Three byways and two parks in Tennessee provide leaf peepers days of scenic autumn beauty.
Story and Photos By Jinny Ravenscroft Danzer
As we pulled off near the top of Chilhowee Mountain on the Ocoee Scenic Byway, we were greeted by a wide panorama of Lake Ocoee winding through distant mountains covered in orange, green and red hues. We drove through the electric reds of sourwood and black gum and the yellows, reds and oranges of maples.
Above: The Cherohala Skyway winds about 40 miles through national forests from Tellico Plains, Tenn., to Robbinsville, N.C.
Below: When crossing the swinging bridge at Fall Creek Falls State Resort Park near Pikeville, Tenn., remember to bring your camera to capture the natural beauty surrounding you.
We started our search for fall color in Tennessee along the rolling Natchez Trace south of Nashville–one of Tennessee’s five National Scenic Byways–and then drove to mountainous Fall Creek Falls State Park on the Cumberland Plateau in central Tennessee. We discovered two lesser-known but beautiful byways–the Ocoee Byway and the Cherohala Skyway east and north of Chattanooga–and ended up at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Natchez Trace Parkway
The Natchez Trace in Tennessee winds through rolling hills just south of Nashville for about 102 miles to the Alabama border. It’s very popular with cyclists, as well as drivers.
Dogwoods bring a dark red to the landscape, while sumacs, maples and sassafras add reds, yellows and oranges. Various overlooks, waterfalls and exhibits dot the parkway. On one of many preserved sections of the old trace, tobacco hangs to dry in a weather-worn barn. The Meriwether Lewis National Monument includes his gravesite, a campground, upgraded parking, accessible restrooms and trails. There are numerous B&Bs and motels in the area.
One of the more unusual stops just off the parkway is Fly General Store on Leipers Creek Road near milepost 416. Built in 1890, the pleasantly dilapidated wood and tin building is chock full of just about everything, from butterfly kites, U.S. flags, fresh apples and other snacks to fishing supplies, nails and windshield deicer. Proprietor Wilson Fly’s father bought the store in 1950. The family lived next door, and Fly says he grew up in the store. A fall highlight is an arts and crafts fair, farmers’ market and pumpkin sale on Oct. 1.
The towns of Leipers Fork and Franklin near Nashville are known for their historical homes, a Civil War (Battle of Franklin) battlefield, art galleries and festivals. Leipers Fork will fill with people during the Chili Cook-off on Oct. 15. Franklin celebrates an annual Pumpkinfest on Oct. 29.
Fall Creek Falls State Resort Park
This large state park on the rugged Cumberland Plateau boasts four waterfalls and two swinging bridges, as well as several deep gorges, numerous overlooks and miles of hiking and biking trails. In addition to campgrounds, the park has a 144-room inn and 30 cabins overlooking a lake large enough for small boats and fishing.
The swinging bridges are fun to cross and offer good views of Piney Creek and of Cane Creek on the way to an overlook of 256-foot-high Fall Creek Falls. Roads and trails give easy access to Cane Creek Falls and Cascades, Fall Creek Falls and Piney Creek Falls.
Dogwoods give early fall color, followed by sugar maples, sassafras and the vibrant reds of sourwood and black gum. On Fall Colors Weekend (Oct. 22 and 23), the park sponsors bike tours and guided walks.
Ocoee Scenic Byway
On the advice of a motel proprietor in the Cherokee National Forest northeast of Chattanooga, we found spectacular color on Forest Road (FSR) 77. This seven-mile Chilhowee Scenic Spur, part of the 26-mile Ocoee Scenic Byway, climbs quickly up the Chilhowee Mountains to views of the Tennessee Valley and Lake Ocoee and to pretty Chilhowee Recreation Area. Situated around a small lake, the area has 82 campsites and almost 10 miles of trails.
The longer part of the byway follows U.S. Highway 64 along the route of the Old Copper Road used by workers transporting copper ore by horse-drawn wagon. It winds along Lake Ocoee and squeezes between cliffs and the river in the Ocoee River Gorge, ending near the old mining towns of Ducktown and Copperhill. Two smaller campgrounds, some motels and B&Bs are on or near the byway.
From the road, visitors can watch whitewater enthusiasts in kayaks and rafts tossing and twisting through class III-IV rapids when water is released from a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) dam. The National Forest’s Ocoee Whitewater Center, built for the 1996 Olympic canoe and kayak events, has native gardens, more than 20 miles of hiking and biking trails, launch ramps and conservation education programs.
Northeast of the Ocoee Scenic Byway, the beautiful Cherohala Skyway winds for more than 40 miles through the Cherokee and Nantahala national forests between Tellico Plains, Tenn., and Robbinsville, N.C. Visitor centers are located in Robbinsville, Coker Creek and Tellico Plains. Numerous pullouts give vistas of brilliant yellow aspens, orange maples and numerous other trees and shrubs. Layers of the Appalachian Mountains fade into a distant blue.
The Tellico River near the Tennessee entrance attracts fishermen, as well as kayakers, canoeists and rafters who come for whitewater when the river is high. Side roads lead to campgrounds, the Tellico River Gorge, the 100-foot Bald River Falls and a state trout hatchery. A number of trails offer opportunities for short strolls, longer hikes and horseback riding.
This area is popular with motorcyclists and drivers. A 120-mile loop from Tellico Plains follows the Cherohala, passes over the Tail of the Dragon (U.S. Highway 129) with its claim of 318 curves in 11 miles, and returns to Tellico Plains via Vonore. Oranges, yellows and reds punctuate the curves and views of Chilhowee Lake.
U.S. Highway 129 also connects to the pretty and relatively uncrowded Foothills Parkway, which has a picnic area, scenic overlooks, restrooms and a short trail. Stoplight-studded U.S. Highway 321 continues on toward Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Tennessee stretches west to east for some 440 miles of wide valleys, rolling hills, deep gorges and mountain ranges populated by millions of trees. With so many areas to choose from, you are sure to be rewarded with the brilliant hues of fall foliage. Select a byway and set out for adventure.
Jinny Ravenscroft Danzer is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.
|Sep/Oct 2011 Issue
Because fall color depends on the weather, peak color times will vary by area. You may want to call ahead for a local take on the foliage.
Starting at the Natchez Trace at milepost 391 near Hohenwald, you can complete this routing all the way to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in about three days if you keep moving. If you want to take many trails and side trips to waterfalls or go whitewater rafting, however, you’ll need more time. There is more than enough to see and do for a week or two.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is famous for its spectacular fall colors, and therefore attracts a flood of visitors. Cades Cove is a lovely drive with many old cabins, a gristmill and a hike to Abrams Falls, but it is likely to be bumper-to-bumper traffic at 5 mph.
The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail near Gatlinburg is also very pretty and may not be quite so crowded. It passes old cabins, a small tub mill and a trail to a nice waterfall. For both of these drives, it is best to go early in the morning during the week.
For more information, contact Great Smoky Mountains National Park at (865) 436-1200 or www.nps.gov/grsm.
Stunning fall vistas draw visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in droves. Avoid some of the crowds and explore byways in the morning during the week.