There's no bad time to visit Gatlinburg. Spring and summer bring great weather and lush greenery to the mountains; the town becomes a peaceful, snowy escape in the winter; but there's no denying that Gatlinburg really comes alive in the fall. The weather cools off, the leaves turn bright colors, and cozy fires and tasty fall treats abound. From the fleeting foliage to awesome special events, a trip to the Smokies in the fall is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will have everyone falling in love with Gatlinburg.
If you're in search of fall colors, you've come to the right place. The foliage in the Smokies/Gatlinburg region can last up to seven weeks, from late September to mid-November, depending on a variety of factors. Starting in September, start looking for sourwood, dogwood, maple, sassafras and birch trees to turn, and keep your eyes peeled for autumn wildflowers like black-eyed Susan, coreopsis, great blue lobelia, asters, as well as the bright fruits on trees and shrubs such as hearts-a-bustin. As October starts, look for the fall colors to creep down the mountain to lower elevation trees. The peak for colors in the lower forests is late October, when oak, maple, and hickory start to light up.
Did you know that one of the country's top aquariums is located right here in Gatlinburg? Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is family fun at its finest. With two levels of endless aquatic excitement, it's not hard to spend a long afternoon here. Get up close and personal with stingrays at Touch a Ray Bay, watch a dive show at the exotic and colorful coral reef, come face to face with a shark in the underwater glass tunnel, and you definitely don’t want to miss snagging a chance to see the penguins getting fed at the Penguin Playhouse. Ripley’s offers all sorts of entertaining add-ons to your general admission such as meet and greets or painting sessions with the penguins, sleepovers in the shark tunnel, and a glass-bottom boat that tours the Shark Lagoon. You can save on your ticket when you bundle with other Ripley’s attractions like Old MacDonald’s Farm Mini Golf! The aquarium is a great way to get inside and warm up; there's no better way take advantage of the awesome, indoor, year-round fun Gatlinburg has to offer.
Deliciousness abounds at The Pancake Pantry, Tennessee’s first-ever pancake house. It’s been a hotspot since it was founded back in 1960-- thanks to its rustic, homey feel and a mouth-watering assortment of pancakes. The Pantry serves 24 specialty pancakes, blintzes, and crepes--, ranging in flavor from Smoky Mountain buckwheat to Swiss chocolate chip to Caribbean! It’s located conveniently close to The Village, a collection of 27 unique shops and boutiques that look like they’re torn from the pages of your favorite fairy tale. You’ll definitely want to take a stroll through here after stuffing yourself with pancake goodness. This is a cash-only establishment, so be sure to swing by an ATM before starting your day here!
Tennessee is famous for its moonshine, and you cannot miss an opportunity to visit Sugarlands Distilling Company. It’s located in the heart of downtown Gatlinburg and is a perfect stop while strolling around town on a brisk fall day. Warm up with a sample of Sugarlands’ famous Appalachian Apple Pie shine or warm, tasty Butterscotch Gold shine. There are free tours daily, but if you’re looking for more of a private experience, a premium tour gives you a front row seat on how Sugarlands' moonshine is made, a lesson in mixology, and a distilling workshop-- where you can fill your own jar of moonshine and take it home!
If you’re looking for the best view of the most-visited National Park in the U.S. and of scenic Gatlinburg, then look no further. The Gatlinburg Space Needle rises just over 400 feet and gives you a stunning 360-degree view of everything the town and the Smokies have to offer. In the full panoramic, you’ll see Mount LeConte, the tallest mountain in the eastern U.S., and the magical fog from which these looming mountains get their name. It’s open 365 days a year, but there’s no time to enjoy the sights like autumn. Peek into one of the many viewfinders while you’re on top to see the leaves changing color up close!
History comes to life at the Bud Ogle Cabin. Named after famous mountain farmer Noah “Bud” Ogle, the surviving structures of the Ogle Place are remarkably preserved, looking exactly the same as they did in the 19th century. The Bud Ogle Cabin provides a glimpse into the past, showing what life was like for families and farmers living in Southern Appalachia. Take a look at the home, the barn and restored tub mill too (where Bud actually milled the corn he grew back in the day!) while you’re here. The Cabin is just south of Gatlinburg and is close to the Sugarlands Visitor Center, so stop in and talk to a ranger about the rich history of the area while you’re here.
Ramsey Cascades is just over 100 feet tall, and its beauty is undeniable. Getting to Ramsey Cascades is no easy feat though -- come prepared to hike! It’s eight miles round trip and gains roughly 2,000 feet of elevation. Plan to spend at least 5-7 hours on this trek... pack a lunch and plenty of water in a small day pack to get the most out of your experience. It’s the perfect day hike when autumn rolls around. The first two miles wind through a lush hardwood forest with large tulip trees, silver bells and yellow birches that are a jaw-droppingly gorgeous display of reds, yellows and oranges at the turn of the season! The trailhead is about 11 miles east of Gatlinburg off Highway 321; just follow the signs.
Step back in time to Tennessee's frontier days, when pioneers settled the wild Smokies at Ripley's Davy Crockett Mini Golf. Named for the legendary mountain man, this putt-putt joint has two 18-hole courses, both of which have a frontier theme. The two courses come complete with animated chipmunks, bears, raccoons, opossums, skunks, cows and other critters. You can choose to go for the easy course or tackle the more challenging holes... but since it's only $1 for access to both, you might as well take advantage and try each! Gophers, old-timey buildings, water traps, and more keep each hole fun, different, and just a little challenging.
Named after mountain laurel, the delicate, evergreen shrub that blooms along the trail in May, this 80-foot high waterfall is one of the most popular attractions in the Smokies. Although the mountain laurel doesn’t bloom until summer, the spectacular sight of the leaves changing on the trees that surround the trail is something you won’t want to miss. The round trip distance for this hike is 2.6 miles, and the trail is pretty moderate in both elevation gain and difficulty. It takes about two hours to hike to the falls and back, but if you want to beat the crowds, pack a light breakfast and go in the morning! Nothing beats a sunrise in the mountains. The trailhead is 3.5 miles from the Sugarlands Visitor Center, just south of Gatlinburg.
There's no other place where you can blend the tranquil beauty of hiking to waterfalls and admiring mountain sunrises with delicious pancake breakfasts-- and a variety of amusing and entertaining attractions. Combine all that with the experience of seeing once-lush-green mountain forests turn into a sea of golden and bright red leaves, and visiting Gatlinburg and the Smokies in the fall is a cannot-miss experience.