All it takes is a warm autumn day and the feet start itching for a country drive, some hot apple cider, and incredible views of colorful leaves at the height of their beauty.
Growing up and living in the north, fall was always accompanied by a stop at a pumpkin patch to choose your own, or even better, pick your own apples followed by a hot cider and freshly baked donuts, still warm, covered in cinnamon sugar.
My most recent trek from Virginia to Texas, took me through Tennessee. When I realized I was passing by Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I knew I had to stop for a tour.
I had no idea what I was in for, wrongly assuming it was off-season.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the busiest of all American National Parks, busier than the big ones in Utah, and the Grand Canyon! In 2020, they admitted over 12 million visitors into the park. In July, over 1.4 million people tour the Smoky Mountain views in the park, October sees over 1.2 million leaf peepers coming to view the colorful mountainsides at their height of color. The season lasts longer than most as the leaves turn color at different times based on their mountainside altitude.
Leaves of green accented by yellows, browns, and a smattering of red, wind around a stream that tumbles over polished boulders; you’ll find yourself slowing to admire the beauty that is Smoky Mountain National Park.
Clingmans Dome in Smoky Mountains National Park
Clingmans Dome is one of those places best planned to visit. Clingmans Dome Road climbs in altitude over 7 miles until you reach the summit and fully understand why they are called the Smoky Mountains. The view is breathtaking. You are able, take another half mile hike to an observation tower touted as the highest point in the Smokies at 6643 feet.
Along with the observation deck, there is a visitor center and restrooms.
Unfortunately, you’ll see no pictures of the views from Clingmans Dome’s observation deck here! The last 2 miles of the drive were stop and go. My friend hopped out about a half mile from the top, amongst vehicles parked along the side of the road. He was able to walk up to the top of the mountain, take photos, and look around. By the time I got there, he took over driving, so I could jump out, take a video, and appreciate the view before he drove around the loop at the top. There was no parking for oversized vehicles available so we were forced to head down the mountain again.
Go early if you’ve got an oversized vehicle. There did appear to be parking for RVs but the spots were filled with cars. If you’re driving a vehicle you have a much better chance of catching someone leaving as you come around the loop, or along the side of the road on the way up and back
Mingus Mill on the NC side of Smoky Mountains National Park
Smoky Mountains National park stretches across the North Carolina and Tennessee border. Mingus Mill is an old grist mill on the North Carolina side.
If you’re a cornbread lover, you can buy corn meal ground on the same water turbines in operation since 1886! It’s an interesting structure, the turbine was a progressive method to grind corn when it was first built. Follow the flume across a small wooden bridge to hike along the river.
Cades Cove Loop Shows Off the Historic Smoky Mountains
Envision what living in the past in the Smokies was like during a tour around the Cades Cove Loop. The National Park has multiple stops along the trail with buildings from a variety of time periods from this area. Homes of settlers, churches, and even a farming community are available for those who love to delve into the regions historical roots. For other’s it’s a beautiful drive, hoping for glimpses of wildlife.
Expect slow going during the height of the season!
Laurel Falls Hike in Smoky Mountains National Park
One of the favorite treks for visitors in Smoky Mountains National Park is the Laurel Falls Hike. A reasonably short 1.3 mile hike up to the 80 foot falls make the moderate effort worthwhile. It is parking challenged during the height of the day. An early or later visit is your best bet to find a spot. We thought we might have the falls to ourselves since there weren’t many people on the trail, but don’t be fooled! They’re all at the falls!
The 2.6 mile round-trip trail has steep sections with significant drop-offs. Hold the hands of any young children who may not understand the dangers.
Smoky Mountain National Park Pull-offs with A View
Even if you aren’t able to see all the attractions in Smoky Mountain National Park, there are enough pull-offs along the side of the road where you’re sure to have a space open up. These are just as worthwhile to stop and appreciate the fall colors.
Tips for visiting Smoky Mountains National Park in the Fall:
Expect to get stuck in traffic while touring the more popular sites like Cades Cove or Clingmans Dome. Plan to arrive early to get parking for favorite hikes like Laurel Falls or Chimney Tops Trail. Five PM is the perfect time to try to get in some of the busier destinations as it seems most of the guests hit the exit to Gatlinburg. It can be backed up for miles, so avoid the area or you’ll be stuck in traffic!
Dark falls earlier in the autumn, so plan to be off the trail before the sun sets.
If you want to camp in the park, book your site ASAP and don’t expect sites to open up for last minute bookings through the week either!
Aside from the stops we mentioned, we were not able to get parking at any of the major sites so we just drove the length of the park and through Gatlinburg on the way out. The pull-outs are still fantastic and we were able to appreciate the leaves on a beautiful sunny day.
Pros & Cons of Touring Smoky Mountains National Park in a Truck Camper
As we wind along the road, I can’t help but notice there’s nowhere to park my oversized truck camper but it doesn’t matter, what we’re here for is laid out in all it’s gloriousness as we ascend and descend each curve and the views stretch out in front of us.
Miraculously, there are locations where spots open up. Not in the areas with popular hikes but still worth the look with incredible views.
Having a larger than usual rig is a bit of a challenge to find parking in the more popular stops but there is space at the Visitor Centers. The best bonus? Not having to leave the park and drive into Gatlinburg for meals! The truck camper can be pulled off anywhere there is a level opening for lunch and dinner.
Each of the places below were where we ate or had coffee breaks. The meals weren’t just simple sandwiches either, one meal I grilled squash and maple glazed pork chops at the side of the road before following a path to discover the river reflecting all the fall colors.