As the summer heat fades into the cooler days of autumn, many visitors to East Tennessee look to the mountains for the first glimpse of color at the peaks. For about seven weeks from mid-September to mid-November, fall colors cascade from the tops of the Smokies down to the valleys below. While the colors from inside the towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are beautiful, a good hike can really showcase the beauty of Mother Nature’s patchwork quilt.
Here are some of the locals’ favorite trails for admiring the fall foliage:
The highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains has a view that is not to be missed at any time of year. A half-mile hike from the Clingmans Dome parking area along a paved path brings you to the top of the Observation Tower, standing at 6,600 feet. On a good day of visibility, 100 miles of panoramic views stretch in every direction. Bring a jacket as temperatures at this elevation can drop more than 10 degrees from Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. If you only have time for one stop in the park, this is the one to make.
Once you catch your breath from Clingmans Dome, Andrews Bald Trail begins at the far end of the parking lot. This 3.5-mile round-trip trail has a milder incline for little legs and tends to be more family friendly. You will pass through grassy meadows (great for picnics), remnants of the Fraser firs, flame azalea and rhododendron, well known for their brilliant blooms every spring. You will also pass a connector to the Appalachian Trail. If hiking the Appalachian Trail is on your bucket list this is one of the easiest ways to reach it. Keep in mind Andrews Bald is one of the most popular hikes in the area. Go early to beat the crowds.
Look Rock Tower
Look Rock Tower trail is just under a mile from the Foothills Parkway parking lot #6. Just follow the signs along the paved walkway to the tower for some of the best views of the Smokies. This trail is kid-friendly with a great payoff when you climb up into the lower levels of the observation tower. Check out the view from the webcam at the top of the tower here.
Abrams Falls Trail
This trail is a favorite for just about everyone. During peak times, nearly 1,000 people make the trip to the falls each day. With this many hikers, early morning is the best time to start. Heading out midweek can help too. The trailhead begins just off the Cades Cove Loop Road and is 5 miles round-trip, taking roughly 3-4 hours to complete. The trail takes you through pine-oak forests along the ridges, hemlock and rhododendron by the water. Keep an eye out: river otters are known to play at the falls and along the riverbanks.
Mt. Cammerer – Low Gap Trail
This 11-mile hike is the shortest and most commonly used trail to the summit of Mt. Cammerer, which stands at 4,928 feet. This is a fairly strenuous hike for teens and adults with a bit of a rock scramble to the top. There is a 1930’s stone fire tower at the top that offers amazing 360 degree views for the adventurous hiker.
The best advice for anyone planning a hike is visiting one of the park-run visitor’s centers. The Sugarland Visitor Center is the largest in the area, run completely by the park service. Rangers can advise which trails fit your fitness level and offer time frames as well as the best up-to-date information on conditions and expected weather. For general information on when to expect the best color, check the Southeast Regional Climate Center’s website. For periodic, on-the-ground reports, visit the Fall Color page on the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s website.
Ready to experience fall foliage in the Smoky Mountains? Start planning your trip by browsing rental cabins.