6 pro tips on when and where to see the best fall colors in the Smokies

If you’re on an autumn trek to see natural beauty in the Great Smoky Mountains, you've come to the right place (stock photo)
If you’re on an autumn trek to see natural beauty in the Great Smoky Mountains, you've come to the right place (stock photo)

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They say the beauty of the leaves of the Great Smoky Mountains in the fall is due to the diversity of trees in the forest. The dozens of varieties of trees create a living kaleidoscope, moving with the breeze and painting a vivid landscape stolen from an impressionist’s imagination.

But I don’t know.

There’s a spot on the road up to Cades Cove where the elevation rises and you get fairly near to the park that the diversity fades away and the dying leaves from the same family of trees turn a golden yellow. I can’t tell you what kind of trees dominate the passage there or even when is the best time to see it, but when you’re there on the right day, as the sun cuts through and the golden leaves dance against a bright blue sky, it’s as close to living in a painting as I’ve ever come.

When they say the streets of heaven are paved with gold, I bet it’s really just lined with those trees and it’s always just a perfect autumn day.

They say there’s no such thing as bad pizza. At some level, all pizza is inherently good. The same can be said for leaf-peeping in the mountains. If you’re on an autumn trek to see natural beauty in the Great Smoky Mountains, it’s really, really hard to mess that up. Still, there are some tips, a few things you can do, to get the most out of your experience.

6. Get high, aim for mid-October

The bursts of color in the mountains usually come in the last three weeks of October and in early November. Peak time for fall foliage in the Smokies usually falls between Oct. 12 – 20.

But what do you do if you’re driving into Sevier County in late September or early October and you’re seeing entirely too much green? Get high, my friend. And no, I don’t mean the supply of medicinal you brought from some other free-wheeling state or Cocke County. I mean raise your elevation. The leaves start turning earlier in the higher elevations and you can find some of the color you seek way up in the high mountains.

5. Visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

There are dozens of famous walks, trails, drives and guides that will take you to the best, the prettiest, the most amazing views in the Smoky Mountains, but you know what? Beauty is everywhere in the mountains, simply look around and view it. You could spend a lifetime in the mountains looking for the best view, the prettiest foliage and you won’t see the forest for the trees. Step back. See the larger picture. The Smokies have hundreds, thousands of scenic views and you know what? They’re all perfect.

4. Visit one of the smaller local parks, like Panther Creek

The national park ain’t the only park. Tennessee doesn’t just offer the national park. There are several great state parks within an easy drive of Sevier County, each offering their own beautiful views. The overlook at Panther Creek State Park is a personal favorite, partially because it’s 15 minutes from my house. But there are many others that will give you some leaf-peeping street cred. Sure every Bob, Todd and Ethan from Indiana has been to Cades Cove at one time or another but have any of those Bloomington poseurs ever seen the view from the West Overlook at House Mountain State Natural Area in Corryton?  No, they have not. 

Carter Shields Cabin in Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (stock photo)
Carter Shields Cabin in Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (stock photo)

3. Explore Cades Cove, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and Wears Valley in Tennessee

You want the picture that will make your Instagram followers chartreuse with envy? Go to the places that draw the most people. Cades Cove? The front half of the loop is better for foliage viewing and pictures, but you’d be hard pressed to find a prettier spot in the world. The drive on US 441 from Gatlinburg to Cherokee is an excellent way to get way up in the mountains and has several places to safely pull off and take in a majestic view. As an added plus, you’d have a good chance on this drive to see some elk. Other popular drives include Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail in Gatlinburg and Wears Valley Road connecting Pigeon Forge and Townsend through, you guessed it, Wears Valley.

2. Explore the Blue Ridge Parkway near Maggie Valley and Hot Springs in North Carolina

If you’re in the Smoky Mountains, you can literally take leaf-peeping off your to-do list by walking out of your hotel and opening your eyes. See amazing beauty? Check. Let’s get some pancakes. But, if you’re really hoping to soak in some serious leaf-peeping, you have to put in the time. The Blue Ridge Parkway near Maggie Valley in North Carolina is amazing.

I heard Jason Momoa, the big dude who plays Aquaman, was seen riding motorcycles in the area. As my momma used to say, if Aquaman likes it, it’s probably pretty cool. To the South, the Cherohola Skyway connecting Tellico Plains and North Carolina is an under-appreciated gem. It’s a bit of a ride from Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge, but it’s far less trafficked and has amazing views. I’ve always been partial to the Hartford area of Cocke County. Located near the North Carolina-Tennessee State line, Hartford offers several excellent places to view the mountains from the car.

I have no idea who took the picture but look who visited Maggie Valley today. He went to a few restaurants in the area.

Posted by Jenn Leigh Deane on Saturday, September 26, 2020


Finally, I’ve always liked the ride over to Hot Springs, North Carolina. It’s a beautiful drive and when you reach your destination there’s some good little restaurants and, if you’re interested in such things, Hot Springs spas in which to soak and rest after a long, hard day of looking at leaves.

Linn Cove Viaduct, Grandfather Mountain and the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina (stock photo)

1. Ask a local

If you don’t know, ask somebody. I’ve been riding around these mountains for quite some time and I’m continually amazed by some view or place I’ve never heard of. Find a local, ask them what they like. Sure you might hear the same five drives I’ve told you about above, but there’s a chance they know some holler I’ve never been to.

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