Download Visitors Guide

Where to Find Beautiful Fall Color in the Smoky Mountains – The Final Week

Hikers in Deep Creek Falls

This coming week, outside is where it’s at! Outside all day, if you can work that out. Soaking in these last warm fall days while the final leaves of the season change their hues and fall away is an excellent way to spend time here in the NC Smokies. You’ll still find leaves in transition, including the grand Oak trees. While brightly colored leaves have mostly dropped you’ll see large swatches of rusty oranges and deep reds throughout the mountains.

What To Do In The Smokies This Week

For the last of the strongest fall colors in the trees this week, take a day trip to Franklin and explore the Little Tennessee River Greenway. It has stellar reviews and begins on Main Street – no getting lost here, until you find your mind wandering as you enjoy the habitats of butterflies, birds, plants, insects and critters that call this place home. Plus, who doesn’t just love a foot bridge? This gentle Greenway has three – an arched wooden bridge, a steel truss bridge and a wooden covered bridge. Oh, sigh! This is the stuff of Autumnal dreams.

Another exciting fall day of adventure awaits you in Panthertown Valley. This valley, part of the Nantahala National Forest in Jackson County, is itself an especially rare geographical phenomenon at 3400 ft elevation. Because it is a high-elevation valley, it’s home to dozens of waterfalls and mountains, some with the highest cliff faces in the entire region. You’ll want a full day for this one. And do your research and make your preparations – it is quite remote and rugged and the hiking is rated “challenging”. Also, very important to note, this is a bear sanctuary, specifically the American black bears. There’s limited parking at three trailhead entrances – Salt Rock Gap, Cold Mountain Gap and Flat Creek/Rock Bridge. Learn more at

Mountain biking is extra fun at this time of year with the more expansive long-range views available on the trails – a ride with a view like no other in the Smoky Mountains! The Tsali Recreation area, within steps of Fontana Lake, in Robbinsville is open year-round and can provide miles and miles of entertainment of the outdoor variety. 

The 40 miles of moderately difficult Tsali (pronounced SAH-lee) trails have been rated as one of the top 10 places to mountain bike in the USA. Do be aware, the trails are multi-use and go by a daily use schedule to keep the hikers and bikers and horseback riders separated and safer and there’s per-person day use fee payable at either the Tsali Bike or Horse trailheads. 

Fontana Lake is accessible via a boat launch and is open for paddlers and motorboating. In other words, Tsali makes it convenient to take your multi-sporting group for an adventure that will provide memories for years to come.

Fall Color in Clay County North Carolina

2023 Fall Color Forecast

According to local biologists and fall foliage experts, the Smoky Mountains should experience a bright and colorful season. Warm dry days and cool nights are the recipe for stunning autumn hues, which the mountains have been experiencing since the first days of fall this year. “Fall Color Guy” Dr. Howard Neufeld, professor of biology at Appalachian State University, has been following and documenting the fall color season in Western North Carolina for 15 years. He said, “If I have to guess now, I’d say we might be 3-5 days late this year, because the long-range NOAA forecast calls for slightly elevated temperatures through November. Otherwise, all other conditions point to a good fall color season.”

Nantahala Lake

Where to look for early fall color

During 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

In 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.

Great Smoky Mountain Railroad

End of season autumn hues

Once 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!