Autumn in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a special time when a glorious leaf season of several weeks is enjoyed by visitors as fall colors travel down the mountainsides from the highest elevations to the foothills. The kaleidoscope of fall colors in the Smoky Mountains is magnificent and varied because of the amazing diversity of trees. Some 100 species of native trees live in the Smokies, the vast majority of which are deciduous. The timing of fall color change depends upon so many variables that the exact dates of “peak” season are impossible to predict in advance.
In the Smoky Mountains, autumn color displays above 4,000 feet start as early as mid-September with the turning of yellow birch, American beech, mountain maple, hobblebush, and pin cherry, clearly visible from such vantage points as Clingmans Dome Road.
The fall color display usually reaches peak at middle and lower elevations between mid-October and early November. This is the park’s most spectacular display as it includes such colorful trees as sugar maple, scarlet oak, sweetgum, red maple, and the hickories.
By the later stages of September, the right ingredients are beginning to emerge, the time when cooler temperatures and sunny days mix with some rainfall to bring on a spectacular autumn color display in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The timing of color change and leaf fall is primarily sparked by the calendar; that is, the increasing length of night. As days grow shorter and nights grow longer and cooler, chemical processes in the leaf begin to paint the landscape with Nature’s autumn palette in the Smoky Mountains.
While the typical peak of fall leaf color is at the middle to lower elevations where the greatest diversity of trees live, emerging changes above 4,000 feet begin the parade of fall colors, which then moves down the mountainsides into the valleys of the Smoky Mountains. The high country is still predominantly green, but fall is coming.
Sourwood, dogwood, maple, sassafras and birch trees are the first to make the change, turning red, orange and yellow. At this point, there is just a hint of fall color change among those early autumn starters. Perhaps more notable now are the autumn wildflowers in the Smoky Mountains, including cardinal flower, black-eyed Susan, coreopsis, great blue lobelia, skunk goldenrod, southern harebell, ironweed, and a variety of asters, as well as the bright fruits on trees and shrubs such as hearts-a-bustin. September suggested scenic drives for seeing fall colors in the Smoky Mountains include: Parsons Branch Road, Newfound Gap Road and Clingmans Dome Road.
September’s suggested hikes for seeing the Smoky Mountains in autumn: Albright Grove and Sugarland Mountain Trail as well as high elevation hikes to Andrews Bald or Mt. LeConte would be time well spent.
Another colorful fall foliage opportunity includes a motor tour of the recently reopened Parson Branch Road, an eight-mile one-way narrow, low speed byway. The road provides motorists an opportunity to drive through a large area of mature second growth forest and experience the quiet and solitude a back-in-the-woods journey has to offer.
By the beginning of October, trees in the Smoky Mountains high country that are now showing bright fall colors are the yellows of American beech and yellow birch and different shades of reds on mountain ash, pin cherry and mountain maple. In the lower elevations, a few early color changing species such as sourwood and sumac are showing bright reds now, but are scattered. Some dogwoods and maples are beginning to turn different colors in some areas as well. Fall wildflowers such as goldenrod and asters are colorful throughout the park and some blueberry and blackberry shrubs are also changing color, as well as the Virginia creeper plant.
Bright golds and yellows of American beech, yellow birch, and yellow buckeye and different shades of reds on mountain ash, pin and black cherry and mountain maple are painting the landscape. The big rounded leaves of witch-hobble are showing fine displays of color ranging from yellow to red.
The majority of the deciduous forest at 4,000 feet elevation and below is still predominantly green, but now with splashes of color dotting the slopes. Sourwood and sumac are showing bright reds; some dogwoods and maples are turning different colors in some areas as well. Fall wildflowers such as mountain gentian, black cohosh, and goldenrod are colorful throughout the park and some blueberry and blackberry shrubs are also in color, as well as the Virginia creeper plant.
Because the Great Smoky Mountains provide a range of elevations between 875 and 6,643 feet in the Park with differing moisture conditions and habitats, many trees will still produce significant color as the Park moves into its peak autumn season. Recommendations: High elevation trails such as Sugarland Mountain Trail and Appalachian Trail, accessed at Clingmans Dome or Newfound Gap, would be good hikes for this time of year. Also, roads leading into the high country, including Newfound Gap Road, Heintooga Ridge Road, Foothills Parkway West and East, and Rich Mountain Road out of Cades Cove, are the best options for seeing fall colors in the Smoky Mountains.
By mid-October at the lower elevations, fall color is nudging along. It is the sunny days and cooler nights that instigate the biochemical processes in the leaf to begin. The Park continues to experience very dry and warmer-than-normal conditions. These conditions will affect the timing, duration, and intensity of fall leaf season. The peak of color at the lower elevations is over a week away. In the valleys, black gum, dogwood, sumac, and sourwood trees continue to show vivid reds. Golds are coming along on tulip tree, black walnut, birch, beech, and hickories. A few scattered maples and oaks are showing the first signs of fall colors in lower regions of the Smoky Mountains.
A succession of warm, sunny days and cool crisp, but not freezing nights will bring about the most spectacular color display. At this part of the autumn season, some areas of the Smoky Mountains are showing more reds throughout the landscape than in other years. This may be due to the fact that the pigment anthocyanin, which gives color to such familiar things as cranberries, red apples, and blueberries, is in high production because of drought conditions. Anthocyanin is produced in response to lots of light and excess plant sugars within leaf cells. The carotenoids which produce yellow, orange, and brown colors are present in the green leaf but begin showing after the chlorophyll breaks down.
As the leaf color increases, so does the number of autumn leaf peekers. While scenic drives are a good way to see fall colors in the Smoky Mountains, taking to the trails is a wonderful way to enjoy the splendors of autumn.
Recommendations: Suggested easy to moderate rated hikes through hardwood forests include Lower Mount Cammerer, Baskins Creek Falls, Little River, Old Settlers and Porters Creeks Trails. For the more hardy outdoor enthusiasts hikes that provide scenic overlooks include Sugarlands Mountain, Low Gap, Appalachian, Mt. Sterling, and Goshen Prong Trails. Roads providing views of good displays of fall color are the Foothills Parkway segments on the east and west side of the Park; Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441) with its many scenic overlooks; Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail; Balsam Mountain Road; and Cove Creek Road.
As October begins to fade away up top, autumn colors at mid elevations, from 3,000-5,000 feet, are at or slightly past peak and are very impressive. Reds are more pronounced now than in recent years, especially on the North Carolina side of the park. Colors at the very highest elevations (above 5,500) are now past peak.
At the lower elevations of the Smoky Mountains, fall colors are quickly developing. The first frost of the season occurred this week in the low elevations, so the remaining leaves should begin to change color within a few days. Black gum, dogwood, sumacs, and sourwood trees continue to show vivid reds. Golds are present on tuliptree, black walnut, birch, beech, spicebush, and hickories. The peak of color at the lower elevations is still a few days away and will probably spill over into November.
It is not unusual for some autumn color to last through certainly the first week of November in the Smoky Mountains, but if weather cooperates autumn displays could last through mid-November as well.
While fall colors are past peak in the Smoky Mountains high country and many trees have already shed their leaves, a number of species of trees in the middle elevations are still showing color. Oak trees are just beginning to change color, although their hues are somewhat muted compared to maple, hickory, and other trees. Some pockets of green can still be seen at middle to lower elevations so there is still some new color to appear in these isolated areas if mild weather continues.
Recommendations: Good places to see fall colors in the Smoky Mountains include Newfound Gap Road from Alum Cave Trailhead to Kephart Prong Trailhead, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Foothills Parkway East & West, and Heintooga Ridge Road to Balsam Mountain Campground. Suggested hikes include Rich Mountain Loop, Chestnut Top Trail, Smokemont Loop, Kanati Fork, and Sutton Ridge Overlook (Lower Mt. Cammerer Trail).