Each year, millions of people visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (the most visited in the National Park System) for its beauty and grandeur. In autumn, the scenery is especially spectacular. As the air cools, a wave of vivid colors – red, yellow, orange – sweeps the landscape, transforming the lush, green trees into something truly brilliant.
While many believe that the peak season for changing colors is in mid-October, the season actually lasts often more than 7 weeks, from mid-September to early November. The change begins at the peak of the mountains and works its way down into the foothills. Because of the almost 100 species of trees in the Great Smoky Mountains, the colors are incredibly varied. Most of the trees are also deciduous, so few green leaves will remain.
As you plan your fall trip to the Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge, TN, this year, here are a few times to keep in mind for the best fall foliage viewing:
The changing of the leaves begins when the nights get longer and cooler, and sunny days blend with the perfect amount of rain. This month, colors begin to change above 4,000 feet, while much of the landscape remains green. Sourwood, dogwood, birch, maple and sassafras are the first to turn. Although the colors of the trees are slowly changing now, the wildflowers are in full bloom. Watch for coreopsis, asters, black-eyed Susan, ironweed, cardinal flower and more.
Recommended Scenic drives – Parsons Branch Road, Newfound Gap Road, Clingmans Dome Road
Recommended Scenic hikes – Albright Grove, Sugarland Mountain Trail, Andrews Bald, Mt. Leconte
Much of the forest below 4,000 feet elevation is still green now, but American beech and yellow birch are changing a bright yellow. Shades of red arrive with sumac, mountain ash, pin and black cherry and mountain maple. Blueberry and Blackberry shrubs are in color, the Virginia creeper plant is blooming, and flowers such as black cohosh and goldenrod are dotting the landscape.
Recommended Scenic drives – Heintooga Ridge Road, Foothills Parkway West and East, Rich Mountain Road
Recommended Scenic hikes – Appalachian Trail at Clingmans Dome or Newfound Gap, Sugarland Mountain Trail
By this time, color is really developing in the lower elevations. The peak of lower elevation color is about a week away, but black gum, dogwood, sourwood and sumac are bursting red. Gold is beginning to show through with tulip trees, black walnuts, birch, beech and hickories. Due to drought conditions, much more red will probably be seen this year than in other years.
Recommended Scenic drives – Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Balsam Mountain Road, Cove Creek Road
Recommended Scenic hikes – Lower Mount Cammerer, Baskins Creek Falls, Low Gap, Goshen Prong Trails and Sugarland Mountain
As colors in higher elevations somewhat fade, the colors at mid elevation (3,000 – 5,000 ft) are at or past peak. Black gum, dogwood, sumac, sourwood, tulip tree, birch, beech, spicebush and hickory are bursting with color.
Recommended Scenic drives – Newfound Gap Road from Alum Cave Trailhead to Kephart Prong Trailhead, Blue Rige Parkway
Recommended Scenic hikes – Rich Mountain Loop, Chestnut Top Trail, Smokemont Loop, Kanati Fork, Sutton Ridge Overlook