The Great Smoky Mountains stretch along the state borders of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina, and get their name from the natural fog phenomenon that hovers over the mountains, appearing as ‘smoke’ from a distance. Notable for its diverse ecosystem that features dense old growth forest, ample waterways, a wide variety of wildlife and native vegetation and awe-inspiring natural beauty, the Smokies offer something for everyone, regardless of age or interest.
There are many reasons to visit the Great Smoky Mountains; the historic Cherokee territory, tourist attractions such as Dollywood, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, recreational areas dedicated to outdoor activities (camping, fishing, hiking, hunting, rafting, snow skiing, etc), breathtaking scenery — all situated amid some of the highest mountain peaks east of the Rockies. The number of visitors (exceeding nine million annually) attest to the popularity of the Great Smokies, making it the nation’s most-visited national park.
Probably the most popular and eagerly anticipated time of the region’s year is the autumn/fall season, in particular late September thru October. During this relatively brief change-of-season period, the heavily forested Smokies literally explode into a stunning display of brilliant colors, providing unequalled photographic and sightseeing experiences that are guaranteed to impress, inspire and create future return visits to this national treasure.
Beginning in late September, the higher elevations (4,000 feet and higher) are the first to start the color transformation process, with birch, dogwood and maple trees slowly-but-surely changing from their normal green hues into attention-grabbing, dazzling bright orange, red and yellow colors. Some of the best locations to view this natural miracle include the Clingman’s Dome area (elevation 6,643 feet — Tennessee’s highest), Mount Collins and Mount Le Conte. Tip: Be sure to take along at least a medium-weight jacket.
Beginning in early October, visitors to slightly lower elevations are rewarded with a veritable artist’s palette of brilliant color splashes, especially among the bold yellows of beech and birch trees, as well as the vibrant reds of abundant ash, cherry and maples. Ideal viewing spots for taking in these attractions include the Foothills Parkway and numerous vantage points in and around Cade’s Cove, an area well-known for family-friendly camping and hiking accessibility.
By mid-October, due to the thinner atmosphere, the central Smokies’ higher elevations are usually at their ‘color peak, ‘ with the bold reds of black gums, dogwoods and sourwoods brilliantly interspersed among the deep golds of beech, birch, black walnut and hickory trees. Some of the best locales for appreciating their colorful splendor are Balsam Mountain Road, Cove Creek Road, and (again) the Foothills Parkway.
Depending on local weather variables (rainfall, temperature, etc), late October is almost always the most opportune time to experience the Great Smokies’ Mother Nature Show. From the highest points down through picturesque valleys, the landscape is awash in almost every imaginable color — and even some ‘hybrid’ hues that are both unimaginable and indescribable.
Regardless of whether your family is vacationing, camping out, or just enjoying a day or weekend excursion, the annual ‘Changing of the Colors’ in the Great Smokies is an experience that is certain to be both entertaining and unforgettable.