Posted by Phil Rodgers in Smoky Mountains
Here in the Great Smoky Mountains, we've definitely noticed that the evenings and mornings are getting chillier. Fall is not only officially here on the calendar, but it's starting to feel like that time of year as well. For those who live here as well as those who visit the area each October and November, that means it's also time for the foliage to begin changing colors.
Besides summer, October in particular is one of the busiest times of years in the Smokies in terms of out-of-town visitation. Millions of people flock to the mountains and Great Smoky Mountains National Park to witness the wonder and the beauty of nature's great annual transformation, as the green trees that blanket our landscapes begin to change into a kaleidoscope of reds, yellows and oranges.
However, planning a trip around this metamorphosis is an inexact science. That's because so many different factors play into when, how quickly and how dramatically those color shifts take place. For example, as the chlorophyll in the leaves breaks down with decreased daylight and temperatures, other pigments in the leave begin to reveal themselves. Also, the lower the temps and the more heavy the rainfall, the more intense and vibrant those colors will be. And since they can't always accurately predict patterns in temperature and rainfall, meteorologists can only make educated guesses as to what the leaves will look like.
But some generalizations and rough estimates can be made, enough to help travelers narrow down the best time to catch the foliage at its peak. Currently, colors should peak in the higher elevations around mid-October and gradually spread into the lower elevations into mid-November. A pattern of 70-degree days and 40-degree nights is the best pattern to ensure beautiful colors, and so far, we seem to have fallen within those ranges.
When you do visit, knowing which species of trees turn which colors will not only help you appreciate the spectacle but also help you identify the trees based on those colors. For example, tulip poplars turn golden yellow, while birch and black cherry trees tend to go yellow. Dogwoods, sourwoods and shining sumacs are known for their red shades, while hickories and oaks tend to land in the bronze, red and brown hues. There are many varieties of maples alone, each of which has its own color signature; sugar maples are orange-red, black maples are glowing yellow, and red maples turn bright scarlet or even orange.
Once you've decided on the timing of your visit to the Smokies, you'll then need to decide exactly where you can get the best views of the foliage. Pretty much any road in the national park is going to be a good bet, including the Cades Cove Loop, Laurel Creek Rd. and Little River Rd. One of the best routes is to take U.S. Hwy. 441 from Gatlinburg, TN, to Cherokee, NC, which will take you up the Tennessee side of the Smokies, over the crest of the range and down the North Carolina side. Along the way are sweeping, panoramic vistas featuring miles of colorful rolling mountainsides on either side of the road.
Other routes to consider include any segment of Foothills Parkway as well as Cherohala Skyway and The Dragon, which runs from Blount County to Robbinsville, North Carolina.
Even driving along Wears Valley Road from Pigeon Forge to Wears Valley affords some pretty impressive color displays. And it just so happens that traveling that route will take you right by Goats on the Roof, our cool roadside attraction featuring live goats, an alpine coaster, gem mining and more.
If you're willing to make your plans at the last minute, another strategy is to keep an eye on the foliage via any number of webcams that are set up throughout the Smokies. That way, you can eyeball the progress of the color changes from home and then pull the trigger on your trip when you feel the transformation is at its peak. Here are a few webcams to try:
Newfound Gap in the national park - https://www.air-resource.net/grsmnfgap/
Clingman's Dome in the national park - https://www.nps.gov/subjects/air/webcams.htm?site=grcd
Gatlinburg Space Needle - https://www.visitmysmokies.com/blog/smoky-mountains/gatlinburg-webcams-in-the-smoky-mountains/
Ober Gatlinburg - https://obergatlinburg.com/webcams/