Coming to the mountains to see the beautiful fall foliage? Fall is the best time to visit the Smoky Mountains, when the air is cool and crisp, the towns are filled with fall decorations and the trees are on display with different arrays of yellow, orange and red.
Spend an extra day or two taking in some of these autumn activities using this hand-curated list of attractions and things to do with the whole family.
But before we dive in, we want to offer a quick reminder.
Operating dates and attraction hours tend to change rapidly in the Smokies. Late September through November is the norm, however, before planning any of the following activities, be sure to confirm times and availability with the individual attraction.
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What is the best time to see fall colors in Smoky Mountains?
It’s important to remember that elevation plays a big role in color changes around the park. In a high elevation area, you may start to see fall colors as early as mid-September. According to the National Park Service, around this time, visitors will see turning colors in yellow birch trees, hobblebush, American beech, mountain maple and pin cherry trees.
In early October, you’ll want to explore elevations of about 4,000 feet. For example, visit Clingmans Dome Road and watch the sunrise or sunset or drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Some dogwoods will begin turning around this time.
The lower elevations will see some color from mid-October to late October and early November. The NPS says this is where you will see sugar maples, scarlet oaks, sweetgum, red maples and hickories.
Also in October, black gum, sumac and sourwood trees will show red while black walnut, beech and hickory trees will be gold.
Of course, the exact dates for peak season can be almost impossible to know, but we can typically look at previous years to predict the Smoky Mountains fall foliage.
Finally, early November is generally a good time to visit Cataloochee Valley on the North Carolina side of the mountains. You can also see elk in this area.
Have your vacation dates in mind? Here are some of the best things to do in the Smoky Mountains in the fall season:
10. Enjoy a scenic drive
Three of my favorite routes that offer breathtaking views and the (cross your fingers) chance to see some wildlife without a Cades Cove Loop road traffic jam are the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, the Foothills Parkway and Newfound Gap Road.
First, let’s talk about the Roaring Fork Motor Trail. The Roaring Fork Motor Trail begins just off the main drag in Gatlinburg. Follow the signs near traffic light 8.
The ten-mile round-trip is close and convenient. It features a curvy road that follows a stream up the mountains.
You can enjoy the beauty without getting out of the car or you can pull over and hike for a few miles to see some of the most gorgeous waterfalls in the country.
Next, we have the Foothills Parkway.
Driving on the Foothills Parkway is like driving through a brochure.
The Parkway travels from Walland in the west to Cosby in the east. If you have time and patient children, pack some snacks and take in the entire stretch of road.
Finally, the scenic drive on Newfound Gap Road starts at the Sugarlands Visitor Center and ends at the Mountain Farm Museum in North Carolina.
At 5,046 feet, the Newfound Gap is the lowest drivable pass through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
9. Take a scenic hike
The best way you can reach the highest elevations is by taking a scenic hike. If you want to get to the highest point, consider visiting Clingmans Dome, which may soon be referred to as Kuwahi. It is the highest summit in the Smoky Mountains, and the road is open through late November, weather permitting.
The Baskins Creek Falls trail is another great option. It’s less well-known compared to other falls in the area, and it’s a moderately difficult hike that is three miles with an elevation gain of 953 feet. The trailhead is located on the Motor Nature Trail just outside of Gatlinburg (about 30 minutes from Pigeon Forge).
If you’re looking for a simple trial, the Little River Trail is a relatively moderate hike but it has a gentle grade that parallels the Little River.
8. Go horseback riding
There are dozens of stables in the Smokies that offer guided horseback riding. Cades Cove Riding Stables even goes into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Experienced riders can choose an adventurous route. Families with young children may be better suited for a short ride. Prices vary.
Be aware, the cost of riding can surpass theme park admissions. But the memories you make will be, well, priceless!
Remember that riding on a trail is a much different experience than what an equestrian center offers.
And when comparing stables, be sure to ask about whether or not the gear is included in the fee.
7. Visit an apple orchard
Kyle Carver Orchards is located in Cosby, about a 20-mile trip from Gatlinburg.
The orchards offer great views, at least a dozen varieties of apples and jars, baskets and bags full of treats.
Take your neighbor some apple butter and we guarantee he’ll forgive the leaves blown over from your yard.
And, since it is fall, take a caramel apple (or candied or chocolate) back to the hotel.
The Apple Barn in Sevierville also offers delicious apple-flavored treats if you want to stay closer to the core of activities (apple pun).
6. Visit a haunted house or haunted attraction
If you’re in town around Halloween, you might want to work in a few spooky attractions as well.
There are two major haunted houses in the Smokies.
The first is Ripley’s Haunted Adventure in Gatlinburg.
During the month of October, Ripley’s Haunted Adventure becomes extra-spooky for Fright Nights, which takes place Friday through Sunday every weekend and on Halloween night.
But be warned, this event is actually scary and not suitable for young children.
Event price is included with regular admission. If you plan to do multiple Ripley’s attractions, be sure to check out some of the combo passes, which can save up to $35 per person.
The second is Gatlinburg’s Mysterious Mansion.
Each year, Gatlinburg’s favorite haunted house turns even spookier with a special Halloween event that takes place every Friday-Sunday during the entire month of October.
During these special showings, the Mysterious Mansion packs its haunted attraction with extra actors and extra special effects alongside a new theme each year.
Both haunted houses are located in downtown Gatlinburg.
5. Ride a haunted mountain coaster
You’ve heard of haunted houses, haunted mazes and even haunted forests – but have you ever heard of a haunted coaster?
On select nights in October, Rocky Top Mountain Coaster will be featuring “Coasts and Goblins”.
Guests get to ride Tennesee’s longest mountain coaster in the dark surrounded with spooky surprises.
For details and dates, follow their social media page.
4. Check out the corn maze and hayride at Kyker Farms
Each year, tourists and locals alike flock to Kyker Farms for an authentic fall family adventure.
At Kyker Farms, you can explore corn mazes, pumpkin patches and even enjoy a good old-fashioned hayride.
Kyker Farms is located in Sevierville and is open seasonally through Oct. 30. For more information, visit their social media page.
3. Celebrate OktOBERfest at Ober Gatlinburg
Every year, Ober Gatlinburg puts on their annual OktOBERfest celebration.
The celebration features seasonal German-inspired cuisine, daily shows and live music.
OktOBERfest runs through the entire month of October. Access to the event is included with regular admission, but food and beer are sold separately.
If you ride up in the Aerial Tramway, booking with Tripster can save you a few bucks.
2. Enjoy leaf peeping at Anakeesta
When the temperature drops and the leaves change, Anakeesta is one of the most beautiful places in the Smokies. Certainly, it offers the best of the fall season.
Anakeesta offers 360-degree panoramic mountain views as well as plenty of spots to sit back, relax and take in the scenery.
The Hallow Mountain event at Anakeesta features fall-themed cuisine, live music and enhanced nighttime lighting.
Remember, it can be a bit chilly in the higher elevation, so bring a sweater or jacket along with you.
Anakeesta is located in Gatlinburg, Tenn. Check Tripster for discounts and skip the ticket line when you get there.
1. Visit Dollywood’s Harvest Festival and Great Pumpkin LumiNights
Once a year, Dollywood gets a makeover for its seasonal Harvest Festival.
This year, Dollywood is celebrating with “The Great Pumpkin LumiNights”.
This “glow-tacular experience”, which begins at around dusk each night, features thousands of carved and illuminated jack-o-lanterns and plenty of fall-festive decorations.
And of course, no Harvest Festival is complete without event exclusives treats like Pumpkin Funnel Cakes. But hurry, this limited-time event runs from Sept. 23 through Oct. 20, 2022.
Check Tripster for discounts on your Dollywood admission.
Have you experienced any of these fall activities in the Smokies?
Have you visited TN or NC in the fall? Let us know in the comments below.
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