back road in the Smokies covered in fall leaves
September 17, 2022

When the Smokies begin to transform in the fall, the beauty at times defies description. Some visitors plan to arrive in the Gatlinburg area at this time each year specifically to see the leaves as they are changing color. If you live in an area where most of the trees are evergreen and keep their green leaves year-round, you may not realize just what a treat you are in for! Here is everything you need to know about the Smoky Mountains fall colors:

Timing Your Visit to Coincide with Gatlinburg’s Autumn Color

fall colors in the Smoky Mountains

There is at least a seven-week period each year when the leaves in and around Gatlinburg give up their green in exchange for vibrant reds, brilliant oranges, bright sunny yellows, and every color in between. This period can begin as early as mid-September or as late as early October depending on seasonal temperatures in the area.

Once it begins, the entire region transforms into a festival of fall color that travels all throughout the Great Smoky Mountains National Park region. This will make your drive into and departure from Gatlinburg as breathtakingly beautiful as your stay there.

Gatlinburg’s Fall Foliage Special Events

Every year, the city of Gatlinburg plans a series of special events themed around the fall foliage. The events typically begin right around the earliest time when the leaves may begin changing color – so in mid-September. From concerts to festivals to tastings and farmers’ markets, the locals come out to mix and mingle with visitors intent on enjoying the fall color to its fullest.

Events you can enjoy during the Smoky Mountains fall colors display include these:

Taste of Autumn Festival. This happens in mid-September and features an entire day of festivities at the Gatlinburg Convention Center. Enjoy comedians and concerts, tasty treats, and more at this annual event.

– Gatlinburg Farmers Market. This fabulous marketplace event is open each Saturday through mid-October.

– Oktoberfest. Finally, from late September through early November, Gatlinburg and surrounding areas celebrate Oktoberfest with concerts, dances, tastings, and more.

About Autumn Color in the Smokies

fall landscape in the Smokies

Of course, the backdrop for all of these special fall celebratory events is the stunning Smoky Mountains themselves. Perhaps the coolest part of watching the fall leaves change colors in Gatlinburg is witnessing how different stands of trees begin to change colors at different elevations throughout the seven-week fall foliage period.

This happens because of temperature differences at each elevation. As temperatures drop at ever lower elevations, the stands of trees at those elevations will begin the process of changing color in preparation to shed their leaves for winter. Many visitors experience this marvelous process as a moving river of color from the mountain tops down to the valleys.

About the Gatlinburg Trees

There are more than 100 different species of trees living and thriving in Gatlinburg and throughout the Smoky Mountain region. Each of these species is native to the area, and they all change color, but at different times depending on where they grow in the region.

Here is a handy guide to tell you more about which tree species may be changing colors when you arrive in Gatlinburg to view the Smoky Mountain fall colors:

– Elevations of 4,000 feet and higher: These trees will begin the process of changing color earlier than the rest. This is because the temperatures cool earlier at higher elevations. So the first trees to change color will include the Sourwood, the Dogwood, the Sassafras, the American Beech, the Yellow Birch, the Yellow Buckeye, the Mountain Maple, the Pin Cherry, the Black Cherry, and the Hobble Bush trees.

– Elevations lower than 4,000 feet: Starting as early as mid-October, the trees at lower elevations will also begin to shift into their fall colors. At this time, you can expect to see fall colors blooming on the Scarlet Oak, the Spicebush, the Sweetgum, the Sugar Maple, the Red Maple, the Sumac, the Tulip, and the Hickory trees.

The neatest part about this transitional time is that the colors of the autumn leaves will continue to change and transform as the season continues. So where the highest elevation trees may start off with a transformation to red leaves, they may progress to orange and then to gold and then to burnished magenta before they fall. The same process will begin at the middle and lower elevations, creating a sort of “foliage in the round” event as each elevation’s stands of trees picks up where the one just above leaves off.

Where to View the Gatlinburg Autumn Leaves

fall leaves on a Smoky Mountain hiking trail

There are a number of popular vantage points where you can really view the fall colors to the best effect, take photographs and drink in the natural beauty at all times of the day.

The best vantage points will be found near to or inside the Smoky Mountain National Park area. You can drive or hike to view the trees’ autumn finery.

Here are some great viewing areas and hiking trails:

Hiking Trails: Porters Creek Trails, Lower Mount Cammerer, Baskins Creek Falls, Little River Trails, Old Settlers Trails, Goshen Prong Trail, Chestnut Top Trail, Alum Cave Trailhead.
Drives: Foothills Parkway East and West, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Cove Creek Road, Balsam Mountain Road, Newfound Gap Road, Rich Mountain Loop, Smokemont Loop, Blue Ridge Parkway.

You may also want to stop at the Visitors Center on your way into Gatlinburg in case there are any particularly spectacular vantage points to be aware of during the specific time of your visit.

By planning your trip to Gatlinburg during the Smoky Mountains fall colors leaf explosion, you will return home with images of natural beauty that will never again repeat in exactly the same way – making it well worth the visit for the memories alone! To stay close to the National Park, be sure to check out our Gatlinburg hotel rooms!

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