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

Birding in the Smoky Mountains

The Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina are a prime destination for birdwatchers, or “birders,” thanks to a wide range of elevations and a diversity of habitats that welcome both permanent residents and migrating species.

The arrival of spring marks the first of the year’s big seasons for birding, when migrating songbirds arrive at lower elevation areas. These travelers move into the area throughout the spring and into the summer, when eagle-eyed birdwatchers can find dozens of species singing and nesting in the trees.

Early fall marks a second big migration season and is notable for the opportunity to see Broad-Winged Hawks and other awe-inspiring species.

Prime Locations to Bird Watch in the Smokies.

Pack your binoculars for these favorite birding hotspots in the N.C. Smoky Mountains:

Killdeer bird in the smoky mountains
Killdeer

Stecoah Gap

Just a few miles from the crystalline lakes of the Indian Lakes Scenic Byway, scenic Stecoah Gap is famous for its variety of stunning wildflowers, as well as a diversity of warblers during the spring breeding season in April and May.

Hop on an easy-to-hike forest road and look out for Blackburnian Warblers, Black-throated Green Warblers, Dark-eyed Juncos, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet Tanagers and Wood Thrushes. Or choose the Appalachian Trail for a more strenuous hike and a possible sighting of the vivid Cerulean Warbler.

Kituwah Farm & Cherokee

The site of one of the original “mother towns” of the Cherokee Nation, Kituwah Farm offers 300 acres of open field to explore—perfect for spying raptors like the American Kestrel and sparrows such as Savannah and White-crowned sparrows, even in late winter and early spring. A few miles away, the Garden Trail at the Oconaluftee Indian Village offers an introduction to native plants and those cultivated by the Cherokee people, as well as sightings of Pileated Woodpeckers, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and Hooded Warblers.

family looking at ducks at Lake Junaluska
Lake Junaluska

Lake Junaluska

Situated in an idyllic valley a few miles from downtown Waynesville, Lake Junaluska is home to dozens of bird species, from waterfowl like swans (see baby cygnets April-June), herons and ducks, to a number of vireos and woodpeckers.

Bird enthusiasts have been very excited to see a nesting pair of Bald Eagles at Lake Junaluska in recent years. Pick up a birding checklist at the welcome center, or check the calendar for a guided bird tour in summer.

Little Tennessee River Greenway

In the town of Franklin, the Little Tennessee River Greenway offers a pleasant paved walk along the river, plus many family-friendly recreation options. Birders will find plenty of species along the main trail, and don’t miss the small wetland area adjacent to Big Bear Park where you’re likely to see White-breasted and Brown-Headed Nuthatches, Red-winged Blackbirds and a variety of ducks and woodpeckers.

Wren chirping in the Smoky Mountains
Wren singing

Blue Ridge Parkway

With its wide diversity of elevations and habitats, the Blue Ridge Parkway is a birder’s paradise. Devil’s Courthouse is a favorite nesting area of the Peregrine Falcon, with the parking area at milepost 422.4 offering the best views. Visit this area at sunset for a stunning view, then stick around during the spring months to hear the songs of Veery and Winter Wrens and to listen for the call of the Northern Saw-whet Owl.

Pack a picnic for Waterrock Knob at milepost 451.2, which boasts a panoramic view and a convenient loop trail perfect for spying Ruffed Grouse, Brown Creeper, Cedar Waxwing and many species of warbler.