1. Travel

Autumn Colors in the Smokies

By Written by Richard Weisser

Campbell Overlook, Great Smoky Mountains

Campbell Overlook, Great Smoky Mountains NP

courtesy of Richard Weisser
As summer wanes and the days become cooler and shorter, the trees prepare for the long winter ahead. It is time for deciduous trees to begin the process that will cause their leaves to wither and fall from the lofty branches that so proudly displayed them since early spring. In doing so, one of the incredible annual displays of natural beauty commences, the brilliant changing of leaves from verdant greens to brilliant reds, oranges, golds and purples of autumn.

In the Southeastern United States, no place beckons more leaf watchers than the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This International Biosphere Reserve contains more than two hundred species of trees, as many as exist in all of Europe. A third of the Park is still virgin forest, and the remainder is nearly all luxuriant second growth forest that has been maturing since the 1930’s.

So what is the best time to head to the Smokies for the fall fireworks? There is no sure answer. Sunlight, elevation, precipitation, temperature, wind and many other factors make it impossible to determine not only when the leaves will change, but also where the color "hotspots" will be in any given year. Most leafers will agree that the search for the best fall foliage is half of the fun, and trying to capture the magnificence of the depth and variance of the hues is equally satisfying.

Fall also brings traffic and congestion to the Smokies. You should avoid Cades Cove during the daylight hours if possible. The traffic and congestion is the leaf months can make this area too crowded to be enjoyable. If you feel compelled to go there, you can bail out by taking the Rich Mountain Road back into Tuckalechee Cover or the Parson Branch Road back to US 129. While in the most used areas of the park, please be courteous and tolerant of the other visitors.

You might want to try some of the lesser-visited areas, such as Deep Creek near Bryson City, North Carolina, or Big Creek near Cosby, Tennessee. For a real treat, make the effort to spend at least one day in the Cataloochee Valley. It’s harder to get there, but the resulting solitude and tranquility make the trip worthwhile. And don’t stay in the car. Get out and walk. Smell the fallen leaves! Listen to the crunching under your feet. Sit on a boulder and watch the leaves flutter into the rushing waters of a crystal clear stream. Try to get a close-up view of one of our national treasures, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park!

Richard Weisser has been taking photographs of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and vicinity for more than twenty years. He is an avid environmentalist and historical preservationist, and strives to capture both the natural beauty and colorful history of the region.

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