10 reasons to visit the Great Smoky Mountains in fall

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(This is guest post from the RVing, family, The Roving Foleys)

After spending any amount of time on the road in your RV or campervan, it is inevitable that you will start compiling a list of favorite places.

These are the places that get stuck in your soul, calling you back time and time again.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one such place for our family.

We have spent several autumns in this region and it continues to be a favorite for the Roving Foleys when the leaves begin to turn, and the cool weather signals the end of summer.

Autumn in the Great Smoky Mountains is like nothing else.

The steamy summer humidity gives way to cooler temperatures. The thick green of the forests explodes into a vivid display of reds, oranges and golds so beautiful that you can’t help but take about a million photos. (yeah digital!)

Scenery, wildlife, festivals all seem to kick into high gear to make this area an absolute must-see for any traveler.

1) America’s Favorite National Park

Simply put, Great Smoky Mountain National Park is America’s favorite National Park. In 2019 there will be over 11.5 million visitors to the park.

Most of this traffic happens during the summer months (as expected) but that heavy traffic continues through October as the leaf peepers come in droves to experience the natural beauty in the seasons’ change.

At only 522,000 acres, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is smaller in comparison to many of the big parks out west, like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon.

However, the proximity to eastern populations, rich history, and breathtaking scenery make it a favorite over the larger parks west of the Mississippi. Yes, this does make traffic a concern, but we have found that we are never in much of a rush in this park, so any other “creeping peepers” (other than ourselves) do not bother us at all.

2) Fall colors pop in the Great Smoky Mountains

Trees with fall foliage in the Great Smoky Mountains

Most people connect the fall colors with the New England states and rightfully so. The Northeast has a well-earned reputation for spectacular displays in autumn.

However, more and more people are realizing that the Great Smoky Mountains offer just as brilliant a show, and – being farther south – a longer day to view them.

The park is home to well over 100 varieties of native trees. This means that the variety of colors on display is nearly endless. Each curve in the road brings you to a new and stunning view, whether it be open rolling fields, mountainscapes, or beautiful color speckled streams.

The variety of colors on display is nearly endless with 100 varieties of native trees.

We like getting into the park early in the morning. The gates into the Cades Cove Loop road open at sunrise and close at sunset every day except Saturdays and Wednesdays during the summer (May through September) when the road is only open to foot and bicycle traffic until 10am.

Get there a bit before sunrise and wait in line until the gates open. You will not be disappointed. Most mornings there is mist rising in the valleys and wafting through the mountains. The low rising sun creates surreal light on the mist and sparkles on the grass.

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3) Wildlife abounds in the Great Smoky Mountains

A deer eating grass in the Great Smoky Mountains

Wildlife is abundant in the Great Smoky Mountains. We saw so many deer, turkeys, bears, etc. we could hardly count. An early morning drive will undoubtedly reveal many deer feeding and frolicking in the morning light.

They are especially easy to see in the less forested fields in places like Cades Cove. However, the Roaring Fork Motor Trail is also known as one of the best wildlife spotting adventures as well. It is more forested, but passes through streams, mountains and many historic buildings.

Spotting bears is not too difficult in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. With a population of over 1500 black bears (that’s 2 per square mile,) black bears are frequently spotted all around the park.

Cades Cove is a great spot as the more open terrain supports the growth of berries and other food sources for bears.

The driving areas like Roaring Fork Motor Trail, and the lesser-traveled Cataloochee Valley are also great – just watch for a “bear jam” ( a bunch of cars pulled off the road with people jumping around with cameras.) Stop and join the madness- they are most likely looking at bears. Best times to be looking are 5-9am in the morning, or 5-8pm in the evening.

Turkeys are also a favorite along the roads and fields. They will be spotted as you travel.

If you need a break from the park, just hop on over to Ober Gatlinburg Resort (Theme Park) just outside the National Park near Gatlinburg. They have a nice wildlife exhibit that is less than $10. 

4) Hiking is amazing in Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Hiking in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is just fantastic. There are over 850 miles of hiking trails within the park featuring everything from very easy, short hikes to over 80 miles of the Appalachian Trail along the highest peaks.

There are trails featuring waterfalls and water crossings, as well as unbelievable mountain vistas. Click the map to download the official trail map:

Great Smoky Mountain National park official trail map

5) Scenic Drives in the Great Smoky Mountains

Auto-touring in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is one of the easiest ways to see the park. There are over 800 square miles inside this park, and 345 miles of roads to explore them.

Most of the roads are paved and even the gravel roads are in very good shape for cars. Driving around this park takes you back to the days of the great American road trip.

There are so many places to stop, enjoy the vistas, or explore one of the many historical sites that the Smoky Mountains offers.

6) Great Smoky Mountain National Park is family-friendly

The Great Smoky Mountain National Park offers a ton of activities that can be enjoyed by the whole family. Many of the activities mentioned here are best when enjoyed with kids.

There are horseback rides available both inside and outside the park, hiking, rafting and driving around looking for critters.

Fall offers even more as the kiddos will want to collect all the different colors of leaves that they can find.

The neighboring towns around the park also offer tons of fun activities – especially the Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge area which has exploded into a tourist mecca to rival any other. This leads us to our next topic…

7) There’s much to see near the Great Smoky Mountains

The sun setting over trees near the Great Smoky Mountains

Just around the park in almost any direction you will find even more to enjoy in the fall. As mentioned earlier, the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge areas just outside the west entrance are fantastic places to stay and have fun while visiting Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

You can enjoy the views on the historic Gatlinburg Sky Lift or enjoy the views in air-conditioned gondolas aboard the 200-foot tall Smoky Mountain Wheel.

There is the country music-themed coaster park at Dolly Parton’s “Dollywood,” and loads of roadside and historical attractions as well as shops and restaurants to keep your family entertained.

Of course in Autumn you have fall festivals like the Gatlinburg Tradesman’s Fair and Fall Harvest at the Island in Pigeon Forge. As the colors get into full swing, many smaller towns hold festivals as well.

Pumpkin patches, apple cider stands and hay bales are just around the next corner as you drive through the pristine landscape outside the park.

Kids enjoying hay bales near the Great Smoky Mountains

Outside the eastern entrance to the park is the reservation town of Cherokee. Here you and your kiddos can learn all about the native culture of the Cherokee Tribe who inhabited these mountains, complete with historical tales, shows and activities.

It is a great place to get history and a little learning along with the fun.

The Blue Ridge Parkway starts near Cherokee and runs along the peaks of the Blue Ridge for 470 miles. Spectacular views abound.

8) Camping in the Great Smoky Mountains

There are 10 campgrounds inside the park that are accessible by vehicle. Most allow RV’s and all are primitive (no hookups). There are several dump stations in the park.

Additionally, the park offers backcountry camping for hikers along the 800 miles of trails. There are some shelters and campsites marked on the maps provided by the parks office. Get more information here

Outside the park near any entrance you will find ample camping opportunities along with RV parks. Campendium is a great place to get started looking for a site. Just enter the town or location in which you wish to camp and make a few calls.

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9) Explore the Smoky Mountains history

The park was authorized by Congress in 1926 in order to protect the area from clear cut logging, which was rampant in the day. However, as money was tight, it took until 1934 for the park to be established.

During that time many settlers, miners and loggers were bought out or evicted from the land. Behind them, they left the many farms, barns, and churches that still stand today. The last inhabitants left in 1944.

Many of these buildings can be found along the Cades Cove Loop as this fertile valley was inhabited by several hundred settlers.

The buildings are now managed and maintained by the park service. There is even a working grist mill that grinds flour to this day.

Stop by and get yourself a bag and the kids will get a history lesson without realizing!

10) Be sure to hike Clingmans Dome

Clingmans Dome, which sits in Tennessee very close to the state line with North Carolina, is the highest point in the Smoky Mountains and the third-highest peak east of the Mississippi.

The views from the tower at the top are breathtaking – on a clear day you can see up to 100 miles. The walk up is a bit steep, but it is only half a mile and paved all of the way so fairly easy.

The Appalachian Trail also crosses Clingmans Dome marking its highest point as well. No visit to the park would be complete without a trip up here – especially in the fall.

The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is one of those place that you just won’t forget. A trip there during the autumn will stick in your mind like a favorite song, calling you to return time and time again.

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