Why is Autumn so beautiful in the Smoky Mountains?
When hiking through the Smoky Mountains in the fall, you'll be struck by all the gorgeous colors of the forest. You can thank trees like American beech, yellow birch, red maple, sugar maple, hickory, mountain maple, pin cherry, and scarlet oaks that show off brilliant shades of yellow, gold, orange and red. The diversity of trees in the Smoky Mountains produces a truly spectacular display year after year.
During the fall season, visitors to the Smokies are affectionately known as "leaf peepers," who come droves to see these dazzling colors of fall. And it's no secret why: the colors of fall in the Smokies are simply incredible.
To get the most out of your trip, we've made a list of the top 10 fall hiking trails in the Great Smoky Mountains!
Fall Hiking Tips
To see the best fall colors in the Smokies, it's key to know when and where you should go. Timing and elevation are the biggest factors in choosing the best trail for your fall hike.
The prime time to see fall foliage in the Smokies ranges from late September to early November. The forest's colors begin changing at higher elevations for the first several weeks of fall. As the nights grow cooler, lower elevation forests begin to change. The best time to see peak fall in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is usually around Mid-October when the mid-elevation regions of the park are showing their full colors.
When choosing a fall hiking trail, it's key to note factors such as the trail's elevation and forest type. For example, the highest parts of the Smokies around Clingmans Dome and Newfound Gap have large sections of Spruce-Fir Forests that are green year-round. So to view the changing fall colors, you'll want to explore mid-level and low-level elevations in the park for much of the season.
To make it easy to find the best hike for seeing fall in the Smokies, we've made this list of the top 10 trails to explore for this beautiful season! Many of these trails explore mid-elevation regions of the park, so they are ideal for seeing peak fall colors in the mountains!
Overall, fall in the Smoky Mountains is a dryer, cooler time of year, so it's excellent weather for hiking. Be sure to bring water, sturdy shoes, a trail map, and snacks for your trip before checking out these suggested fall hikes in the Smokies!
1. Gregory Bald Trail
Perched above Cades Cove, this high elevation Bald is an excellent place to view the changing colors of fall. From the top of Gregory's Bald, you'll witness uninterrupted views of Cades Cove and mountains in the Southeastern part of the park. Better yet, the journey to Gregory's Bald is just as beautiful as the destination.
On your way, you'll pass through large stands of mature, hardwood forest that become exceptionally colorful during the fall season. All in all, the total trip is about 10 miles of hiking, but the beautiful views from this high elevation bald are well worth the effort.
2. Mt. Cammerer
This lesser-known destination in the national park can be reached by taking the Low Gap Trail out of Cosby Campground up to the Appalachian Trail. This 11-mile round trip hike passes through beautiful, old-growth, hardwood forests, so this fall hike offers a fall foliage display to remember.
The fire tower at Mt. Cammerer is the true highlight of the hike. This Western-style fire tower offers panoramic views of the Tennessee Valley, the Little Pigeon River, and nearby Mt. Sterling in North Carolina.
3. Baskins Creek Trail
Baskins Creek Trail is a popular waterfall hike in the especially scenic Roaring Fork Motor Trail area of the Smokies. This short, beginner-friendly hike goes through beautiful stretches of forests that show dazzling colors in autumn. Better yet, this trail is close to several historic cabins like the Bud Noah Ogle Cabin that are perfect for photographing in fall.
4. Rich Mountain Loop
This lovely hike in Cades Cove is the perfect way to explore one of the most picturesque valleys in the nation. This short loop hike offers several views of Cades Cove and passes through some lovely sections of forest. Ideally, this hike is best to enjoy in late October when peak fall foliage has arrived in this lower area of the park.
While you’re in the neighborhood, you could also hike to other Cades Cove sites like the John Oliver Cabin and the Primitive Baptist Church.
Since Cades Cove is quite popular this time of year, we recommend parking in the campground and walking to the trailhead that rests only a short distance from the start of the one-way, loop road.
5. Meigs Creek Trail
This trail begins at the Sinks Waterfall and follows a beautiful creek deep into the mountains. This peaceful trail doesn't offer many mountain views, but it's an ideal hike for walking among the trees during fall. There are many small stream crossings and cascades on the trail, with the largest one being the 18-ft Megs Creek Cascades. This peaceful hike is also less crowded than other trails in the Smokies.
6. Alum Cave Trail
This trail is perfect for exploring the mid-level elevations in the park. During the fall season, this section of forest is most spectacular in Mid and Early fall.
Alum Cave's 5-mile, one-way trail passes through some of the most interesting geologic formations in the park including Arch Rock and the Alum Cave Bluffs. Additionally, there are several overlooks along the trail including Inspiration Point, a beautiful spot with panoramic views of the mountains. If you make it to the top, you'll be treated to spectacular views from the LeConte Lodge and the Cliff Tops overlook.
7. Middle Prong Trail
This lovely, low elevation hike begins in the Tremont region of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This hike doesn't offer mountain views, but it does offer the chance to see lots of beautiful waterfalls and cascades. These are especially gorgeous in autumn since fallen yellow and orange leaves add stunning accents to the creeks and cascades. If you have time, consider hiking the nearby, 1-mile, Spruce Flats Falls Hiking Trail that begins at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont to see a 20-ft tall waterfall and several mountain views.
8. Laurel Falls Trail
As one of the most accessible and beautiful hiking trails in the park, it's no wonder that Laurel Falls is a great place to visit during the changing of the seasons. Visitors should know that this trail is very crowded during this time of year, so it's best to start a hike at Laurel Falls early in the day.
Along the way, this trail offers several views of nearby mountains and hikers will get to explore a beautiful, multi-tiered waterfall. As a lower elevation hike in the park, it's best to visit Laurel Falls in late October.
9. The Chimney Tops
This short hike is only 2 miles in length, but it's really one of the most challenging hikes in the park. This is due to its steep route, which climbs some 1,400 feet to the Chimney Tops rock outcropping.
Luckily, the hard work this trail requires is well worth the effort. The Chimney Tops Trail passes through some gorgeous stretches of forest and the summit yields excellent, panoramic views of the mid-elevations of the Smoky Mountains. As a result, this trail is best to hike in early or mid-October.
10. Ramsey Cascades Trail
Not only does this hike go to the tallest waterfall in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but it also passes through some stunning sections of old-growth forest. In fact, Several Tulip Poplars on this trail are greater than 8-ft in diameter and are around 100 years old. For best results, try to aim for hiking this trail in early to mid-October when the fall colors should be at their peak.
For some great fall views without hiking, check out Morton Overlook on the Newfound Gap Road or Look Rock on the Foothills Parkway.
Also, check out our fall foliage guide with tips on when to see fall in the Smokies and some other ideas for how to explore autumn in the mountains!
Written by Mark Frazier