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The majority of visitors enter through the Sugarlands entrance on the park’s north side by driving through Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

A barefoot girl wandering in the woods.

The Ghost of Lucy on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

On this forested drive you'll see historic cabins and mills sprouting up under the canopy of trees, and possibly Lucy, a ghost looking for a ride.

Overview map of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Map PDF

Download the official national park map to see the major park roads, rivers, park visitor centers, and the Appalachian Trail which bisects the park.

The Mountain Farm Museum at Oconaluftee Valley inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Oconaluftee in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

At the main south entrance, tour the Mountain Farm Museum, pioneer buildings, stroll along the Oconaluftee River, and up the road see a historic gristmill.

The Gatlinburg Trolley driving through Pigeon Forge. Photo by Ron Miguel via Flickr

Gatlinburg Trolley to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Gatlinburg Trolley Tan Line stops at Sugarlands Visitor Center, Laurel Falls parking lot, and Elkmont Campground.

Kids on the Appalachian Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

10 Things to Do With Kids in Great Smoky Mountains Park

Sweeping views that are easy to get to, many old historic buildings to explore, and picnic spots galore, make it one of the most family-friendly national parks in the east.

Hyatt Lane through Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

A Perfect Day in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Got 24 hours? Get the most out of them with this guide. Take a hike, touch the past, cruise a view, and more.