Among many reasons the Great Smoky Mountains are so beloved is the fall colors. The splendidly rich forests of the Great Smokies put on a world-class foliage display across a long autumn window, drawing “leaf-peepers” from around the world from September into early November. Indeed, October—the all-around fall-color peak, usually—is the second-most popular month to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park for this very reason.
You’ll be able to enjoy this wonderful natural show from the park’s road system (and from the Foothills Parkway nearby), for sure. Still, there’s a lot to be said for hitting the hiking trail to actually get out into those blazing woods—or reach killer backcountry vantages with 360-degree fall-color sightlines.
The colorful leaves of turning maples, hickories, tulip trees, cherries, beeches, sweetgums, basswoods, and other Smoky Mountain hardwoods aren’t the only attraction of fall hiking, by the way. The weather tends to be exceptional, with warm days and typically clearer atmospheric conditions than summertime. You’ve also got an excellent chance of seeing wildlife, which tends to be in peak hustle-and-bustle mode this time of year: whitetail bucks and bull elk gearing up for the rut, black bears packing on the pounds as much as possible.
At the later end of the leaf-peeping interval in the Great Smokies, furthermore, hikers may enjoy the spectacle of the high ridges and peaks dusted with the first snows of winter.
All in all, this is a wonderful time to hoof it along the 800-plus miles of trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park! Here are nine of the best fall hikes in the Smokies, in no particular order.
Albright Grove Loop
This loop, only three-quarters of a mile long but reached via a moderately strenuous 6.7-mile round-trip hike off the Maddron Bald Trail, shows off an old-growth cove hardwood forest: one of the ecological treasures> of the Southern Appalachians.
In fall, the hefty broadleaf trees here—including sugar maples, beeches, basswoods, yellow birches, and tulip trees, among them a giant more than 130 feet tall and 25 feet around—look especially gorgeous clad in their reds and yellows.
Grapeyard Ridge Trail
Many hikers on the Grapeyard Ridge Trail turn around after reaching a wrecked steam engine from the Greenbrier area. That 5.8-mile hike is great, but if you can swing a shuttle we recommend hiking the full 7.6 miles between Greenbrier and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. (You could also do this as a long 15.2-mile out-and-back.)
This up-and-down route shows off some great pockets of fall color among its oaks, maples, tulip trees, and other hardwoods. You can even see some of that color expressed on the grapevines that give Grapeyard Ridge its name.
Rich Mountain Loop
Cades Cove is a fantastic destination in the fall, given the colorful canopies, you’ll see in this idyllic basin as well as on the slopes of surrounding mountains. To further your leaf-peeping in the Cades Cove area, tackle the 8.5-mile Rich Mountain Loop.
This trail winds up to the northern rim of the Cove, topping out at nearly 3,700 feet on Rich Mountain’s Cerulean Knob. Expect up-close and long-range looks at some fine fall colors.
Cove Hardwood Nature Trail
Here’s an alternative to the Albright Grove Loop: a much more accessible leaf-peeping stroll through an old-growth cove hardwood forest. This three-quarter-mile walk is widely known for its spring wildflowers, but it’s also beautiful in autumn when big trees such as its sugar maples and yellow buckeyes put on a fiery show.
Laurel Falls Trail
Likely the most popular trail in all of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the 2.6-mile round-trip hike to Laurel Falls is a great choice for fall. You may be able to enjoy the highlight of the trail—80-foot, double-decker Laurel Falls itself—with a bit more elbow room than in the height of summer. And there’s plenty of fall foliage to enjoy along the way, and right around the waterfall too!
Little Cataloochee Trail
The six-mile (one-way) Little Cataloochee Trail in the southeastern part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is another winner of a fall hike. That’s not just because of the foliage and the abundant historical buildings you’ll see, including multiple homesteader cabins and the 1889-built Little Cataloochee Baptist Church.
The Cataloochee area is also one of the two best places to see reintroduced elk in the national park. You just might glimpse these beautiful critters from the trail—they’re often seen near the trailhead and occasionally around the church—and keep your ears pricked: There’s nothing like hearing the bugle of a bull elk during the autumn rut!
You’ve got to work on the hike up Mount Cammerer: We’re talking 11.1 miles round-trip and more than 3,000 feet of elevation gain. But the payoff is huge, especially in the fall.
The fire tower and lookout atop this nearly 5,000-foot peak provides panoramic views that reach their scenic zenith in autumn. And along the path in October, you’ll have plenty of trailside trees strutting their stuff, colors-wise: sugar and mountain maples, hickories, scarlet oaks, beeches, sourwoods, and others.
The Jump Off
Hike the Appalachian Trail from Newfound Gap and then a short ways on the Boulevard Trail to reach the eye-popping vantage off the Smoky Mountain divide called the Jump Off. A 6.5-mile round-trip trek, this walk through the Great Smokies high country is well worth it.
The viewshed from the Jump Off takes in a grand swath of terrain, including the majestic loomings of Mount LeConte and Mount Guyot, two of the highest peaks in the range. In October, expect plenty of vivid color bands in those vistas. It’s also super-easy to add a detour to Charlies Bunion, an impressive outcrop, and another homerun lookout.
Although it’s only a short walk up to the observation tower atop Clingmans Dome, we’d be remiss leaving this mini-hike off the list. Needless to say, you’ve got a stunning prospect of slopeside fall colors from the highest summit in the Great Smokies, which rises to 6,643 feet.
Leaf-Peeping by Foot: Fall is Prime Time for Great Smoky Mountains Hiking
The combination of dazzling foliage, often-perfect hiking weather, and thrilling wildlife-viewing opportunities makes fall arguably the best time to take to the trails in the Great Smokies. So start getting excited!