Tennessee is brilliant for autumn colors. The state is crumpled with old, rocky mountains blanketed in forests, and these groves turn into a riot of flaming hues come fall. Thousands of tourists return every year to witness the seasonal show. Of course, there’s more than just the pretty vistas. You can also fish wild rivers, hike into the heart of the mountains and state parks, and hop on a bike to explore scenic pathways.
Natchez Trace Parkway
Once a track for wildlife, later a pathway carved out by Native Americans, today the Natchez Trace is a national parkway that constitutes one of the great road trips of the American South. Tennessee marks the northern end of the route of this two-lane parkway, which begins in Fairview, Tennessee. There are plenty of sites to see along the Tennessee span of the parkway, including the Meriwether Lewis Monument and Jackson Falls, but one of the great joys is just lapsing into the slow rhythm of a scenic drive, especially as the autumn colors of a Tennessee fall appear before your windshield.
Sugarland-Chimney Tops-Laurel Falls
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited property in the National Park System, but even in its most popular corners, you still get a sense of wild mountain backcountry. The Sugarlands Visitor Center, just outside of Gatlinburg, is an excellent introduction to the park, and serves as a good jumping off point for exploring Chimney Tops and Laurel Falls. The former is a dramatic scramble to the eponymous Chimney Tops, a pair of dramatic peaks swathed in buckeye and rhododendron. Laurel Falls is an 80-ft. high waterfall accessible by one of the park’s few paved paths – be mindful of waste, as bears are present in the surrounding woods.
Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area
Encompassing some of the borderlands between Tennessee and Kentucky, the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area is an excellent area of natural beauty where you can easily lose a few days in wilderness exploration. The East Rim Overlook is known for its dramatic views, but if you want to go deeper into the park, consider hiking through its extensive trail network. In fact, you don’t even have to hike – one of the big draws to Big Fork are two horse campgrounds (one in Tennessee and one in Kentucky) that accommodate equestrians. The mild weather and color explosion of the autumn months make for prime horse riding conditions. Beyond those trails, fishing has been one of the biggest draws to the Big Fork River since pre-European contact. Largemouth bass are often found swimming among the rocks.
You don’t have to disappear into the wilds to enjoy Tennessee in autumn. Gatlinburg is both a quirky town and a natural gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and as such, it balances forested mountains with good restaurants and distilleries. If you really want to get up close and personal with the changing leaves, take a canopy walk at Anakeesta. You can also head to the Arrowmont School, where you can find souvenirs and crafts inspired (and made from) the forests. There’s a whole slew of events in Gatlinburg aimed at the fall season, including the new Gatilinburg Smoky Mountain Harvest Festival, Oktoberfest, and the Gatlinburg Craftsmen’s Fair.
Tennessee Central Railway Museum
Tennessee in autumn is decidedly beautiful, but if you’re driving, you have to always keep your eyes on the road. This isn’t an issue if you’re willing to take a trip on one of the rail excursions organized by the Tennessee Central Railway Museum in Nashville. Get on board one of the classic cars and enjoy a trip without having to worry about operating a vehicle. Note that outside of trips arranged for kids, most excursions are full day trips – plan accordingly.
This scenic road connects Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Cherokee, North Carolina, and along the way passes Newfound Gap. With an elevation of 5049 feet, manmade intrusions are sparse and there’s a deep sense of the wild. Newfound Gap is located near Clingmans Dome, the highest point in both Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Tennessee, and home to a saucer-shaped observation tower. The tower has good views, but even in thick mist this area is simply stunning for both roadtripping and hiking.
Biking in Chattanooga
There’s a reason they call Chattanooga the ‘Scenic City.’ It’s one of the best cities of its size for biking, surrounded by pretty forests and pathways that range from gentle elevation to steep mountainsides. You can take an easy ride alongside the city’s Riverwalk, or pump your legs and tackle the long haul 80-mile Mountain Cove Loop. Thanks to Bike Chattanooga, all adults have access to bicycles via a 24/7 bikeshare system.
This 43-mile national scenic byway connects Tennessee to North Carolina via a series of protected forests and wilderness areas, and in fall, is the location of simply one of the best autumn color palettes in the country. Seriously, words don’t do the route justice – just pop on some relaxing music and strap in for a superlatively beautiful drive.
Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park
Located about 15 miles north of Memphis on a bend of the Mississippi River, this state park is a nice spot to experience autumn outside of the state’s rugged highlands. Come here and poke around the bluffs and swampland, and you’ll realize the changing of the seasons is just as dramatic when it occurs in the cup of a bottomland riverine forest. This is a nice spot for kayaking and canoeing; as you paddle, you’ll see the falling leaves flutter onto the Mississippi and its constituent tributaries.
Make it happen
Tennessee is far south enough to retain mild climate for much of fall. When it comes to fall leaf palettes, the state is far north enough to lay claim to consistent color shifts – you still get big patches of green in more southerly states.
If you are coming with leaf spotting mainly on your mind, pay attention to the forecasts: particularly hot summers or droughts can have an impact on leaf colors, and heavy frost can end the foliage show. In general, leaves start changing by mid-September; the state reaches ‘peak fall’ sometime in October, but if it’s a warm year, colors will last into November.
While traveling, keep an eye out for scenic viewfinders installed at three scenic lookout points in East Tennessee, with more on the way. These viewfinders allow the colorblind to experience the vividness of the state’s autumn colors; more information here.
Lonely Planet has produced this article and video for Tennessee Tourism. All editorial views are those of Lonely Planet alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.