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Before You Go
Gatlinburg Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-568-4748;
Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism, 1-800-251-9100;
Sevierville Chamber of Commerce, 1-888-SMOKY-4U (888-766-5948);
Tennessee: 1-800-GO-2-TENN (462-8366);
To keep tabs on the changing colors in Tennessee’s forests, call the Tennessee FallColor Forecast (1-800-697-4200), a toll-free number that annually opens the last full week of September and runs through November. Messages change every Monday with predictions of color driving routes, locations of fall color and events for the coming weekend.

A Tennessee crafter making a broom (left). /Gatlinburg Department of Tourism photo.

At Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, you can walk through a submerged tunnel. /Gatlinburg Department of Tourism photo

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Autumn tumbles into Tennessee
The Smoky Mountains explode in a riot of color each fall, providing a vibrant backdrop for sightseeing, shopping, dining and more

Published: Sep/Oct 2002

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a haven for fall leaf peepers. /Gatlinburg Department of Tourism photo
After practicing her artistry all year, Mother Nature erupts with her finest works in the fall when she splashes almost every color from her palette across Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains.

The season typically begins in mid-September, then crescendos in mid-to-late October when trees and wildflowers explode with color.

Some years are more colorful than others, depending on the amount of rain earlier in the year. However, visitors are likely this fall to find enough colors to fill a box of crayons. With cool days, mountain scenery and plenty of places to shop, dine, play and explore, Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains make an ideal fall getaway.

Gatlinburg’s riot of color

Gatlinburg this fall should be awash in fall colors. In their pursuit, wend your way to Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, accessed via the Parkway in downtown Gatlinburg. Turn at the eighth stop light onto Historic Nature Drive, go straight at the intersection and continue into Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Inside the park, stop at Noah “Bud” Ogle historic area to saunter along a short walking trail.

Continue to the trail, a narrow and steep one-way road that snakes through the forest and offers views of Roaring Fork Creek. The narrow road is impassable to motor homes, buses and trailers.

There are plenty of fall colors and views of rolling mountains at stop No. 3. Take a short walk on the path to the right and you’ll come upon benches, great vantage points for spying turning leaves.

At stop No. 5, park and hike about one mile on a moderately difficult trail traced with old-growth forest and leading to Grotto Falls.

After savoring the changing leaves, return to your car and continue on the nature trail. Return to Gatlinburg via Highway 321. Discover museums, crafts, horseback riding, professional theater performances plus places to golf and shop.

U.S. Highway 441 (often called the Parkway) dissects downtown Gatlinburg and is laden with art galleries, gift shops, restaurants and attractions, such as Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, which boasts a 100,000-square-foot facility housing exotic aquatic life from around the world. At the aquarium, visitors can walk through a submerged acrylic tunnel that offers an up close view of sharks and other sea creatures. The only problem will be finding enough time to explore all the possibilities in Gatlinburg.
Playing in Pigeon Forge

Pigeon Forge, five miles north of Gatlinburg along Highway 441, rolls out its orange-yellow-and-red carpet when fall arrives in the mountains.

With color-filled mountains all around, Pigeon Forge offers visitors amusements and attractions, including go-carts, bungee jumping, laser tag, a car museum, miniature golf, outlet centers, shopping plazas and music shows, including some with comedy, magic and horseback riding.

Perhaps the most renowned draw is Dolly Parton’s Dollywood theme park. Laden in fall with autumn displays, Dollywood has rides (including one that simulates whitewater rafting), shops, restaurants, a Dolly Parton museum, playgrounds, craft demonstrations, and special fall foods, such as soup, fresh-baked bread and fresh vegetables.

Parton grew up within shouting distance of Pigeon Forge in Sevierville where a statue to the town’s most famous native daughter stands outside the courthouse.

Snaking through Cades Cove

Known for its peacefulness and accessibility by car, foot or bicycle, Cades Cove, 27 miles west of Gatlinburg, is one of the mountains’ most popular spots and one predictably bathed in fall colors.

One of the largest coves within the national park, the cove is eight miles from Townsend and is accessible by following the signs into the park.

To spot fall color, take Laurel Creek Road to Cades Cove Loop Road, an 11-mile, one-way road dotted with historic cabins, churches and views of mile-high mountains, open fields and wildlife.

Eight miles into the drive, take the opportunity to lave the cover and take Parson Branch Road, which ends at U.S. Highway 129 where you may turn right. Follow the highway past Chilhowee Lake to the Foothills Parkway, which offers some of the best early fall colors. Colors typically crescendo here in early October. The parkway ends after 17 miles when you may turn right onto Highway 321 and return to Townsend.

Be warned, however, that the cove and its beauty are no secret. To avoid the crowds, plan to visit in the morning or on Wednesday and Thursday.

Seeing Sevierville

By the time you wind your way into Sevierville, 13 miles north of Gatlinburg, don’t be so enthralled with fall colors that you miss several key attractions, most of which will be decorated with displays often including playful scarecrows, mums, pumpkins and bales of hay.

Save time to see the Tennessee Museum of Aviation, which opened in January. The museum showcases aviation historical artifacts in a patriotic setting. Rainforest Adventures (one of the world’s largest reptile zoos) and NASCAR SpeedPark (a haven of go-cart action) are also popular. Tails of the Wild Animals Encounter that opened this spring is a naturalist wildlife park home to exotic, wild animals, including monkeys and tigers.

While in town, check out the museums (including one filled with more than 90 muscle cars), underground caverns, a petting zoo and music theater.

Shopping is popular in town. Head to the outlet malls, antique shops and flea markets. Or, if golf’s your thing, swing through Eagle’s Landing Golf Club, not far from downtown, or River Islands Golf Club.

Whether you visit the mountains to spy fall leaves, play golf, shop, dine, visit museums or simply to relax from life’s sometimes-maddening pace, you’re in for a memorable outing. So, gas up, head out and keep your eyes open. Fall just got better than you might ever have imagined.

Lynn Grisard Fullman is a contributor from Birmingham, Ala.

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