A Comprehensive Guide to Finding Knoxville's Best Fall Color

Great Smoky National Park exploding with October color
Great Smoky National Park exploding with October color Anne Swoboda
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Even as I type, fall colors begin to burst at high elevations in East Tennessee and will slowly cascade down mountainsides into valleys and foothills over the next few weeks, making their way eventually to city parks and backyards in Knoxville.

As the days become shorter and the nights longer, photosynthesis—that third grade science subject on what makes leaves green—slows and eventually stops. In lieu of a verdant canopy, we're treated to leaves in shades of orange, red, and yellow that dance in the October wind before spiraling down to carpet the forest floor. Though we designate specific dates for the changing of the seasons, the rhythm of nature isn't bridled by our schedules, so there's no perfect method for predicting fall colors. But if you stay with us, we'll give you some great spots to keep your eye on for great autumn foliage.

Higher Elevations

Fall colors starting to show near Newfound Gap
Fall colors starting to show near Newfound Gap Wikipedia Commons

The first few weeks of October are predicted to see peak colors at some of East Tennessee's highest elevations, near 6,000 ft. Many of these higher elevations areas are located within the boundaries of Great Smoky Mountains National Park , including Newfound Gap, which offers spectacular views of the surrounding range just steps away from your car.

But if you're up for climbing a couple miles of steep paved path, drive up the road a bit to Clingmans Dome, where you'll be treated to a full panorama of color on clear fall days. The Eastern Hemlock once added a vibrant evergreen contrast to the autumnal colors here, but an insect called the woolly adelgid has attacked the trees, killing many in the area. The views are still stunning though, especially if you're lucky enough to catch one of the thin waves of smoky mist—from whence the park gets its name—rolling through the valley.

The legendary namesake smoky mist of Great Smoky National Park
The legendary namesake smoky mist of Great Smoky National Park Jclifton59

If you're looking for other early season drives, the Cherohala Skyway (south) near Tellico Plains and the Blue Ridge Parkway (north) are ramping up for fall displays now, and should prove to be rewarding drives throughout October.

To get up close and personal with the changing fall display—or to just avoid the hoards of auto-tourists—a challenging hike up Mount LeConte offers some stunning views with a little lighter traffic.

Mid and Lower Elevations

Cades Cove in the fall
Cades Cove in the fall Sarath Kuchi

In late October and early November, peak colors will likely be commuting down from the highest peaks and nestling into mid-elevations. This is when you'll see the glimmer of vibrant golds transforming the state tree, the tulip poplar, at House Mountain and notice a color-spectrum shift on Rich Mountain Loop in Cades Cove .

Look Rock is another great mid-elevation area, and the national park service  has a webcam set up here so you can see the most recent color changes before you head out.

The ridges near Knoxville are poised to shift their summer greens into immersive oranges and reds as the warmer colors descend into moderate and lower heights. Oak Ridge offers mountain bikers a chance to fly through fall colors at Haw Ridge as well as offering hikers a slower pace for tree ogling at the UT Arboretum. Hiking into some of the higher elevation areas at Big Ridge might also offer and early look at bright autumn colors.

Finally, autumn will descend on the lowest elevations in Knoxville, wrapping tree-filled places like Ijams Nature Center, Concord Park, and Hastie Natural Area in fiery fall colors that should hold out well into November. In Knoxville, we're blessed with a diversity of woodland displays in fall, from the Boulevard dogwoods at Sequoyah Park to the river-skirting trees of Will Skelton Greenway near Forks of the River. You can meander through the turning trees in the Urban Wilderness or see them from above at Sharps Ridge or from the overlook at the River Bluff Wildlife Area (see the 8th destination on this list for directions to this local spot).

Fall Color Tracking Resources:

Fall color creeping into the valley
Fall color creeping into the valley Jclifton59

Purchase Knob Web Camera (High Elevations) : click here
Look Rock Web Camera (Mid Elevations) : Click here
The Great Smoky Mountain Fall Color Report : click here
Smoky Mountains Fall Foliage Map : click here
The Fall Foliage Guide from greatsmokymountainsguide.com : click here
Cherohala Skyway Fall Color Hotline : 1.800.354.4595

Where's your favorite spot to watch the colors change? Tell us about it in the comments below.

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