Fall is my absolute favorite season! I’ve always wanted to do a fall drive somewhere dramatically colorful.
Since I’m no longer attached to an office job, I figured what better time than now. And, what better place than the Great Smoky Mountains where you can find over 100 types of trees.
I had no idea that you can drive through so many parts of the park (they call it auto touring). Once I learned that I was ready to pack up my rental car and go.
Isn’t that for the outdoorsy type?
At first, I was hesitant to plan this trip because I assumed that I’d have to do some serious hiking to get the best views. I do not like to hike, I do not like bugs, and I do not like being vulnerable to serial killers.
I’m half-joking about the killers, but I’d still rather not hike. It’s just not my thing. The good thing is, the Smokies make it so easy for people like me. I got to choose my drives and comfortably experience some of the best views the park has to offer.
You can buy an informative map at the visitor center (for $1) and choose the route you’d like. I recommend you buy it because you will have no signal in the park.
Whichever route you choose, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to pull over and take pictures! There are stunning overlooks every few miles or so.
When is the best time to visit the Smokies?
As far as the fall foliage goes, it wasn’t easy to plan around. I originally had the weekend of October 14th booked and ready. Side note: October is one of THE BUSIEST months to visit the Smokies.
Hotels are mega booked and it will get crowded, but experiencing the mountains during this season is so worth it. Just prepare for terrible traffic if you’re heading in and out of the routes at peak hours of the day.
I started tracking the leaves because if I was going to make the 8.5-hour drive from Chicago, I wanted to make sure there’d be some color! Plus, we only had a weekend to explore, it had to be the right time.
Tennessee had been experiencing warmer weather for October, and the leaves were taking longer to change. So, I had to make calls and change my dates to the following weekend of October 21st. It was the right choice, and there was plenty of color at different elevations.
You might come across an elk!
How do you track the Smokies fall foliage?
The colors reach their peak at different times every year based on weather, but it’s usually mid-October through early November. The colors also change at different elevations. It’s a little tricky for travelers who like to plan ahead.
These are the sites I used to track:
First, this map was useless and completely wrong (it’s just a prediction) so don’t go off of this if you plan to go next year: foliage map.
Use their actual fall report updates instead. Plus, you can also see live webcams of the Smoky Mountains: color report.
You can also follow their Facebook page where they post color updates. Many people who are visiting or visited comment with their current updates as well so that’s helpful: Facebook page.
We stayed in the nearby town of Gatlinburg (which we didn’t like), and they have a report out as well: the Gatlinburg color report.
And because the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina is so close, I also tracked the colors there to get more of an idea: Blue Ridge Mountain color report.
Why did Gatlinburg suck?
Gatlinburg has a Wisconsin Dells/Niagara Falls feel. There is absolutely nothing wrong with either of those towns, but it is not at all how we like to travel. It’s a good place if you’re traveling with kids or maybe renting a cabin somewhere away from the center.
There were a lot of families there, so definitely kid-friendly. It’s one of the closest towns to the mountains. We were 1 mile away from the entrance to Newfound Gap road, and that’s why we chose it.
I tried to rent a cabin, but they were all a 3-night minimum (who knew?) and we could only do 2 nights.
Gatlinburg is a town full of stores targeted at tourists, a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not”, food that all looks the same, and nothing that went along with what we like. That’s the cool thing about travel though, we all experience it differently, and I’m sure there are plenty of people who love Gatlinburg.
As for us, next time we go we’re staying in Asheville, NC, a big foodie city on the other end of the Smokies.
Oh, hey boo!
Where does Blue Ridge Parkway fit in?
Blue Ridge Parkway is voted one of the most scenic drives in America (they ain’t lying). It’s 469 miles long and runs from North Carolina to Virginia, but you can access it from the Smoky Mountains.
At the end of Newfound Gap Road in the Smokies, you can turn left and that is Blue Ridge Parkway. Definitely turn left and keep driving.
Blue Ridge was even more colorful than the Smokies! We took the road to Linn Cove Viaduct in NC, it was about a 3-hour drive that turned into 6+ hours. There were a lot of beautiful overlooks as well.
Parts of the Smokies were nearing their peak when we visited, but Blue Ridge was definitely peaking. I’d have to say the Blue Ridge drive was my favorite part of the trip!
Sunrise in the Smokies
I love watching the sunrise, but I rarely do it because it’s SO hard to wake up. However, I knew this would be quite an experience.
At 6 am we were on our way to a recommended overlook point on Newfound Gap road. It was very cold, and I was very tired, but my goodness I will never forget that sunrise.
Recently, I was talking travel with a friend, and I was sharing how there are some places so out of this world that all you can do is thank God for that very moment and that very place, and for being blessed to be able to stand there.
Whether it’s glacier lagoons in Iceland or watching the sunrise in the Smokies — if you let it, this world will blow you away!
The colours in these pictures have got me excited for a season I otherwise hate. And love how upfront you are about not being the outdoorsy type!
Oh my God! I love the pictures! So so beautiful and fall seems like the perfect time to go for me <3
Just wanted to say thank you for the link to our Fall Color Guide on Blue Ridge Mountain Life. Good to know you found it helpful in planning your visit! If you come again, try the NC side of the Park in the Waynesville and Maggie Valley areas – Much less commercial, but still have that small mountain town feeling. Asheville is only 40 minutes away as well.
Thanks so much for the recommendations, Larry! We will absolutely be going back one day and I’ll be looking to stay elsewhere. Will definitely look into the other towns!
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What beautiful pics! As always 🙂 There’s a fall foliage map!? That is hilarious… I had no idea. I wish it was accurate!
My sister recently went to the smoky mountains and really loved it. The fall foliage looks fabulous!!! And I do love a good roadtrip. Thanks for sharing 🙂
Loving all your photos. I live about 3 hours for the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia and looks just the same. The colors are so amazing in the fall.
OMG Lily! these pic are stunning! I had no idea that also US had a foliage map! I thought only Japan had things like this, such as Cherry trees blossom forecast! The nature can be sooooo beautiful especially in spring and autumn!
You visited such a beautiful place, Lily! I’ve thinking about doing a road trip around the states for so long and visiting this sounds like a great idea! Thanks for the tips!
I honestly believe this has been the nicest fall! In Toronto and in NYC. Can we do this and not winter!?
I agree! It’s been so kind to us in Chicago as well, and the Smokies weather was perfect.👌🏼
I love doing road trips! This looks like a fantastic place to explore, especially in the fall with all the amazing colours! If I am on that side of the country I will definitely need to see the Smokies for myself. Thanks for sharing!
It really is, there’s something for everyone there! One of the most visited national parks in the US.