With more than 100 native species of trees, the Smoky Mountains are the perfect spot to watch the changing leaf palettes of autumn. Depending on the elevation, color displays start as early as mid-September and usually reach their peak in the mid/lower elevations between mid-October and early November. In these lower areas, sugar maples, scarlet oaks, sweetgums, and hickories change into bright gold, red, and purple shades.
Kids can explore the park with a ranger to learn about its history, go on scavenger hunts, make pottery, or learn about blacksmithing. Children ages 5-12 can also earn Junior Ranger badges by completing the activities listed in the Junior Ranger booklets available at the park's visitors centers.
Fishing: The park has about 2,115 miles of streams within its boundaries, and protects one of the last wild trout habitats in the eastern United States. Fishing is permitted year-round from 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset. The park requires a Tennessee or North Carolina fishing license, which can be purchased in nearby towns or online.
For a picturesque and historic drive, journey through Cades Cove, a valley that long served as a hunting ground for Cherokee Indians. The 11-mile one-way loop circles the cove, allowing drivers to take a leisurely tour of the surroundings. Lining the road are a variety of historic buildings, including churches, log cabins, and a working gristmill. Cades Cove also allows for excellent wildlife sightings. Frequently found on the route are white-tailed deer, black bears, coyotes, and groundhogs. The road is closed from sunset to sunrise and only open to bicyclists, walkers, and concession-operated hay wagons on Wednesday and Saturday mornings from May through September. Automobiles are restricted on these mornings until 10:00 a.m.
The park contains more than 800 miles of maintained trails, ranging from short, paved walkways to strenuous ascents to the highest peaks.
Easy: Laurel Falls Trail is a paved 2.6-mile round-trip trail popular with families with young children. The trail starts on Little River Road near Elkmont then traverses patches of mountain laurel and rhododendron en route to the 80-foot-high falls.
Moderate: Alum Cave Bluff Trail is a steady five-and-a-half-mile climb up to the summit of Mount LeConte, at 6,593 feet the park's third highest peak, offering expansive views. Along the way you will come across a variety of geological marvels. Though this is the shortest of the five paths to the summit, it is also the steepest. The first section is a roughly 1.4-mile gentle climb along a hemlock-bordered creek to Arch Rock. At Arch Rock, step up the stairs through the arch to Inspiration Point, where you can see the Eye of the Needle, a hole in the rock near the top of Little Duck Ridge.
Strenuous: Ramsey Cascades Trail is a strenuous eight-mile round-trip hike that follows rushing waters for much of its length while increasing 2,000 feet in elevation. After passing through a striking display of tulip trees and silverbells (in season), the narrowing trail culminates in dramatic views of the Ramsey Cascades, the tallest waterfall in the park accessible by trail. Water pours from a height of 100 feet over rock ledges into a small pool where you can find an abundance of salamanders.
The self-proclaimed "Salamander Capital of the World," the Smoky Mountains are home to 30 species of salamanders as well as 13 species of frogs and toads. Protected in the park are some 66 species of mammals, more than 240 varieties of birds, 60 native fish species, and more than 80 types of reptiles and amphibians, including 23 species of snakes.
The symbol of the Smokies, the American black bear, is perhaps the park's most well-known inhabitant. The park provides the largest protected bear habitat in the East, with some 1,500 resident bears, a density of approximately two bears per square mile.
More than 1,600 species of flowering plants thrive in the park, including mountain laurel, rhododendron, and azalea. It is also home to three federally listed threatened and endangered plant species: spreading avens, Virginia spiraea, and rock gnome lichen.
Take the Newfound Gap Road to Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the park (6,643 feet), for best overall views of the park and a spectacular sunset.
It's not uncommon to find low-hanging fog at Cades Cove, where early morning sunlight against the mountain backdrop offers a perfect opportunity for landscape photography.
The Campbell Overlook off Newfound Gap Road offers excellent views of Mount LeConte and surrounding forests, which are particularly spectacular during the autumn leaf-peeping season.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Smart Traveler Strategies
Since most animals are active at night, the best times for wildlife viewings are during the morning and evening. It's also a good idea to bring a pair of binoculars (spotlighting animals is prohibited) to scan the trees, since many animals spend their days in the branches. Cades Cove Loop Road and Newfound Gap Road, though highly recommended, are also the most popular. To get away from the crowds, try less-frequented areas such as Abrams Creek or Balsam Mountain.
Excursions Outside the Park
Pisgah National Forest Asheville, North Carolina:
About 50 miles from Great Smoky is Pisgah, a national forest that includes Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi. Within the forest's three designated wilderness areas you'll find a beautiful display of azaleas, rhododendrons, gorges, and waterfalls.
Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, Oneida, Tennessee:
The Big South Fork of the Cumberland River, around 100 miles northwest of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, bisects the Cumberland Plateau and boasts white water, sandstone cliffs, gorges, waterfalls, and natural arches. The reserve's 125,000 acres, which extend into Kentucky, feature 235 campsites and excellent opportunities for boating, fishing, and swimming.