Fall is a magical time in East Tennessee—when the air just begins turning crisp and the rolling hills burst with colors from brilliant gold to a deep, burnished maroon. There’s no better time of year to take advantage of the 150 official hiking trails of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, less than a half hour’s drive from Jefferson County. These trails promise splendor around every corner, from sweeping mountain-views to creek-side walks canopied with autumn foliage. Below, we’ve compiled a list of 9 of our favorite hikes, with a breakdown of when you can expect the colors to peak at each.
3 Smokies Hikes that Have Fall Colors Early
Mid-October is typically the height of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park’s fall colors. But, height—in this sense we mean elevation—plays a key role in when leaf colors begin to change. The higher the elevation, the cooler the temperatures, the sooner autumn leaves begin to appear. For the higher elevation hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains, fall colors can arrive as early as mid-September. Some of the more popular high-elevation hikes include:
1 mile roundtrip
At 6,643-feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest peak in Tennessee offering sweeping views of the Smoky Mountains. The Clingmans Dome Observation Tower Trail is short, but fairly steep, and one of the most popular hikes in the Smokies. The concrete lookout allows visitors unobstructed views of the valley below, with vistas so vast that visitors can glimpse the fall colors as soon as they appear at any point across the park.
3.6 miles roundtrip
The trail to Andrews Bald begins in the Clingmans Dome parking lot, sloping downhill for its first full mile. It covers about two miles of the longer Forney Ridge Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with views of autumn colors from the very first step. The hike winds through a shaded forest before ending on the wide, grassy meadow with cascading mountain views in red, orange and yellow below. Bring a picnic and take it all in!
If there is one view that you cannot miss in the Smokies, it’s Mount LeConte. In fact, Mount LeConte is the place early advocates took dignitaries to convince them the area should become a national park. At 13.8 miles round trip, the Rainbow Falls trail offers a view of the park’s highest water drop on its way to this peak. There are four other hikes that also lead to Mount LeConte: Alum Cave, the Boulevard Trail, Bullhead Trail, and Trillium Gap.
3 Early to Mid-October Hikes for Fall Colors in the Great Smoky Mountains
There is no better time to see the fall colors in the Smokies than early to mid-October! Be forewarned though: everyone seems to know this fact. Mid-October is one of the park’s busiest seasons. You really can’t go wrong choosing a hike during these weeks if leaf peeping is your aim. But finding seclusion—let alone a parking spot—can be a challenge. Our advice is to get an early start in the day, and to opt for some lesser known Smokies hikes, like:
10 miles round trip
Gregory Bald looks down onto Cades Cove, providing a picturesque scene of fall colors. The leaf peeping is also excellent along the hike, where mature hardwood forests surround the trail. It’s a strenuous hike, but with breathtaking views of the valley at the 10-acre bald, which include Fontana Lake and Rich Mountain.
6.7 miles round trip
The Albright Grove Loop passes through a coniferous and deciduous forest, providing a beautiful mix of evergreen and autumn color. Baxter Cabin, built in 1889, is located approximately a mile from the trailhead. Old stone walls and the remnants of homesteads dot the entire route along a gravel path until the trail narrows and enters and old growth forest that includes some of the oldest and tallest trees in the park.
11 miles round trip
Mt. Cammerer is one of the Smokies’ lesser-known trails, a great option for hikers hoping to avoid the autumn crowds. Old growth forests offer near-constant fall foliage along the way, culminating in a fire-tower that provides panoramic views of the Tennessee Valley, Mt. Sterling and the Little Pigeon River.
3 Smoky Mountain Hikes that Have Fall Leaves Late
By late autumn, we mean mid-late October, and maybe if you’re lucky or it’s been a warm year early November. Most areas of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park will have lost their fall foliage by this time, but some hikes at lower elevations, or hikes that span elevations, might offer you a chance to still see the beauty that brings hundreds of thousands of visitors to the park each year. Some late-fall hiking options include:
Rich Mountain Loop
8.5 miles roundtrip
Located in the ever-popular Cades Cove, Rich Mountain Loop is somewhat strenuous hike that winds through lovely fall foliage with breaks offering views of the Cades Cove settlement. The hike begins with mountains rising around meadows, passing the John Oliver cabin at about 1.5 miles in. Views of the valley below erupt in a small clearing around the 3.5-mile mark.
9 miles round trip
The shortest hike to Mt. LeConte, Alum Cave is considered one of the more strenuous options for reaching the peak. It’s also one of the more interesting trails in the Smokies, taking hikers through forests with beautiful fall colors, over log bridges, and through geological formations like Arch Rock and Alum Cave Bluffs. Its old-growth forests will display fall foliage at the height of the Smokies’ autumn season, while views from the exposed cliffs on the second half of the hike will show colors earlier.
5 miles round trip
Abrams Falls won’t provide hikers with sweeping vistas, but if you want to be fully immersed and surrounded by fall colors, it’s hard to pick a better hike. Located along the Cades Cove Loop, Abrams Falls is one of the most popular hikes in the park. It winds through oak and pine forests, surrounding hikers with contrasts of brilliant gold, brown and green, ending in a relatively low but picturesque waterfall.
East Tennessee Autumn Vacation Destination
If you’re looking for a place to eat, play, stay and shop in between your hikes this fall, look no further than Jefferson County. Situated in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains and located just an hour from the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, a fall vacation in Jefferson County has everything you need to experience the best of the season. Visit the Lakeside of the Smokies to learn all about what Jefferson County has to offer.