A Guide to Hiking the Great Smoky Mountains in the Fall
Can you believe it? Fall is already upon us! As the kids return to school and the spooky Halloween decorations go up, the leaves come down and the REI gear comes out. “Leaf season,” as the locals call it, is the best time to visit the Smoky Mountains for hiking.
Rather than their usual lovely green, the deciduous forests exhibit a vibrant display of reds, yellows, and golds. Paired with a burgundy and lavender sunset over the rolling peaks, the effect is nothing short of magical! Pack your backpacks and pull up your Darn Tough socks. These scenic hikes and drives are a must when visiting the Great Smoky Mountains in the fall.
Featured Leaf Season Hikes
The Great Smoky Mountains are home to over 800 miles of hiking trails. Many of the trails offer unique features such as waterfalls, old-growth forests, scenic overlooks, and historic buildings. You really can’t go wrong no matter what trail you pick. That said, these featured hikes stand out to show you why autumn is the best time to visit the Smoky Mountains.
The Gatlinburg Trail is one of the most popular and approachable hikes in the Smokies. It is only one of two trails that allow visitors to bring dogs and ride bikes. Find the trailhead at the Sugarland Visitors Center, just a 15-minute drive from downtown Gatlinburg. From there, the one-way trail meanders along the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River for approximately 2 miles. The first mile or so is fairly accessible if you’ve got wheelchairs or strollers in tow. At about 1.2 miles, you’ll come upon a pedestrian bridge crossing the river. Otherwise, the Gatlinburg Trail is a gentle, family-friendly hike of 3.9 miles roundtrip, featuring river views with autumnal colors, wildflowers, and several homesite remnants.
If breathtaking views are your top priority, we’ve got just the hike for you. Measuring 6,643 feet in height, Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in the entire National Park. Take Newfound Gap Road (441) heading south from Gatlinburg toward Bryson City for about 45 minutes until you reach Clingman’s Dome Road. You’ll find plenty of parking, overlooks, and several other trailheads, including Fork Ridge Trailhead and Spruce Fir Trailhead.
At the very end of the road, park at the Clingman’s Dome Trailhead, and get ready for a quick 1.2-mile out-and-back hike. Make sure to bring plenty of layered clothing, as the elevation on this trail often creates a 10-20°F temperature difference. However, you’ll have to leave Fido at the hotel for this one, as dogs are not allowed. Once at the top, enjoy some of the best 360-degree panoramic views in the Smokies!
Appalachian Trail to Charles Bunion
Charlies Bunion is a large stone out-cropping formed from a landslide, fire and rain. The 8-mile out-and-back trail is moderately strenuous, with a steep 300-foot ascent in the first mile and a total of 1,600 feet change in elevation. After this tough journey through misty forests, the panoramic view at the end is worth the effort. The trailhead can be a bit difficult to find because it is not marked. Drive to the Newfound Gap Road parking area, and find the trail at the end of the parking lot next to the restrooms.
Rainbow Falls Trail
The Rainbow Falls Trail is perfect for the green thumb in your group. The 5.4-mile out and back trail contains a vast diversity of native plant-life, such as Mountain Pepper-bush, Pink Lady’s Slippers, and Rosebay Rhododendron. After a moderately difficult hike and several foot bridges (one of which passes over LeConte Creek), your journey concludes at an impressive 80-foot waterfall. You’ll soon see how Rainbow Falls got its name, as the mist rises up to create beautiful rainbows. Find the Rainbow Falls parking area only 3.4 miles into the national park on Historic Nature Trail Drive in Gatlinburg.
At a whopping 4,928 feet in elevation, Mount Cammerer stands apart from the other hills. The strenuous 11.1-mile round-trip and 3,045-foot elevation gain is not for the faint of heart, so bring plenty of water. However, you stand to see some of the most awe-inspiring views of the Smoky Mountains in the fall, overlooking the Pigeon River Gorge. It’s a 35-minute drive from Gatlinburg to the Cosby Campground, where you’ll find the Low Gap Trailhead. After 2.9 miles of hiking, take a left onto the Appalachian Trail, then take the spur trail to the Mount Cammerer summit. During this final stretch, be prepared for rough terrain and a bit of rock scrambling.
Hen Wallow Falls
Hen Wallow Falls is another point of interest located at the campground in Cosby, but the journey is not quite as intense as Mount Cammerer. The moderately difficult 4.4-mile round-trip hike on the Gabes Mountain Trail takes switchbacks through rhododendron, Yellow poplars, and Hemlock until reaching a 90-foot waterfall. Do not climb on the slippery moss-laden rocks, but do keep an eye out for bright red salamanders. If you want, continue onward on the Gabes Mountain Trail for more old-growth forests for another 2.9 miles to reach the Maddron Bald Trailhead.
Best Scenic Driving Tours
If you’re not a fan of strenuous hiking, you and your loved ones can still enjoy the magnificent colors, crisp woodland air, and wildlife sightings. Appreciate the special Smoky Mountain brand of beauty with a scenic driving tour. You’ll be able to cover more distance plus have plenty of time to stop at the scenic overlooks for photos.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Roaring Fork is one of the largest and fastest streams in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Wandering right alongside it is the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, a 5.5-mile one-way loop with serene views of the Smoky Mountains in the fall. Keep your eyes peeled for historic sites like log cabins and grist mills and glimpses of the stream and surrounding old-growth forest. If you feel up for a hike after all, catch the trailheads for Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls or a self-guided tour of the 19th-century Noah “Bud” Ogle cabin.
One leg of the Great Smoky Mountain Loop, the Foothills Parkway, is a 33-mile long connector between US-129 near the Tail of the Dragon and US-321 near Walland, TN. You’ll find another 5.6 miles of the Parkway off US-321 further north in Cosby. The drive features views of the Smokies, Tennessee Valley, and Cumberland Mountains. Plus, this highway tends to have less traffic than some of the more popular auto tours like Cades Cove or Roaring Fork. Rent a slingshot or Jeep from Wranglers & Razors, then make your way out to the Foothills Parkway for unbeatable vistas.
Blue Ridge Parkway
It’s no wonder the Blue Ridge Parkway is nicknamed “America’s Favorite Drive” when it spans 469 miles across Appalachia. Unless you’re ready for a mini cross-country road trip, you won’t be able to drive the entire thing from Cherokee, NC to Waynesboro, VA. However, no matter how many miles you have time for, you are guaranteed to find plenty of scenic overlooks and hiking trail offshoots along the way.
Whether you’d like to sneak in one last family vacation before the year’s end, or you’re a pair of lovebirds preparing to tie the knot, the Smoky Mountains in the fall makes an idyllic backdrop. From the Gatlinburg Trail to the Blue Ridge Parkway, there are countless places to immerse yourself in the unique autumnal beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains. Even when worn out from hiking, you’ll find plenty more things to do in Pigeon Forge and panoramic views in Gatlinburg during the best time to visit the Smoky Mountains.
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