If you’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting Tennessee in the fall, I know you’ll agree that our gorgeous state reaches the pinnacle of its seasonal beauty from mid-October through late November.
With the arrival of autumn in late September, the show starts in the dense forests that crown the Great Smoky Mountains. As they begin their transformation, their leaves drape the mountains in vivid hues of crimson, orange, and gold. By the last two weeks of October, the colors have traversed to the foot of the mountains and spread across the state, making riotous autumn hues visible from nearly anywhere! However, for those of you who want to experience the ultimate fall vistas, we’ve curated a list of some of the best places to enjoy fall foliage in Tennessee.
Located 50 miles south of Knoxville, Cades Cove is one of the most popular fall foliage destinations within the Smoky Mountains. Take the one-way, 11-mile loop through this lush valley by vehicle or use it as a starting point for a hike. Along with an incredible place to take in the fall colors, you may also glimpse some wildlife at Cades Cove, like white-tailed deer, black bears, coyotes, groundhogs, turkeys, raccoons and skunks.
We recommend setting aside 2-4 hours for this experience if you plan to remain in your vehicle, while hikers will require additional time.
Boasting the highest point in all of the Tennessee Smoky Mountains, Clingman’s Dome’s observation tower captures 360-degree views of the forest’s breathtaking autumn display from 6,643 feet above the valley floor. The paved, half-mile trail to the pinnacle is a steep but popular short jaunt. Please note that the paved trail is not wheelchair accessible and bikes are not permitted, so plan accordingly.
Visitors flock to the unique photography opportunities presented by Cataloochee Valley in autumn. Whether you visit to hike, take pictures, or tour the town, Cataloochee is sure to delight. In 1910, this mountain valley was a prosperous settlement of more than 1,200 people.
The thick, rugged trees (with 6000-foot peaks) provide the perfect fall backdrop for the historic architecture found in the valley.
Gatlinburg is located right outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, making its Space Needle a great way to see the splendor of fall even before you head out into the mountains. Take the glass elevator 400 feet up, then catch panoramic views of both the city and surrounding forests (in all their autumn splendor) from the observation deck.
If you’ve soared high above the mountains in your dreams, the SkyBridge may be the kind of thrill you’re seeking. This suspension bridge is the longest of its kind on the continent! Visitors can walk out across the narrow footbridge and stare down through the glass floor to the vibrant treetops and townscape 140 below. The view is breathtaking any time of year, and even more brilliant as the leaves are changing color.
Located just outside Gatlinburg, this 5.5-mile one-way auto tour will take you through gorgeous fall forests, alongside both Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls. If you’re in the mood to stretch your legs, you can also hike the 2.6-mile scenic trail to Grotto Falls! The falls are 25 feet high, and the surrounding old-growth forest makes this an absolutely arresting autumn scene.
Though it’s less famous than its cousin, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Roan Mountain is another truly stunning stop along the Appalachian Trail. 2,000 acres of this park are hardwood forests, so you’re guaranteed to enjoy iconic fall scenery from practically anywhere along the way, and you’ll likely duck some crowds by choosing to explore the (usually less crowded) 12+ miles of hiking trails along the Doe River at Roan Mountain Park.
One of the state’s many hidden gems, Tellico Plains is a tiny town. With a population of just under 1,000 people, there may be no better place to escape from a busy lifestyle, even if just for a few days. Nestled in the foothills of the Smokies and just outside Cherokee National Forest, Tellico Plains also offers access to the Cherohala Skyway, which reaches 23 miles into the wild forests. The surrounding farmlands and weathered barns present a serene backdrop for the fall colors of the Smoky Mountains.
While Franklin may regrettably have to scale back its famous Pumpkinfest this year due to the pandemic, the rich hues of fall are going to be as gorgeous as ever within the Natchez Trace State Park. Kayak, hike, go for a drive, or take a walk across the Parkway Bridge that spans the valley floor.
If you’re planning to visit Memphis this fall, the barbecue isn’t the only famous feature we’d recommend! Less than 15 miles north of the city, bordering the Mississippi River, Meeman-Shelby Forest is virtually bursting with color throughout fall. Over 20 miles of trails wind through the park, and while we love the whole park, the stunning reflections within Poplar Tree Lake deserve special mention.
Encompassing 125,000 acres, Big South Park is an autumn enthusiast’s paradise. Rent a horse, take a hike alongside the river, paddle by kayak, or tour by vehicle; any way you go, you’ll be surrounded by the lush autumn leaves of the Cumberland Plateau.
If you’re looking for the spots to enjoy perfect fall foliage, you just can’t go wrong with any that made our list. Outdoor activities are ideal for this time of social distancing, though local businesses that are open welcome your (responsible) patronage as well.