Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most-visited National Parks in the United States and for good reason.
While the park is beautiful in every season, fall is without question the best time to visit. As the leaves start to change color in September, the sun shines through the foliage, enveloping the forest around you in shimmering, golden light.
The Smokies straddle the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, with Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge – birthplace of the legendary Dolly Parton – immediately to the park’s west and the quaint towns of Cherokee and Asheville to the east.
Most people coming to the Smokies stay in Gatlinburg, which is home to many attractions and lodging options, as well as easy, direct access to the park’s most popular trails. However, I prefer staying a little outside of town at Deer Ridge Mountain Resort, which has cute, affordable rentals with incredible views. As an added bonus, since the property is nestled quietly into the foothills, we always see bears roaming the area (from a safe distance, of course.)
Alternatively, if you are wanting a full Gatlinburg experience, the downtown area has a well-rated Park Vista by Doubletree Hotel overlooking the mountains that’s also a short walk from attractions like Ripley’s Aquarium, the Gatlinburg SkyBridge, gift shops, moonshine distilleries and of course, Dollywood. El Soñador is one of my favorite restaurants in the area for good Mexican food and Gatlinburg Brewing Company located directly beneath the restaurant is a great place for a fun drink after dinner.
Of course, craft beer tastes even better after a long hike and the Smokies have plenty to offer to all experience levels. After trying many of the most popular trails, here are some of my favorites:
Mount LeConte via the Alum Cave Trail is my favorite hike in the Smoky Mountains. It is around 11 miles roundtrip starting from the parking lot so I would suggest allotting a full day for it and bringing a lunch to eat at the top. If the distance makes you nervous, there is a beautiful, shaded rest area at Alum Cave to snack and refuel a few miles into the hike. The LeConte Lodge is perched on the summit and hikers can visit their café for a snack or refreshing drink. LeConte Lodge is also a functioning hotel for those looking to spend the night with an elevated camping experience and catch a stunning sunrise in the morning.
Charlie’s Bunion is slightly shorter (8 miles roundtrip) and has less elevation gain than LeConte so I would suggest this to people who are looking for a manageable challenge. You won’t get quite a 360-degree view from the bunion but the stunning and expansive view of the mountains is well worth the trek. This was the first hike I did in the Smokies, and it was an excellent introduction to the terrain and unique Smokies experience…specifically – the clouds and storms that give the Smokies their names!
Chimney Tops is one of the most popular hikes in the park because it is under four miles roundtrip. However – don’t be fooled into thinking this one is easy! The significant elevation gain over a short distance makes this quite a workout. While the view into the valley is beautiful, keep in mind that some of this hike was impacted by the Gatlinburg fire in 2016 and parts remain closed
Lastly, a trip up to Clingman’s Dome is an absolute must. As the tallest point in the Smokies, the view seems nearly infinite. While the elevation may have you out of breath quickly, this is a much shorter walk and more doable for people unable to hike long distances. From the main parking lot, it is about a mile to the top of the dome. However, it is important to note that I do suggest avoiding holiday weekends as the area can get very congested during peak fall times and this parking lot can get very backed up.
There is nothing better than watching the sunset cast a glow over the mountains as a gentle layer of fog – always true to the park’s namesake – settles in for the night. If you are looking for a peaceful retreat to nature this fall, head to East Tennessee. You will not be disappointed!