The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the country. Ask any of the 11.4 million annual visitors their favorite time of year to visit and you’ll most likely hear autumn.
From October through November, the leaves changing in the Smokies put on a colorful display. The vibrant reds of the maples, the striking orange hues from the oaks, and the golden glow of the birches thrill the senses. More than 800 miles of trails traverse the Smoky Mountains. We’ve compiled a list of great places you can see the fall colors.
This scenic, albeit steep, walk to the retro tower is well worth it. A little more than 1 mile round trip, traverse the paved trail from the parking lot to the Clingman’s Dome observation tower. Up top, 360-degree views of the Smoky Mountains and neighboring Blue Ridge Mountains await.
While you’re here, you may spot an Appalachian Trail thru hiker. Southbound hikers who have walked nearly 2000 miles from Maine pass by this point in the fall. Clingman’s Dome is not only the highest point in Tennessee and the Smoky Mountains, it is also the highest point on the 2,192-mile Appalachian Trail.
This walk is approximately 1.25 miles round trip. Parking is difficult on busy fall afternoons, so it’s best to arrive early.
Forney Ridge Trail (Andrew’s Bald)
Although the trailhead is located in the parking lot at Clingman’s Dome, this hike takes a different route. Follow the Clingman’s Dome Bypass Trail down from the parking lot approximately 0.25 miles to the Forney Ridge Trail. Take a left on Forney Ridge Trail and traverse approximately 1.75 miles out to Andrew’s Bald. This beautiful walk takes you down and across a beautiful Boreal forest ridge line. This gorgeous forest type is one of five different forests in the Smokies and is very special. The Boreal forest actually begins very close to this point. The forest runs north through the Appalachian Mountains all the way in to Canada. Enjoy the peaceful calm of this dense, soft-carpeted forest as you walk along to the bald.
Once you reach Andrew’s Bald, you’ll be treated to views of Fontana Lake and the neighboring Blue Ridge Mountains. The color display here is truly spectacular.
Round trip, Andrew’s Bald is approximately 3.5 miles. Clingman’s Dome parking area fills fast on beautiful fall days, so arrival before 10 a.m. is smart for this walk.
The hike out to Charlie’s Bunion is a true Appalachian Trail adventure. From Newfound Gap, the state line of Tennessee and North Carolina, you’ll follow the famous white blazes for four thrilling miles. This classic Smoky Mountain fall color hike follows a rolling ridge line. After 2 miles, you’ll come to a stunning view of the Oconaluftee Valley on your right. Catch your breath before walking another mile to the Icewater Springs Shelter.
At Icewater Springs, take a moment to peer inside. Get a glimpse into what it must be like to be an Appalachian Trail thru hiker sleeping on the double bunk for the night. Check out the unique steel cables, where hikers hang their backpacks at night to keep their belongings safe from the black bears and mice.
Now, head downhill for approximately 1 mile until you reach the junction for Charlie’s Bunion. When you arrive, you’ll be treated to stunning views of neighboring Mt. LeConte, the Greenbrier valley, and be able to peer down into Gatlinburg. Maybe you’ll even see a peregrine falcon gliding on the wind currents!
This hike is 8.2 miles round trip, an out-and-back hike from Newfound Gap. Sturdy shoes, drinking water, and snacks are encouraged to make this walk enjoyable.
A popular fall color hike with a true mountain panorama is Mt. Cammerer. This strenuous walk heads up the Low Gap Trail from the Cosby Campground. Although the name sounds innocuous, don’t let it fool you. Low Gap Trail is one of the steepest trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Leaving the parking lot, follow the Low Gap Trail uphill. This wide trail is very well-graded for good reason. It used to be a Jeep road! After approximately 3 miles, you’ll reach the famous Appalachian Trail. Enjoy a break at this trail junction sitting on the logs. Have a snack and get ready for another climb.
Hike approximately 2 miles on the Appalachian Trail, taking in views of nearby Douglas Lake through the trees on your left. After 2 miles, you reach Mt. Cammerer Trail. Follow this trail for approximately 1.2 miles up and over rocks and roots. This short, challenging segment will make you realize where the mountain got it’s original name – Sharp Top.
When you reach the stunning and recently restored fire tower you’re in for a treat. 360-degree views of the Appalachian Trail in Pisgah National Forest, Douglas Lake, and even the Mt. Sterling fire tower are all easily seen here.
Return the way you came for an approximately 10.5-mile round trip hike. If you prefer even more exploration, continue northbound on the Appalachian Trail to Lower Mount Cammerer Trail and make a large 15-mile loop hike.
Get Ready for an Amazing Fall Vacation
Of course, not everyone enjoys a mountain hike. For those who prefer to see the fall colors without all work of a hike, check out our post on other ways you can enjoy the fall colors in the area.