Autumn in the Great Smoky Mountains is a beautiful time of year. The mountains and valleys are painted with stunning colors that light up the Smokies. Curious about when you should visit Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge to see the magnificent Fall colors? Follow this guide to find the best time to see Smoky Mountain fall colors.
How do colors change? As summer ends, the green pigments in leaves deteriorate, giving other colors a chance to shine. Carotenoids, the pigment that makes carrots orange and leaves yellow, are exposed as the green fades. Reds and purples come from anthocyanins, a pigment that is formed when sugars in leaves break down in bright autumn sunlight.
The fall color display usually reaches peak at middle and lower elevations between mid-October and early November. This is the park’s most spectacular display as it includes such colorful trees as sugar maple, scarlet oak, sweetgum, red maple, and the hickories.
When Do Fall Colors Peak?
Fall in the Smokies begins in September, with the emerging changes occurring above 4,000 feet. Red, orange and yellow colors can be seen on sourwood, dogwood, maple, sassafras and birch trees. Drives recommended for September viewing are Parsons Branch Road, Newfound Gap Road and Clingmans Dome Road.
By the beginning of October, trees in the Smoky Mountains high country that are now showing bright fall colors are the yellows of American beech and yellow birch and different shades of reds on mountain ash, pin cherry and mountain maple.
Recommendations: High elevation trails such as Sugarland Mountain Trail and Appalachian Trail, accessed at Clingmans Dome or Newfound Gap, would be good hikes for this time of year. Also, roads leading into the high country, including Newfound Gap Road, Heintooga Ridge Road, Foothills Parkway West and East, and Rich Mountain Road out of Cades Cove, are the best options for seeing fall colors in the Smoky Mountains.
It is the sunny days and cooler nights that instigate the biochemical processes in the leaf to begin. In mid-October, the Great Smoky Mountains are about a week away from peak color of the lower elevations. However, the valleys and higher elevations are at a peak. They are painted with bold reds from black gum, dogwoods, sumac and sourwood trees and golds from the tulip tree, black walnut, birch, beech and hickories. Recommended scenic drives include Cove Creek Road, Balsam Mountain Road, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Foothills Parkway and Newfound Gap Road.
Recommendations: Suggested easy to moderate rated hikes through hardwood forests include Lower Mount Cammerer, Baskins Creek Falls, Little River, Old Settlers and Porters Creeks Trails. For the more hardy outdoor enthusiasts hikes that provide scenic overlooks include Sugarlands Mountain, Low Gap, Appalachian, Mt. Sterling, and Goshen Prong Trails.
The peak colors are very impressive in late October. From low to high elevations, the marvelous colors of fall are on full display across the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Generally speaking, it is not unusual to see autumn color last through the mid-November. Suggested drives are Blue Ridge Parkway, Foothills Parkway and Heintooga Ridge Road to Balsam Mountain.
Recommendations: Good places to see fall colors in the Smoky Mountains include Newfound Gap Road from Alum Cave Trailhead to Kephart Prong Trailhead, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Foothills Parkway East & West, and Heintooga Ridge Road to Balsam Mountain Campground. Suggested hikes include Rich Mountain Loop, Chestnut Top Trail, Smokemont Loop, Kanati Fork, and Sutton Ridge Overlook (Lower Mt. Cammerer Trail).
Experience Smoky Mountain Fall Colors