It is always a good time to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park located on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee in the southeastern US. The mountains are especially scenic in autumn. Shades of yellow, orange, red, and brown cover the park. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the perfect destination for anyone from children to retires, regardless of your fitness level. You will find many activities ranging from easy to strenuous. There are also other attractions near the park borders. Below, you will find 6 reasons autumn is the best time to visit the Great Smoky Mountains, along with some ideas for activities in the park.
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1. Ultimate weather for outdoor adventures
If you visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in summer, you noticed that the weather gets quite muggy. Summers can get hot and humid. Autumn is the ultimate weather for hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains. Morning can be a bit chilly, but the temperatures warm up quickly during the day and the air is dry, making for perfect weather for outdoor adventures.
2. Autumn foliage in the mountains
The best part about visiting the Great Smoky Mountains in autumn is the beautiful foliage throughout the park. That is mainly due to the various specious of deciduous trees that grow there and the park’s low elevation, with the highest peak at 6,593 feet. The best time to visit for viewing autumn foliage is mid to late October for high elevations and early to mid November for lower elevations.
Ideas for day hikes to explore autumn foliage at high elevations
Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte
This a classic trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that every hiker should add to their list. The trail provides outstanding views of the mountains and the interesting geological structures along the way. This 10.9-mile out-and-back trail is considered hard with gradual inclines and parts where you have to hold onto the railing. At the top of Mt LeConte Peak, you will find the LeConte Lodge where you can stay at one of the primitive cabins. This is the only accommodation in the park. If you plan to stay there, you need to book a spot months in advance.
If you’re looking for a shorter alternative to Mt LeConte with pretty views, walk to the Alum Cave Bluff. This part of Alum Cave trail is a good choice. This moderate 4.5-mile out-and-back trail provides a lot of photo opportunities. It leads by Alum Cave Creek and does not start to get steep until Arch Rock. You will also pass Inspiration Point before reaching Alum Cave Bluff. Alum Cave Bluff is actually not a cave but a concave cliff. It is a good place to take a break, have lunch, and admire the view.
PRO TIP : Get to the trail early to find a parking spot and avoid crowds. Due to the popularity of this trail in autumn, the parking lot fills up well before sunrise. Don’t be discouraged, as there are plenty of opportunities to park by the road.
Chimney Tops Trail
This 3.6-mile roundtrip trail is another popular trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and for good reason. Even though it is rated as hard, it is worth the effort. The trail starts relatively flat, leading through bridges and cascades before it gains elevation. Chimney Tops is one of the few mountains with a bare rock summit, providing outstanding views of the nearby mountains. Unfortunately, the top of the trail is currently unsafe and closed due to wildfire damage. However, a quarter of a mile below the summit, you will find an observation deck showing a great view of the Chimney Tops.
3. Late sunrises over fog-covered mountains
The sun does not rise until around 8 am in the autumn, making it easier to reach the park by sunrise. Sunrises in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are very popular in autumn, especially at locations that are easy to access by car. After all, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States. 13 million people have already visited this park as of October 2021, already beating the previous year’s record. With cooler temperatures in the morning comes the fog that covers the mountains, giving them a mystical look.
Car-accessible sunrise-watching locations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, making it a perfect spot to watch the sunrise. You need to drive to the Clingman’s Dome parking lot. The parking lot is a decent size, but it fills up quickly, especially on a weekend with perfect sunny weather. From the parking lot, it is an additional half-mile, steep hike to reach the top of Clingman’s Dome. Make sure to give yourself time to the hike to the dome before sunrise.
PRO TIP : Clingman’s Dome is wheelchair accessible, making it easy for anyone to reach whether you have mobility issues or a child in a stroller.
Newfound Gap is another good sunrise spot. It is a little bit closer than Clingman’s Dome. It is on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, and you can also access the Appalachian Trail from there.
Gatlinburg Scenic Overlook
Watch the sunrise over Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Instead of driving through Gatlinburg to get to the national park, take Gatlinburg Bypass and stop at the first roadside stop.
4. Waterfalls covered in leaves
If you like chasing waterfalls, you will find plenty of them here. The Great Smoky Mountains have over 100 waterfalls and cascades, which are scattered throughout the park. Most of the waterfalls are a short hike from a parking lot, making them a perfect family activity for your visit to the Great Smoky Mountains. The hikes range from 2 to 8 miles in length.
Waterfalls to explore in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
This 2.4 mile out-and-back trail leads to one of the most popular waterfall in the park. Laurel Falls is an 80-foot high, 2-tiered waterfall with a footbridge. The trail is mostly paved and rated as easy but not marked as wheelchair/stroller accessible. This trail gets busy year-round. It is best to hike on a weekday.
This moderate 2.6-mile-long trail will lead you to a 25-foot waterfall. Grotto Falls is the only waterfall you can walk behind. Check road conditions before hiking. The road leading to this hike is subject to seasonal closures. If you hike here on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, you might see llamas on the way to or from LeConte Lodge.
This is another popular hike. It is 5.5 miles roundtrip, leading to a 20-foot tall waterfall. Abrams Falls might not be tall, but it is known as the most thunderous waterfall. The trail is accessible from the Cades Cove loop road, so it might be best to plan your trip to Abrams Falls when you’re in the area.
Ramsey Cascades is the tallest waterfall in the park at 100 feet. It is quite a hike to get there. The trail is 8 miles long roundtrip and rated as hard. There is a lot of pretty scenery on the way, and the hike has a gradual incline until the last mile before reaching the waterfall, when it becomes steep.
5. Long evenings relaxing in a cozy cabin
I encourage you to rent a cozy cabin in the woods where you can relax after a long day of exploring. I rented a cabin near Sevierville in a gated community of TurnKey Vacation Rentals. My cabin was the perfect place to disconnect. I loved the covered hot tub that helped me relax after a day of hiking, regardless of the weather. A fireplace warmed me up during chilly evenings. The location was a bit further away from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but it was perfect for a peaceful getaway.
6. Plenty of slow activities in the area
Not a hiker? Not a problem. The Great Smoky Mountains are great for all skill levels. There are plenty of activities for you to engage in that do not involve strenuous activity, and you will still be able to see all the best that the Great Smoky Mountains have to offer.
Slow travel ideas
- Drive through the park and stop at one of many pullouts by the road to admire the views.
- Hike Clingman’s Dome, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s top observation point, located half a mile from the parking lot.
- Visit Cades Cove. Search for wildlife, have a picnic, or visit historical cabins and churches scattered throughout the valley. You can drive, bike, or walk the 11-mile loop.
- Stop by Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Grab a bite to eat, shop for souvenirs, or take the sky lift to enjoy scenic views of Gatlinburg and surrounding mountains.
- Book an autumn foliage train excursion with the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. Drive to Bryson City and take a 4-hour roundtrip ride to Nantahala Gorge or Dillsboro to admire the autumn foliage.
As you can see, there are plenty of reasons why autumn is the best time to visit the Great Smoky Mountains. You can admire the beautiful foliage in the park and engage in a variety of activities for every fitness level. Every season offers something different, but autumn makes this place especially magical. Each time I visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I end up with a new list of places to explore on my next trip.