The autumn season is upon us, and every year the Tri-State corner of our region puts on one of the most stunning displays of fall foliage in the entire country.
Much of this is because of the diversity of the hardwood forests in the southern Appalachian area, allowing us to experience a wide range of colors. We are privileged to have rugged mountains and beautiful landscapes draped with deep reds, brilliant yellows, vivid oranges, and even scarlets and purples.
And this year promises even more vibrant foliage due to a surplus of summer rainfall and cooler late season nights, allowing the trees to be healthier going into leaf season.
The options for experiencing nature’s spectacle of colors are plentiful. We have beautiful drives with expansive overlooks and numerous hikes to stunning vistas. It’s another great reason to get out and explore nature and take a needed break away from your busy life.
When to go
Leaves normally begin to change in our region around the first week of October in the higher elevations. As we progress through October and into the first of November, colors advance and move from the upper mountain regions into the lower elevations.
Try the following map to assist in planning your fall foliage outings: smokymountains.com/fall-foliage-map/
Drives (with optional short hikes)
Roan Highlands — Tennessee
The Roan Mountain area is perhaps the best in our area for fall colors. Take Highway 143 in the town of Roan Mountain and drive through the State Park up to Carver’s Gap. The drive itself will be amazing, but for added views, park at the gap and take a half-mile walk on the Appalachian Trail, heading north, to the summit of Round Bald. At this location you will have 360-degree sprawling vistas into East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina.
Blue Ridge Parkway — North Carolina
Take a drive to Western North Carolina and experience the colors on America’s longest linear park. The elevation varies on this road, which should allow you good colors at different times in the fall season. Sugar Maples are also in abundance on much of this highway, mixing in bright red colors to the scenic landscapes.
If you travel to the Linville/Grandfather Mountain area, don’t miss the wonderful views from the Linn Cove Viaduct. Nearby to the Viaduct, park your car and take a short, half-mile hike to the Rough Ridge overlook on the Tanawha Trail. Peak colors here are amazing.
In the Asheville, North Carolina, area, the drive to Black Balsam Knob is beautiful.
Hike the Graveyard Fields Loop for wonderful up-close colors with waterfall back-drops. Or, climb up to the grassy balds of Black Balsam Knob for expansive views.
Newfound Gap Road
If you’re willing to take a longer road-trip, then one of the most beautiful drives in our region is Highway 441 from Cherokee, North Carolina, to Gatlinburg.
This road will meander its way up to Newfound Gap, offering many scenic overlooks along the way with stunning fall colors. At Newfound Gap there is a large parking lot with wonderful views, where you can also take a trek on the Appalachian Trail. Also, drive out to the high-point of the State of Tennessee on Clingman’s Dome Road. Take a half-mile walk on a paved trail to the peak’s observation tower (elevation 6,643 feet) and admire the fall colors of the Smoky Mountains in 360 degrees. On a clear fall day, you can see over 100 miles.
Highway 441 will be a very congested road during peak leaf season, so get out early to avoid the crowds.
Brumley Mountain Trail — Virginia (easy)
Located just outside the towns of Abingdon and Lebanon, Virginia, you can enjoy vivid colors by taking a short, three-mile hike along the Brumley Mountain Trail to the Buzzard Rock overlook. From this point there are breathtaking views up the Clinch Mountain ridge line all the way to Bays Mountain in Kingsport.
After the hike, continue driving along the gravel road to the northern end of the pristine Hidden Valley Lake and experience colorful reflections on the water. This would also be a wonderful place to launch a kayak or canoe.
Appalachian Trail to Watauga Dam (moderate)
Park at the Shook Branch Recreational area on Watauga Lake and hike north on the Appalachian Trail. The trek to the dam is a little over five miles round-trip, with a few moderate rolling climbs and descents. All along this walk you will see beautiful fall colors on the surrounding mountains while being mirrored on the lake.
Holston Mountain Trail (difficult)
For a good workout with brilliant fall colors, try the seven-mile out-and-back hike to Flint Rock on the Holston Mountain Trail. This is a stunning vista overlooking the entire Holston Valley.
You’ll also be able to see Bristol Motor Speedway, the mountains of Southwest Virginia and most of South Holston Lake from this location. It is a stunning place to take in the fall foliage.