A Great Smoky Mountain National Park leaf peeping trip is one of the best ways to celebrate the fall season!
I don’t know anyone that has ever said they don’t enjoy fall foliage – do you?
While my hometown of San Diego is a beautiful place to live with amazing weather, we just don’t get fall foliage the way many other locations do.
I have lived in the Midwest, the Northeast, and Northern California where I did get to experience the seasons.
But it also has made me quite aware of the fall foliage beauty that I have been missing since I moved to SoCal in 2000.
When my oldest went away to college in Oregon in 2013, I realized traveling to a destination with beautiful fall foliage can be a great way for a SoCal local to get their leaf peeping fix.
We loved traveling to Oregon for parents weekend every year that our daughter went to school there. And always made it into a fall foliage getaway while we were there.
Our youngest is now attending University of Oregon so we have been able to continue our Oregon fall foliage trip adventures for another four years of parents weekends ;).
But then I started thinking – hmmm- I bet it would be fun to travel to other incredible destinations for leaf peeping.
Thus the fall bucket list began.
In the fall of 2017, we took our first fall foliage getaway to Vermont.
And were hooked.
Second on that list was Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Coincidentally, as I was making my fall foliage bucket list, my little sister moved from Chicago to Nashville.
What perfect timing to visit my sis in her new hometown AND get to explore the best national park for fall foliage!!
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Leaf Peeping in Great Smoky Mountain National Park
- How to Get There
- When to Go and Park Entrance Fees
- How Long to Stay
- Where to Stay
- What to Do
- Things to Do Outside of the Park
- Best Photography Spots in the Park
- Our Full Seven Day Itinerary
How to Get There
As I mentioned above, my sister had just moved to Nashville and I was excited to visit her there.
Since Nashville to Great Smoky Mountain National Park is only a three hour drive, we combined these two destinations into one trip.
If you don’t want to start in Nashville, the closest airport for the Tennessee entrance to the park is in Knoxville 25 miles west of the park entrance.
And the closest airport on the North Carolina side of the park is Asheville about 60 miles east of the park.
We flew home out of Charlotte, NC which is three hours from the park’s east entrance but you will see from our itinerary below that we spent two nights in Asheville, NC after our three days in the park.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park is one of the most visited parks in the United States (and for good reason – especially in fall!).
When to Go and Park Entrance Fees
Timing a visit to Great Smoky Mountain National Park for peak fall foliage is REALLY HARD.
In fact, unless you are a local and can just hop in your car when the news says it’s the peak, your odds are somewhat against you.
The dates of our trip were October 13-19, 2018. And I know we were still early with those dates for the peak fall foliage viewing.
I read that fall foliage vibrancy depends on how wet the weather for the seasons before fall are.
The average peak foliage for GSMNP is usually the end of October and beginning of November.
In 2021, they are predicting the peak to be October 26-November 2nd.
Let’s see if they are right!
Great Smoky Mountain National Park is one of the few national parks in the US with NO entrance fee!
Another reason to put this park on your list ;)!
How Long to Stay
Our visit to this park was only for two nights with one full day to explore the park and a half day on our way to Asheville the next day.
While one full day could seem rather rushed, we still felt relaxed on our fall foliage trip – maybe it was just the calming affect of the leaves???
You would definitely be able to see all the park has to offer with two full days in the park.
And if you add on a third full day, you would have plenty of down time to just enjoy the leaves and fresh air ;).
Where to Stay
Dancing Bear Lodge in Townsend, TN
With all the research I did for this fall foliage trip, I was 100% certain we wanted to avoid Pigeon Forge. Our intent on this trip was to attempt to not be around crowds and super touristy, commercial towns.
Dancing Bear was PERFECT for this!!
I honestly cannot say enough amazing things about this property.
We rented a one room cabin with a fireplace and it was perfectly private in the woods of Tennessee.
An amazing breakfast is included in your rate at Dancing Bear Lodge so be sure not to miss that!
Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg
These are the biggest cities near the park. And if you are not looking for quiet and secluded like we were – you would likely want to stay here.
Check out this US News ranking of the best places to stay in these two cities for the best suggestions on where to stay.
What to Do
This hike is a 2.6 mile hike with a decent amount of short, steep inclines.
It took us about two hours to do this hike and the views were totally worth it!
Fall weather is always the best for hiking too – no need to worry about getting too hot while hiking in this park during the fall ;).
The park is currently requiring reservations from September 7, 2021 to October 3, 2021 for the trailhead parking lot so be sure to plan ahead for that!
You can use this link here for more information on current conditions in the park.
Chimney Tops Trail
On our drive out of the park, we hiked the Chimney Tops Trail to see the view of the Smoky Mountains from the top.
This hike is a 3.8 mile moderately difficult hike with about a 1400 feet incline but gets the blood moving and is totally worth the view!
The waterfalls at the bottom of the hike are probably some of the prettiest in the park in my opinion…
We did not do this hike however the pictures of it look absolutely incredible.
If we had more than one full day in the park, we most certainly would have done this hike!
Although, I am rather partial to hikes that end at a beautiful waterfall ;).
Another hike we did not get the chance to do.
This one is an eight mile round trip hike to a stone outcropping called Charlies Bunion.
The cool part about this hike is that it is part of the Appalachian Trail!!
Again – if we had more time in the park, I would have loved to have gotten on this trail…
Drive Cades Cove Loop Road
Cades Code Loop is an eleven mile one way loop road that brings you through the Cades Cove area of the park.
There are multiple photo ops available to stop and pull over for on this scenic drive.
We explored the Cades Cove area of the park on our full day in the park after our hike to Laurel Falls.
Clingmans Dome Road
Clingmans Dome is the highest point in Great Smoky Mountain National Park as well as the state of Tennesee.
It is seven miles to the end of this road with scenic pullouts along the way to enjoy the views.
It ends at a large parking lot where you then can walk a .5 mile paved uphill walkway to Clingmans Dome Observation Tower.
The views at the top of the Clingmans Dome walkway were decent enough but tbh the area was quite crowded and I kind of preferred the views we had earlier on the Chimney Tops Trail 🤷♀️.
After we checked out the views from the tower, we took a short jaunt on the Appalachian Trail – which is right behind the paved trail up to Clingmans Dome at the top.
Walking for one mile on this famous trail totally counts as saying you hiked a part of it – right??
Things to Do Outside of the Park
As I mentioned earlier, we were looking for fall foliage, nature, and quiet on this trip so a stop or stay in Pigeon Forge did not sound ideal to us.
However, my research has shown that there are quite a few family friendly things to do in this southern town. You can read all your options (including the famous Dollywood Amusement Park) here.
If you are okay with driving a few hours when you travel, I would totally suggest starting your fall foliage trip in Nashville!
We spent two nights and one full day visiting with my sister and her family and exploring their charming new hometown.
There is so much to do in this fun southern city.
We had some delicious cocktails on this rooftop bar and then headed down to the lobby level for our five star review worthy dinner at the Marsh House Restaurant.
A more detailed Nashville travel guide post is in the works as we have been to this lively southern city a few times now :).
And I imagine my little sister will have plenty of helpful tips to add to that post now that she is a Nashville native ;).
Blue Ridge Parkway
One surprise that honestly was just not in my planning was that we hit the Blue Ridge Parkway scenic drive for a bit on our way to Asheville once we left the park!
When I was doing my research, I didn’t realized we could do a very pretty part of this parkway on our way to Asheville,NC.
Isn’t that the best part of road trips and traveling?
When you end up doing something on the way that you just didn’t expect?
The southern end of this gorgeous parkway starts about 35 minutes from Clingman’s Dome (for reference) and is absolutely worth every minute of your time!
Asheville, North Carolina and Biltmore Estates
The quaint town of Asheville, NC is a two hour drive from the eastern entrance to Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
And is 100% worth a visit!
Once in Asheville, NC we checked in to the Inn on Biltmore Estate for two nights.
We ate dinner at the hotel after we explored the property (something that I love to do when I check in to a fun and unique place!).
We spent one full day exploring the Biltmore Estates.
It was only October 18th but they were PREPPING FOR CHRISTMAS!
Talk about getting the best of both worlds for a decor/Christmas lover!
Imagine my surprise when we walked into the house and instantly saw Christmas trees!!
The house wasn’t completely decked out for the holiday yet but it was a great peek into what the estate looks like for the coming season.
AND we got the leaf peeping outside so seriously couldn’t have timed the trip better for this experience ☺️.
We leisurely explored the estate, had lunch at the cafe on the property and then slowly walked around the exterior of the property to walk back to the Inn which was about a 3.5 mile walk.
We believe in walking as much as possible when we travel and have made it a goal to get to at least 25,000 steps a day if we can.
In fact- we get quite disappointed in ourselves if we look at our Health apps on our phones and see we didn’t make our goal (which honestly rarely happens in our travels together 😎.)
Sometimes the best views are in the least expected off the beaten path places too!!
We ate dinner in downtown Asheville at Posana Restaurant (LOVED this place!!).
And then putzed around town for a few hours before heading back to our hotel room to get some rest before our early morning drive to the Charlotte, NC airport for our trek home.
Best Photography Spots in the Park
- Cades Cove (see above)
- Laurel Falls (also see above)
- Meigs Falls off of Little River Road 13 miles west of Sugarlands Visitors Center
- Newfound Gap Road (main road through the park)
- Charlies Bunion – a stone outcrop on the Appalachian Trail
- Rainbow Falls
Our Full Seven Day Itinerary
- Flew from San Diego to Nashville on American Airlines
- Spent day exploring Franklin, TN
- Drove 3 hours to Townsend, TN – and stayed at Dancing Bear Lodge
- Spent the day in Great Smoky Mountain National Park
- Spent morning in GSMNP then drove 3 hours to Asheville, NC
- Spent the day at Biltmore Estates
- Flew home from Charlotte, NC (2 hour drive from Asheville)
Our Great Smoky Mountain National Park leaf peeping trip was truly a memorable experience.
I hope by sharing my itinerary with you, I have made your planning of this area a bit easier.
I love to research and figure out what fits best into our style of traveling and exploring.
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Autumn shows us how beautiful it is to let things go.
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