7 Great Fall Adventures in the Smoky Mountains

The Smoky Mountains are one of the most beautiful places to visit during autumn, with cool mountain weather and brilliant fall foliage blanketing the slopes. From late September through early November, numerous fall adventures await leaf-peeping visitors. Check out these popular experiences, from serene mountain lakes to thrilling ziplines.

Bonus: Social distancing comes naturally for many of these outdoor activities; check with outfitters and tour companies about any special arrangements for your visit.

whitewater rafting down the nantahala river with NOC.Mountain Lakes, Rivers & Fishing Holes

The many lakes and rivers of the Smoky Mountains offer recreational opportunities of all kinds, from whitewater adventures to boating excursions and fly fishing. Book a guided kayak trip with Primitive Outback, Inc. to see local wildlife from the water, or rent a cane pole at a nearby fishing pond to catch your own trout dinner.

Ziplines

Feel the thrill of flying above the colorful forest canopy on a mountain zipline. The ridgeline-to-ridgeline course at Nantahala Outdoor Center boasts 360-degree views of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Nantahala Gorge.

Hiking Trails

Whether you’re in search of mountain top views or breathtaking waterfalls, an easy walk or a strenuous trek, there’s a Smoky Mountain hiking trail perfect for your next adventure. Check out this list of popular hikes.

Scenic Drives

Pack a picnic and hit the road for an unforgettable fall drive. By car or by motorcycle, the Blue Ridge Parkway is an excellent choice, especially in early fall when the colors arrive at popular spots like Graveyard Fields and Black Balsam Knob. Or check out US Route 64 between Franklin and Highlands to see waterfalls tucked among the brilliant trees.

scenic byway in the nc smoky mountains

Tour by Train

Bring the family and make fall memories touring the beautiful Nantahala Gorge by riding the rails. Great Smoky Mountains Railroad offers twice-daily tours (closed on Mondays) on their steam-powered trains. Choose open-air or enclosed train cars and order a boxed lunch for your excursion.

Museum of Cherokee Indian group photo
The Museum of the Cherokee Indian.

Cherokee History

Get to know these mountains through the stories of the people who have lived here for thousands of years. Enjoy an interactive cultural experience at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian then head over to Ococnaluftee Indian Village to immerse yourselves in the living history of the Smokies.

Horseback Riding

Enjoy the autumn forest from a new perspective as you ride along with your new equine companion. Book a horseback trail ride alongside your reservation at a local resort, or choose from a wide variety of guided tours at Chunky Gal Stables, which welcomes guests of all experience levels year-round.

 

Featured image courtesy of Adam Duff – @biodiverseavl

Where to Find Beautiful Fall Color in the Smoky Mountains

The Great Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina offers stunning natural beauty year-round, but fall is an extra special time to visit the region to see autumn’s colorful quilt covering the ridge tops. Thanks to the extreme variations in elevation, the Smoky Mountains enjoy one of the longest leaf-peeping seasons in the country. The first pops of color begin in late September along the highest elevations (over 6,000 feet) and continue through early November as color rolls down to the foothills. This means you can find stunning fall color at any point of the season.

Where to look for early fall color

Nantahala LakeDuring the earliest part of the season (late September – early October) you typically need to go above 4,000 feet in elevation to find fall color. Drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway to the higher points. Areas that tend to transition first along this scenic drive are Waterrock Knob (elevation 6,293’), the 16th highest peak in the eastern United States, Graveyard Fields (elevation 5,020’), a popular hiking spot with easy trails and multiple waterfalls, and Black Balsam Knob (elevation 6,214’), which offers near-360 views of the surrounding mountains. Another scenic drive to explore is the Cherohala Skyway near Lake Santeetlah. It spans the Great Smoky Mountains from North Carolina to Tennessee, connecting mountain peaks with elevations up to 5,390 feet at its highest point.

October is when fall color begins to accelerate across the mountains. Cooler nights and warm days provide the Smokies with the perfect weather conditions to produce peak season colors. When exploring for trees in transition, be sure to look down to find wildflowers adding their own pops of color to the season.

Typically around the second week of October is when Highlands, NC (elevation 4,117’), begins to see color emerge. Oaks, red maples, black cherries, and birches are all typically the first to turn. Blueberry bushes at the higher elevations will turn a brilliant red. A scenic drive along US Route 64 from Franklin to Highlands offers a beautiful way to see the color and some waterfalls along the way.

Top picks for mid season fall foliage

cherohala-skywayIn mid-October, you’ll find fall color heading into elevations around 3,000 – 4,000 feet. During this time you should visit Cashiers (elevation 3,484’), located in the heart of Jackson County. Nearby you can hike Whiteside Mountain, a 2.2-mile hike with gorgeous long-range views.

Around the North Carolina Smoky Mountains you’ll find fall foliage appearing around small mountain towns like Andrews and Maggie Valley. This is a great time to check out the Joyce Kilmer National Forest, a popular hiking spot near Robbinsville in Graham County. The combination of towering old-growth poplars and fall color make this a sought after spot for color hunters. Nearby you’ll find Lake Santeetlah, one of the most beautiful lakes in the country, thanks in part to the Nantahala National Forest that borders it.

In late October, fall color will encompass areas below 3,000 feet in elevation. You’ll find beautiful foliage throughout many of the mountain towns around the Smokies including Sylva and Franklin. Make a trip to Cataloochee Valley to see the majestic elk roaming the pastures to graze in the evening. As with any wildlife experience, keep a safe distance from the elk. You can also find elk at Oconaluftee Visitors Center near Cherokee.

End of season autumn hues

Great Smoky Mountain RailroadOnce November rolls around, you’ll find fall color creeping below 2,000 feet in elevation. This is the time to visit areas like Chatuge Lake in Haysville and Fire Creek Falls near Murphy. In Dillsboro, climb aboard the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad and get a scenic tour of fall color.

In Cherokee take a quick out and back hike to Mingo Falls, offering a stunning 120-high foot waterfall.

 

Happy leaf peeping!