Trailside Talk: Autumn’s Best

Trailside Talk: Autumn’s Best

Mike Hembree

For those wondering what the most difficult thing about visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park might be, here it is: choosing the best place in the park to see autumn color.

Picking the place and time for brilliant fall color in the park is sort of a cottage industry. Scientists do it. Hoteliers do it. Tourism agencies do it. Even the birds and bees do it.

Ask ten people about top spots for fall color, and you’ll likely get ten different answers.

It often has been said that people connected with the tourism industry typically are among the worst to ask about autumn’s rich colors. When’s the best time to visit? Any time, they might say. How good will the color change be this season? Wonderful, they predict. Are the colors better when it has been raining or when there’s a drought? Yes! (That means either, or both).

Golden autumn leaves reflect on a calm Smoky Mountain stream. Photo courtesy of NPS.
Golden autumn leaves reflect on a calm Smoky Mountain stream. Photo courtesy of NPS.

Folks who depend on tourism dollars can be forgiven for being a bit protective about the color season in and around the park. Those changing leaves bring thousands of hikers and motorists to the Smokies, and catching the colors at their peak is an annual game that has no real losers. The good news is that there generally is good leaf color in the park at one or more elevations for more than a month, so most trips into the Smokies won’t yield autumnal disappointment.

But where to go?

For my money (and I spend it in the Smokies every autumn), the number one fall spot in the park is the Carlos C. Campbell Overlook on the Newfound Gap Road (US 441), about a 15-minute drive from Gatlinburg.

A generously sized parking area offers space for 10 to 15 cars, and you’ll often find the area full, particularly in the fall. The view offers a spectacular look at Mount Le Conte, at 6,593 feet the third-highest peak in the Smokies.

One of the most impressive things about this overlook is that, at certain times of the year, the view from the roadside to the top of Le Conte can provide a sampler of three seasons. The summit area of the mountain is capped with snow, the middle range shows fall colors at their brightest, and the lower elevation still has some of the greens of late summer. It’s a quilt-like mix of whites and yellows and reds and greens, and it’s a scene that presents the Smokies at their absolute best.

Bring a drink and a sandwich, and you can gaze at this wonder for most of an hour without boredom setting in.

Of course, you don’t have to wait for the snow-autumn-summer mix of colors to enjoy this view of Le Conte. It’s special in every season, but particularly as the fall spectrum makes its way down the mountainside, a march that visitors can record by stopping at the overlook numerous times over a three-week period and documenting the changes with that handy cell phone camera.

The Campbell overlook (named for one of the park’s early advocates) isn’t your favorite? It’s okay. The park is filled with wonderful scenery in fall. Take your pick, from streamside to mountainside to roadside. Smokies LIVE

Disappointment is rare in a Smokies autumn.

Mike Hembree is a veteran journalist and the author of 14 books. He has visited 26 national parks and hopes to add many more to that list.

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