What is the best time to see fall colors in the Smoky Mountains? (2021)

Fall Foliage in the Smoky Mountains

In this article we offer tips on the best times, and best locations for fall foliage spotting in the Smoky Mountains (photo by dlhedberg / TheSmokies.com)

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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.

Read More: How to visit Cades Cove, 7 things to know before you go

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.

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.

Read Also: Who has the best pizza in Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg? Here’s our top 5

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.

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)
The best time for fall foliage in the Smokies is usually late October through early November (photo by aheflin/stock.adobe.com)

6. The best time to see fall colors is late in October through early November

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.

Fall colors inside the great smoky mountains national park
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is beautiful in the fall (photo by jdross75 / stock.adobe.com)

5. Where is the best fall foilage in Tennessee? Try visiting 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 thousands of scenic views and you know what? They’re all perfect.

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

The national park ain’t the only park in Tennessee.

There are several great state parks within an easy drive of Sevier County, each offering its 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.

The Blue Ridge Parkway and Maggie Valley are on the “other” side of the Smokies in North Carolina (photo by stock.adobe.com)

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.

Read Also: Who has the best pancakes in Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg? Here’s our top 7

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.

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.

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.

Fall Foliage in TN
For the best insider tips, just ask a local (photo by Carolyn Franks / stock.adobe.com)

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.

Where are your favorite locations for fall foliage spotting? Let us know in the comments below.

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Disclaimer: While we do our best to bring you the most up-to-date information, attractions or prices mentioned in this article may vary by season and are subject to change. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any mentioned business, and have not been reviewed or endorsed these entities. Contact us at info@thesmokies.com for questions or comments.


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6 thoughts on “What is the best time to see fall colors in the Smoky Mountains? (2021)”

  1. The prettiest view I have ever seen was from Pittman Center to Fancy Gap. The views are breathtaking. You think you are driving through a postcard. It is absolutely beautiful. Motor Name Trail is another beautiful place but you have to hit the leaf peak to capture the golden tunnel of leaves you drive through. A few that have already fallen also add to the beauty of the gold. I urge every that enjoy leaf looking to visit other places than just the park, go up Blueridge Parkway and see the real beauty of fall.

  2. We love the mountains ! Been all over and took the blueridge parkway, beautiful in the fall. But one year we left smoky mts. And drove south to the Highlands! Another gorgeous fall drive !

  3. There is no greater place in this world than the Great Smokie Mountains.

  4. Cherohala Skyway is a fantastic east to west drive from Robinsville to Telico Plains. Absolutely a must drive in the fall. Happy Vacation y’all 😊

  5. So proud this is part of our home state of Tennessee! Always a favorite place to go!

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