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 actually 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?
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 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: 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 actually 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 really 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 actually 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 all the way 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!
One last thing, catch the sunrise!
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!
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