Fall Foliage Color in the Great Smoky Mountains
September 23 is the official start of fall and, though it's still a bit early, the mountain foliage should put on quite a show this year. With the past few summers being on the dryer side, usually a bad omen when it comes to fall's splendor, the weather over the next few weeks will have a direct impact over just how much fall color we get to enjoy.
What is needed are bright sunny days and cool nights – void of freezing temperatures - to ensure that the sugars stay in the leaves, thus providing most vibrant colors and the best reds throughout the month of October. Colors can still be seen in November, but to a lesser degree – another aspect to consider when deciding if and when to venture into certain areas of the park, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
A Fall Color Guide To The Smokies – Nature At Its Best
Chlorophyll is produced by trees. When they stop producing it, that's when leaves change colors. Basically, chlorophyll is the food producing stuff that keeps leaves green throughout the summer. It's when the chlorophyll is gone that each leaf's brilliant color emerges.
Elevation also plays a vital role in determining when fall's colors come into view. In the Smokies highest elevations - 4,500 to 6,000 feet – September is the earliest sign of color change, when the American beech, yellow birch, and mountain maple begin to turn. During October's first two weeks, the leaves are at their peak colors above 4,000 feet. October's remaining weeks present the Smokies at their very best for color. The scarlet oak, sugar maple, red maple, sweetgum (our favorite), and dogwood explode with color.
While it's not as though people are questioning why the Smokies are so beautiful during the fall, it's interesting to delve a bit deeper into the variety of trees that are responsible for the annual autumn show. Upwards of 100 species of trees - most deciduous - contribute to the palette and timing of the fall spectacular.
A Few Tree Varieties and What They Offer the Smokies
One favorite, the sweetgum, is loved due to its several radiant purples, reds, and yellows. Sweetgums are found primarily along streams in the lower elevations and will peak mid-to-late October.
The scarlet oak's brilliant scarlet hue can also be seen in the low-to-mid elevations.
The sugar maple's reach stretches all the way to 4,000-foot elevations and presents oranges and yellows for everyone's enjoyment. These trees are abundant in the Sugarlands Valley, where pioneers first tapped them for maple syrup.
The red maple ranges up to 6,000 feet and presents autumn reds and yellows. Among the red maples, the park boasts the world's largest, which is 23 feet in circumference and 135 feet tall.
The flowering dogwood changes to a deep red color and can be found among the Smokies below 3,000 feet.
Where To Find Them
Fall colors can be found everywhere in the Great Smoky Mountains. In fact, on the way to the Smokies you can find your fall "fix" of color - something done by many because of the bumper-to-bumper traffic that's more common around Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. For example, Cades Cove is the most popular destination in the park. This is also a major spot to avoid if you don't like muffler exhaust combined with your fall colors.
Cataloochee, which is located on the park's eastern side, is much less traversed on a daily basis because its set off from the park's most traveled routes. It's a little harder to reach than popular spots like Cades Cove because it's on the North Carolina side of the park. If you are coming from the north and places like Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg and Sevierville, take Highway 321 north to Interstate 40, then east towards Asheville. Get off at exit 20 and take Cove Creek Road. You'll then follow the signs 11 miles to Cataloochee.
If you are coming from Cherokee, North Carolina or a more southern locale, take I-40 to exit 20 and follow the signs 11 miles to Cataloochee. Park officials estimate the trip from Cherokee as being 82 miles round-trip and can take up to four hours.
From the Gatlinburg, take Newfound Gap Road through the park to Cherokee (approximately 32 miles), and take the Blue Ridge Parkway (just after the Oconoluftee Visitor Center and the Mountain Farm Museum but before leaving the park for Cherokee) for about 13 miles. Exit the Parkway to U.S. 19 and turn towards Asheville. Follow U.S. 19 through Maggie Valley and then north on Highway 276. Just before the entrance to I-40, turn left and follow the signs 11 miles to Cataloochee.
Cataloochee is definitely worth the extra driving because it's a new experience. Even for those who visit the park on a regular basis; Cataloochee offers the same spectacular color show you will find most places in the park; and it's less crowded even during peak color periods.
Rich Mountain. From Townsend, follow the signs to Cades Cove and the Great Smoky Mountains. You will dead-end. Take a right and you'll be headed to Cades Cove on Laurel Creek Road. It's approximately 7 miles to the Cades Cove entrance. If you head out early you won't have to contend with the bumper-to-bumper traffic that is practically unavoidable this time of year. However, a little over three miles into the loop (loop road stop #8) you will turn onto the one-way Rich Mountain Road. Though this road is unpaved, it's safe for automobiles.
At one time an Indian trail, this route also allowed access to Cades Cove by early settlers. There are places to stop, walk, and enjoy the dramatic vistas of the Cove and the Great Smoky Mountains. It eventually takes you back into Townsend from whence you came.
The two very best drives for viewing fall color in the park - Cades Cove Loop Road and Newfound Gap Road, will more than likely be ripe with heavy traffic. Though if you decide to drive these routes, start early and go during the week. You'll still have to fight some traffic, but the reward is worth the effort. The memories you take away will definitely last, at least until you return next year.
National Forest Service - 800-354-4595
North Carolina - 800-847-4862
On the Web - http://www.visitnc.com
Tennessee - 800-251-9100
On the Web - http://www.state.tn.us/tourdev/