With nearly 100 different native trees (most of which change colors in the fall), Native American and Appalachian cultural influences, historical sites, abundant wildlife and endless hiking trails, the Smoky Mountains capture the hearts of nearly 10 million people a year. The best time to visit the Smoky Mountain National Park, located in North Carolina and Tennessee, is from late September through November when the crisp yellows and sultry oranges of the leaves blanket the mountains. Here’s how to have an unforgettable autumn up in the Smokies.
What To Do
Great Smoky Mountain National Park is a guaranteed adventure: whether navigating its forests, trying the local grub, or glimpsing the unique history that America has to offer — you’ll be happily destroyed by the end of a very full day.
Take A Hike
Whether you’re a seasoned hiker, a nervous novice or inviting the whole family along – you’ll find a Smoky Mountain hiking trail that suits you.
Taking the fam? Try the easy 8-mile Schoolhouse Gap trail. With wide trails and not too much uphill, everyone will enjoy the fall foliage and late season wildflowers. For moderate hikers, try out the Alum Cave trail for 4.4 miles of breathtaking panoramic views and geological shapes that will turn your head. For the more experienced hikers, head up the Middle Prong Trail for 8 miles of strenuous strutting through thick tree cover and three waterfall stops.
Soak Up History
Take time to admire the well-preserved log cabins, mills, and barns to get a glimpse of past life in Appalachia.
Head to Cades Cove to see churches and cabins from the 1800s, plus panoramic views of the open valley where Cherokee Indians once hunted and European settlers planted roots.
The Mountain Farm Museum, close to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, is also a good option for historical sustenance. This peaceful outdoor museum offers visitors a true glimpse into the life of early farm settlers. The museum features a collection of buildings that were moved from remote locations of the park to the Mountain Farm location during the 50s. Admission is free and if you go early, the surrounding meadow is a favorite hangout for local elk.
Pack A Picnic
Spend a romantic afternoon in the Park with your special someone and a coffee-filled thermos or a day relaxing with the kids surrounded by wild forest and rushing streams with a classic PB&J sandwich in hand.
There are numerous designated picnic areas around the park. Most cost $20 to reserve and are open in the Fall (Cades Cove picnic area is open year-round).
Where To Eat
Spending the day gallivanting through the massive Smoky Mountain Park is guaranteed to leave you famished. Whether you’re gearing up for the day with a hearty breakfast or taking a break after a long day, we know all the best eats the Smokies has to offer.
This is a must-stop in the morning before a big day out on the trails. The Pancake Pantry boasts the best breakfast in Gatlinburg (borders the Park). Try their fragrant, fluffy Apricot Lemon Delight pancake stack or their signature Smoky Mountain Buckwheat cakes.
Ole Smoky Mountain Moonshine Distillery
OK this is less eating and more drinking, but it’s definitely worth a visit when you’re in the Smokies’ area. The Ole Smoky Mountain Moonshine Distillery offers moonshine tours and tastings where you can try every one of their unique moonshine concoctions like the Butterscotch shine or the Shine Nog (moonshine eggnog!). If you don’t feel like trying the shines, sit back in a wooden rocking chair and enjoy the live bluegrass band! Make sure to check out some of their novelty items and pickled goodies like the Hot Hillbilly Caviar.
The Smoky Mountain Trout House
Taste the Smoky Mountain spring water in the flesh of the Rainbow trout served at the Smoky Mountain Trout House. All the trout comes from the Smokies’ region and is served fresh. Try the Cheese Baked Mountain Rainbow Trout which is baked in crisp lemon juice and then smothered in creamy Swiss cheese breadcrumbs.
Where To Sleep
After you’re all tuckered out from a day traipsing through the forests and basking in the fall sunlight, kick off your muddy hiking boots and cuddle up in front of a crackling fire with hot chocolate in hand at one of these cozy mountain lodges.
Bearskin Lodge on the River
Kickback after a long day in the Park at the cozy mountain lodge that is the Bearskin. Located close to entrance of the Park in Gatlinburg, the Bearskin Lodge offers a peaceful sanctuary complete with a crackling in-room fireplace and a private balcony with mountain views.
Why you’ll love it : In-room fireplace, heated pool and lazy river and custom wood furnishings.
The Lodge at Buckberry Creek
With authentic Adirondack artifacts and classic mountain décor, the Lodge at Buckberry Creek is the epitome of rustic elegance. Their Grand Suites are 900 square feet of luxurious cabin charm complete with stone or wood fireplaces, sundecks overlooking the Smokies and animal skin rugs. Located in historic Gatlinburg, the Lodge is just minutes from the entrance of the Park.
Why You’ll Love it: Exaggeratedly spacious rooms, large soaking tubs and private decks with views of the Smokies.
Timbers Lodge Pigeon Forge
The Timber’s Lodge in Pigeon Forge offers a safe haven for families that makes it feel just like home. It’s just a stone’s throw to the infamous Dollywood theme park and other exhilarating Pigeon Forge activities. The rooms are simple and cozy with plush, plaid-trimmed beds and wood trimmings throughout.
Why You’ll love it: Budget-friendly prices, in-room Jacuzzi and pets are welcome!