The Smoky Mountains become one of the most colorful places in the US each fall. The area turns into a gold, orange and red paradise as the leaves change color against the backdrop of mountain spires. You can enjoy breathtaking views on an afternoon drive or spend a weekend winding your way through mountain roads, staying overnight at a hotel to bask in the views.
Planning Your Trip
Whether you have a few hours or a few days to explore, these Smoky Mountain scenic drives will treat you to the finest fall views the Smoky Mountains offer. Many lie within the borders of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the country's most visited national park. Its more than 800 square miles of natural areas offer scenic areas and hiking trails. During fall, October is the busiest month with traffic heaviest on weekends, and in the afternoons and evening hours. Area tourist centers offer free and low-cost booklets and maps of the area and its major scenic roads. The book , "Smokies Road Guide," provides detailed information and photos of both popular roads and lesser known back roads in the park. Check the National Park Service web site for seasonal and weather-related road closures. Also, download the park's free mobile app, Smokies Visitor Guide. Designed to work even in areas of the park without a cell signal, it offers recreation, services and trip planning information, plus a park map.
Cades Cove Loop Road
From sunrise to dusk you can drive the busy Cades Cove Loop Road for wildlife views, historic farm buildings, and access to hiking trails. The Loop provides access to Abrams Falls, a popular Smoky Mountains day hike. The Loop also intersects with Rich Mountain Road. Follow it to Parsons Branch Road then enjoy the views while you travel to Tail of the Dragon (more commonly mapped as US 129). If you visit on a Wednesday or Saturday, you can't drive the road until 10:00 am, but you can bike it. The park opens it to cyclists only these two mornings, so they can enjoy safer rides.
Cove Creek Road
The 11-mile Cove Creek Road winds through the Cataloochee Valley. Drive slowly so you miss nothing and because this narrow mountain road has no guardrail. You can count on this day trip for colorful autumn vistas, wildlife, and 19th century architecture including a barn, chapel, homes and school. Mornings and afternoons provide the best wildlife views. Although the Cataloochee Valley provides a rare cultural peek into American history, it receives fewer visitors. Explore this quiet mountain valley, but be careful if you drive a large vehicle through its narrow passage.
Clingmans Dome Road
Look for Clingmans Dome Road while enjoying Newfound Gap Road. This short seven mile side road leads you to the peak of Clingmans Dome, Tennessee's and the Appalachian Trail's highest peak. Park at the road's end and hike a half a mile to the observation tower. You'll see Tennessee in a new way.
Newfound Gap Road
If you'd like a day trip or weekend in North Carolina, drive Newfound Gap Road, aka US Highway 441, from Gatlinburg to North Carolina. It winds for 33 miles up to Newfound Gap. The road offers a few scenic turn off points providing panoramic views from 5,048 feet above sea level. The peak offers a spruce forest to explore, the Rockefeller Memorial, and much-needed restrooms for your road trip. You can stand where President Franklin D. Roosevelt did when he inaugurated the park on September 2, 1940. You can access the Appalachian Trail from here and enjoy a nature hike.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
The one way street, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, offers six miles of paved driving pleasure. It offers wildlife views, streams, waterfall access and log cabins to explore. Park and enjoy the 5.4 mile hike on Rainbow Falls Trail to Rainbow Falls, one of the park's most famous waterfalls. Pack drinking water and snacks for the hike since there are no food options available. Cars and pickup trucks may use the Nature Trail road, but buses, RVs and trailers may not.
Turn off Little River Road onto Tremont Road to explore Walker Valley. The road parallels Middle Prong. Take Tremont Road to The Great Smoky Mountains Institute. It turns to a gravel road after you pass the Institute. The three-mile gravel stretch leads to Lynn Camp Prong. Cyclists, hikers and runners frequent this scenic road, so drive carefully and watch for pedestrians.
Blue Ridge Parkway
Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway, a designated United States By-Way that passes through the Pisgah National Forest and into Maryland to enjoy one of the longest Smoky Mountain scenic drives. The parkway allows no commercial vehicles and limits travel speed 45 miles per hour. Scenic turnouts and parking areas dot the parkway, providing motorists ample opportunities to enjoy the views.
Visit the Cherokee Indian Reservation and enjoy the majestic views from Balsam Mountain. At the mountain's peak, you'll find a campground and hiking areas. From the Blue Ridge Parkway, at mile post 58, take Heintooga Ridge Road. The eight mile stretch to the campground is paved, but the one mile stretch thereafter is not. The unpaved length leads to an overlook with a picnic area. To return to the valley, you can go back the way you came or take the unpaved, one-way street, Balsam Mountain Road. This 18 mile mountain thoroughfare returns you to the Cherokee Indian Reservation.
Whether you only have an hour to spare or a day or two to enjoy the views, the Smoky Mountains provides gorgeous autumn foliage set amidst majestic mountain peaks. Choose your adventure and hit the road.