When it comes to fall foliage, everyone seems to think that New England is the only place in the country that produces those beautiful, bold hues that scream 'autumn.' In reality, the Smoky Mountains offer just as much fall foliage with the added bonus of the natural beauty showcased by its remote, secluded nature. The Smoky Mountains is entirely worthy of a fall trip and in regard to the best time to visit, autumn might just be the winner in this region.

The fall foliage reports are slowly rolling out for 2021 and the Smoky Mountains tend to follow the same timelines as the years prior, and this year's report says much of the same. If securing a spot among breathtaking fall foliage is on the list this year, we have an endless number of reasons why the Smokies are the place to be... but here are the most important ones.

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When Do The Colors Change In The Smoky Mountains?

While the Smoky Mountains aren't entirely predictable, they do give hints of when colors will change according to the temperatures and altitudes of each type of tree. There are roughly 100 different species of trees that grow on this mountain range, and each tree has a certain time of the year at which a color change is expected. Sugar maples, red maples, scarlet oaks, sweetgum, hickories, American beech, pin cherry, and yellow birch are only some of the trees visitors can anticipate seeing during the fall season, and their colors vary greatly from week to week.

Elevation Guide

  • Trees that sit at an elevation level of 5,000 feet or more will begin to change during the middle of September. See these at Chimney Tops, Mt. Le Conte, and Newfound Gap in Tennessee. 
  • Trees between an elevation of 2,000 and 3,000 feet will reach their peak during the middle of October. See these at Oconalufee and Cataloochee Valley in North Carolina. 
  • Anything lower can be seen at the end of October and the first week of November. See lower-elevation trees at Cades Cove in Tennessee. 

Determining The Best Time To See Smoky Mountain Foliage

As far as crowded months on the mountain range go, October is one of the busiest. Not only is this the month when most of the trees are at or are reaching their peak, but it's also popular due to its cooler weather and autumn festivities. The harvest season brings in an overwhelming number of people, so this is definitely something to consider when booking a trip in October. However, the last three weeks of the month tend to be the least crowded and also offer the final burst of color from trees that have reached their peak and are reaching it at the lower elevations.

  • If booking at the end of October, try to book an accommodation that's in the valley, or as close to sea level as possible in order to catch the foliage peak of the lower-level trees.
  • Book vacations at least three months in advance to ensure proper accommodations and plan hikes and tours ahead of time.

The Best Times Of The Day To See Fall Colors

In order to get the most out of a fall foliage trip, it's best to know which time of the day - and during which type of weather - to see the foliage. When hiking or photographing, visitors will want to wait for a day that's cooler than usual and sunny with minimal clouds in the sky.

Humidity can cost mist to hover above the treeline (hence the 'Smoky' Mountains), and a cloudy day will undoubtedly dull the colors of the leaves on the trees. It's also best to start a hike early in the morning in order to catch the colors below after the early-morning fog has cleared. Therefore, early to mid-afternoon is the best time to catch the fall foliage on a sunny, dry day.

The Best Places From Which To See Smoky Mountain Foliage

There are several ways to see the foliage in Tennessee and North Carolina, and, of course, most of them have everything to do with Smoky Mountain National Park. The good news is that this park is incredibly vast, allowing many opportunities - and locations - from which to take in the surrounding fall scenery.

Road Trips Through The Smoky Mountains

  • Blue Ridge Parkway (also runs through Virginia to give expansive views of the Blue Ridge Mountains)
  • Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
  • Foothills Parkway
  • Newfound Gap
  • Cades Cove Loop
  • Balsam Mountain Road
  • Albright Cove
  • Lower Mountain Cammerer Trail
  • Goshen Prong Trail
  • Little River Trail
  • Sugarland Mountain Trail
  • Rich Mountain Loop
  • Chestnut Top Trail

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