Fall Colors

Cataloochee Overlook
Cataloochee Overlook (Photo by K. Plaas)
 

Fall Color Report

October 18,2016

Colder nights at the high elevations in the park have leaves beginning to steadily fall. While shades of red are still present among the mountain ash berries, and witch hazel provides intermittent glimpses of orange, the high reaches of the park are a sea of yellow and gold with infinite shades and hues.

The undulating mountain ridges of the mid-elevations break the yellow expanse of beech, birch, buckeye, and tulip poplar with fiery reds of the black gum and red maple. The orange glow of the sugar maples add to the vibrant palette as well.

Color at the lower elevations in the park is predominantly provided by the reds of the dogwoods. That of the poison ivy and Virginia creeper also provide a sharp contrast to the brown tree trunks on which they are bound. The maples are also beginning to develop rich colors in scattered pockets. Even thought the landscape is still largely green, the rate of color change is rapidly increasing.

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You can also check out the park's webcams to see what the park looks like today:
Purchase Knob (high elevation)
Look Rock (middle elevation)

The park usually experiences an autumn leaf season of several weeks as fall colors travel down the mountain sides from high elevation to low. However, the timing of fall color change depends upon so many variables that the exact dates of "peak" season are impossible to predict in advance.

Elevation profoundly affects when fall colors change in the park. At higher elevations, where the climate is similar to New England's, color displays start as early as mid-September with the turning of yellow birch, American beech, mountain maple, hobblebush, and pin cherry.

From early to mid-October, fall colors develop above 4,000 feet. To enjoy them, drive the Clingmans Dome Road, the Blue Ridge Parkway, or the Foothills Parkway.

The fall color display usually reaches peak at mid and lower elevations between mid-October and early November. This is the park's most spectacular display as it includes such colorful trees as sugar maple, scarlet oak, sweetgum, red maple, and the hickories.

 
 

Fall Color Facts

Why are fall colors so remarkable in the Smokies? One reason is the park's amazing diversity of trees. Some 100 species of native trees live in the Smokies and the vast majority of these are deciduous.

How do colors change? As summer ends, the green pigments in leaves deteriorate, giving other colors a chance to shine. Carotenoids, the pigment that makes carrots orange and leaves yellow, are exposed as the green fades. Reds and purples come from anthocyanins, a pigment that is formed when sugars in leaves break down in bright autumn sunlight.
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Plan Your Fall Visit

Autumn is both a beautiful and a busy time in the Great Smoky Mountains. The annual show of fall colors attracts huge numbers of sightseers, especially during the last three weeks of October. Areas in the park which experience the longest traffic delays are Cades Cove and Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441). Try some of these suggested autumn drives and hikes to enjoy fall leaf colors in areas of the park that are a little less crowded.

There are no motels or rental cabins located within the national park. However, communities surrounding the national park offer a wide choice of accommodations including hotels, cabins, bed and breakfasts, and campgrounds. October is a busy month in the park, so it is advisable to make accommodation reservations as early as possible. Information about accommodations in the surrounding communities.

 
A common buckeye butterfly on the blooms of a white aster.
A common buckeye butterfly investigates a white aster.

Gordon Ritter Photo

Vividly colored fall leaves may grab your attention, but don't overlook the park's fall wildflowers which bloom in profusion along roadways!

 
Bullhead Mountain with an early hoar frost.
Bull Head from the Carlos Campbell Overlook on Newfound Gap Road during late October 2006. A hoar frost coats the high elevation crest of the mountain while autumn colors show at low-mid elevations.

Babette Collavo, NPS Photo

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

107 Park Headquarters Road
Gatlinburg, TN 37738

Phone:

(865) 436-1200
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