September and October Mean Fall Colors in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
If you were hoping to get one last adventure in before the chilly weather sets in, boy have we got a great recommendation for you. Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GRSM) receives about 12 million visitors yearly, making it the most popular National Park by visitation.
One of the incredible aspects of the park is the fall colors. Most of those 12 million visitors check out the park during summer, but autumn isn't a Smokies season to ignore. September and October provide some of the best fall leaves on full display across the park's various elevation regions.
Fall Color Timing, According to the National Park Service
Since the park is in our backyard (kind of), the folks at Anderson Design Group make a point to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park regularly, driving the three hours east from Nashville to spend weekends and quick day trips in the park. According to the National Park Service, GRSM provides visitors with a long window to view fall colors, as the colors change at different times in autumn, depending on elevation.
Quoting the NPS:
“The park usually experiences an autumn leaf season of several weeks as fall colors travel down the mountain sides from high elevation to low. At higher elevations, where the climate is similar to New England’s, color displays start as early as mid-September with the turning of yellow birch, American beech, mountain maple, hobblebush, and pin cherry. From early to mid-October, fall colors develop above 4,000 feet. To enjoy them, drive the Clingmans Dome Road, the Blue Ridge Parkway, or the Foothills Parkway. The fall color display usually reaches peak at mid and lower elevations between mid-October and early-November. This is the park’s most spectacular display as it includes such colorful trees as sugar maple, scarlet oak, sweetgum, red maple, and the hickories.”
To see the best of the park’s color, we recommend visiting the park in mid-September and mid-October. That way, you can enjoy high-elevation colors with one set of tree species and lower-elevation colors with an entirely different set of tree species.
Why are the Colors in the Park So Spectacular?
When most people think of fall colors, they focus on the Northeast or the Great Lakes region. However, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an incredible fall color hotspot in the south primarily for the diversity of trees inhabiting the different elevation ranges of the park.
Again quoting the NPS research on fall colors in GRSM:
“Why are fall colors so remarkable in the Smokies? One reason is the park’s amazing diversity of trees. Some 100 species of native trees live in the Smokies and the vast majority of these are deciduous. As summer ends, the green pigments in leaves deteriorate, giving other colors a chance to shine. Carotenoids, the pigment that makes carrots orange and leaves yellow, are exposed as the green fades. Reds and purples come from anthocyanins, a pigment that is formed when sugars in leaves break down in bright autumn sunlight.”
Picking the Right Time to Visit
Even though summer attracts the most visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the incredible autumn colors are no secret. To avoid huge crowds, it’s best to visit in mid-September, late September, and early October, as the last three weeks of October experience the highest autumn visitation numbers. Skip these crowds, and still see great colors!
Scenic Hikes and Drives
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a large park, one of the few that resides in two states (Tennessee and North Carolina). Some of the best hiking trails and lookouts for viewing fall colors include:
- Inspiration Point
- Look Rock Tower
- Sutton Ridge Overlook
- Oconaluftee River Trail
Other popular attractions include:
Cades Cove. Cades Cove is at one of the lowest elevations in the park, meaning this region retains fall colors the longest. There is also a paved loop road through the cove, perfect for day drives and bicycle rides.
Appalachian Trail. Of course, the famous Appalachian Trail runs through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, offering pleasant day hikes along several sections of the trail.
Alum Cave. The Alum Cave Trail is an enjoyable 2.5-mile hike with a rewarding cave mouth at the end of the hike. An excellent way to enjoy the fall foliage and see a black slate cave!
Clingmans Dome. The highest point in the park, Clingmans Dome offers stunning views of fall colors, sights that go on for miles on a clear day.
Mt. Cammerer Tower. Similar to Clingman’s Dome in the views it offers, this beautiful and archaic tower was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937. It offers 360-degree views of the park.
Great Smoky Mountains Waterfalls. There is a stunning array of waterfalls throughout the park, and while these beauties are great fun during summer, they’re even more incredible during autumn when they’re ringed with fall foliage. Check out popular waterfalls like Ramsey Cascades, Big Creek, Grotto Falls, Raven Fork, Rainbow Falls, and Laurel Falls.
Two of the best scenic drives in the park include the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, the Foothills Parkway, and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Vintage Poster Art and National Park Art to Inspire Your Trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Anderson Design Group’s 63 Illustrated National Parks Poster Art Collection has more original illustrations of Great Smoky Mountains National Park than any other park. What can we say? This beautiful park is in our backyard, and we’re often inspired to create vintage poster art of Tennessee’s pride and joy.
If you’d prefer a more immersive guide to the park, Anderson Design Group's father-son duo Joel Anderson and Nathan Anderson published the Illustrated Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2015, a 128-page coffee table book featuring dozens of original ADG designs, plus maps, fun facts about the park, travel tips, and a detailed history of the park from historian and author Daniel S. Pierce. This book not only functions as an excellent guide to the park for your autumn adventure, but it also makes the perfect coffee table centerpiece and a great gift!
Last but not least, don’t forget your trusty National Park Adventure Guide when exploring the parks!
Have an incredible fall color season, and make some great memories!
Anderson Design Group Staff Writer