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Ahh. Gatlinburg in fall. The best and worst time to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The fall foliage is some of the best in the country and the crowds are some of the worst. It is the number one visited national park in the US, after all.
It’s also a bucket-list topper to see the Smoky Mountains in fall for a lot of people and for good reason. A few years ago wee went to the Smokies in the fall and loved it even though it was so busy, but we’re going back this fall and I’m SO excited.
In the meantime, here is an awesome (hopefully) guide to help you plan a trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in fall. You’ll be able to hike, hopefully see bears, do some amazing scenic drives, and admire some of the best views in the east and I can’t wait for you to visit.
If you do decide to travel right now, please do so safely and at your own risk. Wear a mask, wash and sanitize regularly, check any government regulations before going, and book accommodations with flexible cancellation policies, just in case.
Hotels in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge
There are so many hotels in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg that you’ll have tons of options to choose from no matter what you’re looking for. If you want something a little unique and fun, try the The Inn at Christmas Place or Margaritaville Island Hotel.
If you want to stay somewhere relaxing, consider the Inn on the River or RiverStone Resort and Spa. If you want something that feels a little fancy but won’t totally break the bank, Bluegreen Vacations Laurel Crest, Twin Mountain Inn and Suites, and Black Fox Lodge are perfect. Finally, if you’re visiting Dollywood, the Dollywood DreamMore Resort would be great.
Weather in Gatlinburg in fall
Weather in Great Smoky Mountains National Park can always vary in fall, but for a September visit I would plan for highs in the 80’s and lows in the 60s. For October (which I would recommend as far as seeing fall foliage) expect highs in the 70s and lows in the 50s. It can be rainy so I would bring at least a rain jacket just in case, but an umbrella might not be a bad idea either. Fall is such a perfect time to visit though, and not just to see the leaves changing.
Best time to see Fall colors in Gatlinburg
There is no exact time to see the colors change because it depends on a lot of things like temperature, elevation, and weather (if they get any big storms) but you can usually expect higher elevations to start changing in early October and the lower elevations (like Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg) to change in late October and early November, but if temperatures drop to freezing, it will shorten the color season and if a storm comes through it can knock all the leaves off the trees, so it does depend. But early October to early November will be best.
Tips for visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park in fall
- Make sure you get an early start! I’m the last person that wants to get up early, but we’ll be visiting again at the end of October and I’ll be making sure we’re up bright and early to try and beat the traffic, which is insane in the park on the weekend in fall. If you’re there during the week, I would still recommend it, but on the weekends its crucial.
- That said, try and visit during the week. It will be way less busy.
- Make sure to dress in layers or at least bring layers because the weather can change a lot throughout the day.
- Book your hotel in advance to try and avoid getting stuck at one way out of your budget, especially if you’ll be there on a weekend. They fill up fast and are not cheap. They will be a little more affordable on weekdays.
- I said it once, I’ll say it again (and again and again): GO EARLY! If you plan to visit Cades Cove or Clingmans Dome, make sure it’s the first thing you do. Like as early as possible because those two places get especially crowded.
- If you want to see Cades Cove later in the day, consider biking the loop road instead of driving.
- The Cades Cove loop road is one way, so once you’re in, you’re in and have to keep going.
- I would give yourself at least two days to explore the park, if not more. We’ll have four days this year and will hopefully be able to see a lot.
Best things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in fall
There are so many amazing things to do in the Smoky Mountains in fall. The number one is definitely hiking. I didn’t make a special spot for it on the list, but with 800+ miles of trails in the park, it’s hard not to. You can see dozens of waterfalls, hike to Alum Cave, or even hike part of the Appalachian Trail. Aside from hiking, here are some of the other awesome things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in fall.
Drive Cades Cove Loop
This is one of the most iconic drives in the park. This 11-mile loop is also one of the most popular places in the park. It’s great for hiking, but it’s also great for looking for wildlife, especially deer and black bears. We saw three black bears here and it was so cool!
We didn’t do the drive during our first visit because it was so congested (remember, GO EARLY!) but I would like to see the rest of it. We walked the short distance to where the bears were. If you only do one thing in the park, this national park bucket list activity should be it.
Admire the view from Clingman’s Dome
Now for one of the most iconic views in the Great Smoky Mountains. If you get up nice and early, like sunrise early, you can admire the Smoky Mountains blanketed in fog (making them look blue, like the Blue Ridge Parkway). Or at least hopefully you can.
This is the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Tennessee and the third highest peak east of the Mississippi. There is an observation tower at the top with 360 degree views with a steep half-mile walk to get there.
Enjoy a quiet walkway
There are a few of these scattered around the park. They aren’t official hiking trails, but quiet walkways in the woods. There are usually a couple pats that meander through the trees and meet up before splitting and reconverting again. These are my favorite way to escape the crowds in the Smokies and still usually have nice scenery.
Hike part of the Appalachian Trail
This is a must-do because then you can say you hiked the Appalachian Trail! Well, at least a tiny part of it. The sections in the park are well marked and this is just a fun thing to do and say you’ve done, but there are probably better trails in the park, too.
Look for elk
The last elk in Tennessee was killed in the late 1800s, but were reintroduced to the area in 2001 when they brought 25 in. They brought another 27 in in 2002. The best place to see them is in the Cataloochee area. We saw a ton of them in the field next to the Oconoluftee Visitor Center on the Cherokee side of the park. The best time to see them will be early morning and evening.
Look for bears
Like I said, we saw three bears in the Cades Cove loop. They were maybe a quarter mile down the road, but we parked at the entrance to it, where you can still turn around, to see why traffic was so backed up. Turns out that’s just normal, but there were also the bears that were slowing everyone down so we just walked over and hung around there with maybe 15 other people and a ranger waving traffic on for 30-45 minutes. I loved it. There are 1,500 bears living in the park, so two per square mile! Here are some notes on bear safety.
Drive part of the Blue Ridge Parkway
This is probably one of the most iconic drives in the US, right next to Route 66, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park happens to be the end point of the drive. It starts in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia some 400 miles away. Even just driving from the park to Asheville is amazing and will givee you a little taste of the Parkway’s entirety making you want to drive the whole thing.
Fun Things to do in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg in fall
Eat some pancakes
Gatlinburg has like, eight restaurants with the word pancake in the name. You can’t not eat them at least once. Sure, this might be a weird thing to put on this list and you can do it anytime, but pancakes just feel like a cozy food and fall is cozy, so it counts.
This is the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America at 680 feet long, crossing a deep valley with sprawling mountain views. It’s at the top of the SkyLift and even has a glass section so you can see the treetops waaaaaay below you. You can also stop at the SkyDeck for a less terrifying view of Gatlinburg and the changing leaves.
Take the cable car up to Ober Gatlinburg
Ober Gatlinburg is an amusement park and ski area and just, well, so Gatlinburg. There is a scenic chairlift, an aerial tramway, a ski mountain coaster, a maze, and alpine slide, and so much more. If you want to take a break from the hiking and park crowds, this is a fun option.
Do some mini golfing
Who doesn’t love mini golfing? Actually, if you don’t, I don’t need to know. I love it and there are tons of places to mini golf in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. This is another fun thing to do to escape the park crowds, which you may find yourself wanting to do sooner than later.
Have you been to Gatlinburg in the fall? What did you think of it? Do you want to go? What is your favorite thing to do in the Smoky Mountains in Fall?