Best Fall Hikes in the Smokies: When and where to go

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The fall hiking season is rapidly approaching and soon leaf peepers will be out in full force in the Smoky Mountains.

Although the Smokies has experienced an extreme drought this summer, Katherine Mathews, Western Carolina University's foliage forecaster, is predicting above-average leaf color this fall. Typically, drier weather during the spring and early summer results in a colorful fall leaf season, said Mathews.

The timing of fall color season depends upon many variables, making
it virtually impossible to predict the exact dates of "peak" colors in advance.

One of the most important variables is elevation. At the higher elevations in the Smoky Mountains, fall color displays begin as early as mid-September with yellow birch, American beech, mountain maple, hobblebush, and pin cherry beginning to show autumn colors. If you’re looking for good fall color hikes during this time period, you’ll want to be at the highest elevations in the park; however, you’ll also want to avoid hiking in areas that are predominantly spruce-fir forests.

Suggested mid-late September hikes: Andrews Bald, Mt. LeConte, the Jump-off or Rocky Top.

From early to mid-October, during most years, fall colors begin to reach their peak above elevations of 4,500 feet. Trees such as the American beech and yellow birch begin to turn bright yellow, while mountain ash, pin cherry and mountain maple show-off their brilliant shades of red.

In the lower elevations you may notice a few dogwoods and maples that are just beginning to turn. You may also see a few scattered sourwood and sumac turning to bright reds as well.

Suggested early-mid October hikes: You’ll still want to hike in the higher elevations. In addition to the suggestions above, check out Gregory Bald, Mt. Cammerer, Spence Field or the Sugerland Mountain Trail starting from Clingmans Dome Road.

Autumn colors usually reach their peak at mid and lower elevations between mid-October and early November. This is usually the best time to be in the park as you will see the spectacular displays of color from sugar maples, scarlet oak, sweetgum, red maple, and hickories. Your hiking choices will have greatly expanded during this time period as well. You can continue to hike at elevation to take in the fall colors from above, or you can walk among the autumn colored trees.

Suggested mid-late October hikes: If you wish to hike at elevation for spectacular fall views try exploring the Rich Mountain Loop, Alum Cave, Hemphill Bald, Shuckstack, Bullhead, Charlies Bunion or Mt. Sterling trails. If you wish to hike among the trees, check out Baskins Creek Falls, Little River, Old Settlers or the Porters Creek Trail.

As the fall color season begins to wind down in early November, you’ll want to hike at the lowest elevations in the park. Check out Miegs Mountain Trail, Schoolhouse Gap, Abrams Falls, Oconaluftee River Trail, Indian Falls, or the Deep Creek Loop.

To get a general idea of when leaves are approaching peak colors you can follow the fall foliage map on the Weather Channel site. To get a birds-eye view on changes in fall colors, you can periodically check the four Smoky Mountain web cams by clicking here.

Jeff Detailed information on trails in the Smoky Mountains; includes trail descriptions, key features, pictures, video, maps, elevation profiles, news, hiking gear store, and more.


Anonymous said...

Great Report! There just ain't nothing better than fall hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains.

When you should go? Every chance you get

Where you should go? Anywhere. It's Gods perfect painting!

I'll be doing 35 miles with my brother in a few weeks.... This will be his first extended backcountry experience.

Anonymous said...

I have done a lot of fall hikes but one of the most memorable color displays was along"Grassy Branch Trial" down to Kephart Shelter. This seems kind of odd given all the spectacular views from balds,ridges etc.. but this path "up and personal" always stays at the forefront of my mind.

Our Smokies have lots of secrets to share. Go enjoy.....