Posted by Darryl Payne in Smoky Mountains
The Smoky Mountains' fall colors are one of the greatest natural spectacles in North America. Every September and October, as deciduous trees shed their leaves, the Smokies come alive with vibrant red, yellow, orange, and purple.
The Color Season
Exactly when the leaves start to turn, and how quickly they turn, changes with the weather, so every year is different. Once the leaves begin to morph, "color season" lasts about seven weeks. Trees in higher elevations can begin their transformation in mid-September, with those in the lower altitudes and foothills starting as late as early November. First to change are hobblebush, American beech, pin cherry, mountain maple, and yellow birch, followed by scarlet oak, sugar maple, sweetgum hickory, and red maple.
Why Color Season in the Smokies Is Breathtaking
The Great Smoky Mountains are home to more than 100 different species of deciduous trees, the type of trees that drop their leaves every year. As the green pigment deteriorates in the fall sunlight, it changes to bright shades of yellow, orange, red, and purple, depending on the type of tree. Alder, hickory, ash, maple, poplar, aspen, birch, black cherry, sycamore, cottonwood, and sassafras change to lemony yellow and tangerine orange. Maple, oak, sweetgum, dogwood, cherry, and persimmon trees change to various shades of bright red and deep purple. Smoky Mountain fall colors are Mother Nature's end-of-summer finale, and it's a sight you'll never forget.
Best Drives and Vantage Points
Color season is a busy time for "leaf peepers" in the Smokies, so enjoying a peaceful foray takes a bit of strategy. Of course, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most popular places to observe fall colors. The good news is that the busiest areas of the park aren't necessarily the most scenic.
High-traffic areas include Cades Cove and Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441), so you might want to avoid those areas if traffic makes you impatient. If you're visiting in mid to late September, you'll have to trek to higher elevations for more dramatic color. Some of the least crowded drives are Rich Mountain Road, Heintooga Ridge Road, Parson Branch Road, Foothills Parkway, and Clingmans Dome Road.
Any time of the color season it's worth considering a drive along the 500-mile Blue Ridge Parkway. The highway runs through the mountains all the way to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. A meandering drive over the course of several days is a relaxing way to take in the glorious fall vistas.
If you're visiting in late September to early October, good tours in the park include Old Settlers and Porters Creek trails, Mount LeConte, Albright Grove, Mount Cammerer, Andrews Bald, Baskins Creek Falls, and the Sugarland Mountain Trail. If you prefer hiking to driving, Goshen Prong Trail, Low Gap, Mount Sterling, and the Appalachian Trail offer wonderful scenic overlooks.
October visitors can see the most vibrant fall color with drives along Newfound Gap Road from Alum Cave Trailhead to Kephart Prong Trailhead, Balsam Mountain Road, Cove Creek Road, and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Hikers will get stunning views from Kanti Fork, Chestnut Top Trail, Sutton Ridge Overlook, and Smokemont Loop. Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a lovely drive that offers a full day of short hikes, stops, and scenic overlooks. Note that this road is closed to RVs.
For a huge array of fall color, look for hikes that bypass spruce-fir forests (which are evergreen). Gregory Bald via the Gregory Ridge Trail offers panoramic views from a 10-acre grassy meadow. Spence Field, via the Anthony Creek Trail or the Appalachian Trail, is another grassy meadow that features breathtaking views of the North Carolina side of the Smokies. Once you've reached Spence Field, consider taking the Appalachian Trail just over another mile to the famously scenic Rocky Top summit.
Albright Grove is an old-growth forest off of the Albright Grove Loop Trail and the Maddron Bald Trailhead. The hike to the grove has plenty of historic settlement ruins, and once in the grove you'll want to leave plenty of time to look around, as Albright Grove is one of the most diverse forests in the nation. You'll see hard-to-find species such as tulip poplars, hemlocks, buckeye, birch, magnolias, silverbells, basswood, and more. The Sugarland Mountain Trail doesn't have the panoramas of other trails, but it does offer plenty of solitude, even in color season.
There's a reason that nature lovers flock to the Great Smoky Mountains in fall. As the heat of summer breaks, the mountains come alive with the bright colors of changing leaves, and the Smokies take on a festive feel. Whether you hike or drive to see the turning leaves, a week or weekend spent observing Nature's grand finale is a rejuvenating experience.
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