Updated: Oct 23, 2022
Today’s adventure finds us in Tennessee during the middle of October. This is one of the most popular times to visit this National Park due to the changing colors in the leaves. The Smoky Mountains are often ranked as one of the best locations in the country to see the leaves change color. Due to the incredible diversity of trees that grow in this park; visitors are greeted with an abundance of different colors if they are lucky enough to arrive during the peak color change. This region is a terrific option for families as it combines a variety of trip options. The Smoky Mountains National Park offers an abundance of trails through rolling hills, river paths, and waterfalls. Nearby Gatlinburg offers a large amusement park to enjoy, Dollywood. Gatlinburg also hosts many theaters that all have their own unique shows on a nightly basis ranging from musicals to magic. Although heavily commercialized, Gatlinburg allows families to enjoy nature by day while have many entertainment options at night that would not be out of place in other popular tourist cities such as Las Vegas or New York. Nearby Pigeon Forge provides a second option for families to stay at with a contrasting feel. Pigeon Forge is a much smaller town that is nestled at the foot of the Smoky Mountains and offers local restaurants and boutique shops for those who would prefer to relax in a small mountain town.
During my visit to the Smokey Mountains, I spent several nights camping in Cade’s Cove. For anyone who wants to get in touch with nature; this is a prime area of the park to do so in. Cade’s Cove is a mountain valley that is surrounded by the mountains and offers a peaceful and quiet place to spend your nights by the campfire. A small gravel road allows visitors to travel around the perimeter of the valley to enjoy the views while those who prefer to see the sites on foot; have several options for hiking trails. Wildlife can frequently be seen in this part of the park ranging from dozens of species of birds to deer and black bear. Cade’s Cover is an hour-long drive from Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg which ensure that it is a peaceful setting in which to melt into nature.
Several of the hikes within the Smokey’s feature a waterfall destination. Two such hikes that I was able to enjoy on my trip were Laurel and Rainbow Falls. Laurel Falls was a relatively short 2.3-mile roundtrip hike that brings you an 80-foot waterfall. The waterfall is not a continuous drop but is instead a rolling cascade with several drop offs. Devoting an hour or two to this hike would be time well spent on your visit since this one of the top short hikes within the park. Although a little longer, Rainbow Falls is another great target for those who want a slightly more challenging hike. A 5-mile roundtrip hike; Rainbow Falls also features an 80-foot waterfall. However, this one is a shear vertical drop of water. It is also a very photogenic waterfall due to its location nestled within a grotto and surrounded by trees. The changing leaves really accent what can be one of the premiere photo opportunities you may encounter within the Smoky Mountains. There is event a trail that allows visitors to climb on the rocks behind the waterfall for additional photo opportunities.
Another option for seeing terrific views of the park is from the top of the mountains. Cumberland Gap Road runs through the middle of the mountains and connects the Tennessee and North Carolina sections of the park. One of the stops along this road is Clingman’s Dome located on the border between these two states. From the parking lot, Clingman’s dome is a short 1-mile roundtrip to a watch tower that provides aerial views of the Smoky Mountains. Those able to see this on a clear day and at peak fall colors are in for a treat. Those unlucky may wind up like me. The Smoky Mountains are named due to the low clouds of fog that frequently roll through the mountains. The day I happened to visit this watch tower, the cloud cover was so thick, I was not able to see more than 50 feet ahead. Advice to my readers: if you notice a day on your trip is particularly clear; take an hour or two out of that day to enjoy the views from the watch tower. Although days that are very foggy may decrease the views you can enjoy of the park, they do mark the perfect times to enjoy the towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. The fog may be thick one day, but the very next day may be exceptionally clear. The weather in the mountains is very unpredictable on a day-to-day basis so it’s best to have a general idea of what sites you would like to see in the area and adjust your itinerary by the day to make best use of that day’s weather.
The Smoky Mountains also offers options for those interested in the history of the region. There are still original cabins, watermills, churches, and other buildings preserved within the park of the early settlers in this area. The park even offers historical tours through these buildings and very knowledgeable rangers provide a history of each building and the people who resided within them. The park also offers a historical tour option to learn about the Native American population that had resided within this park.
Due to it being centrally located on the east coast, the Smoky Mountains is often the most visited National Park in the country. The abundance in the variety of family options to enjoy here; couple with being centrally located between major cities such as Atlanta, Philadelphia, and New York; make this a very popular vacation destination. This is especially true during its peak fall season. This often leads to many trails becoming crowded, dense traffic going through the park, and a shortage of hotel accommodations within the relatively small towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. Although this does not dimmish the enjoyment of the park, it is something to keep in mind and plan for when you visit. Restaurants can often be difficult to get a seat in without prior reservations and hotel costs are often higher than you might expect them to be. Although these issues may pose an inconvenience, most of these can be resolved ahead of time with some planning.
Smoky Mountains National Park’s proximity to several other locations makes it a great jumping off point for road trips for those who want to explore more of this area. Cities such as Asheville, Memphis, and Nashville are all popular cities to visit that are within a few hours’ drive of the park. For those who want to experience more of the country’s National Park System, Mammoth Caves National Park in Kentucky is also a short drive away. This is the largest cave system within the United States and was another area I had the privilege of exploring during my trip to the Smoky Mountains. But that is a story for another day…