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Fall Color Without the Crowds at the Great Smoky Mountains or the Blue Ridge Parkway?


The final days of September offered some fine samples of fall color near Craggy Gardens on the Blue Ridge Parkway (top photo) and along the road to Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (bottom). Photos by Jim Burnett

Both Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway are justly famous for their fall color—and a flood of mid-October visitors. Can you avoid the heavy traffic and still enjoy some autumn foliage by timing your visit a bit earlier? Here's a Traveler trip report.

My recent three-day tour sampled the southern end of the Parkway and just a bit of the Smokies. The annual visual symphony is getting underway in both parks, and although the orchestra is still tuning up at lower elevations, there are some nice splashes of red and yellow above about 4,000 feet in elevation.

A short drive north from Asheville, North Carolina, on the Parkway will take you to fine long-range views in the Craggy Gardens area (milepost 354.) There's a nice tinge of color on the hillsides and dense stands of mountain ash are loaded with spectacular red berries. An unexpected bonus is the late season wildflowers, and asters are blooming in profusion along the roadside in many areas.

A short spur road off the Parkway at MP 367.6 leads to a great picnic area with more views. Traffic? There were two other vehicles in the large parking area while we enjoyed a lunch under blue skies, and traffic on the Parkway itself was light.

Fall color is even further along south of Asheville, all the way to the southern terminus of the Parkway. Almost every overlook has a photo-worthy early autumn view, and the small visitor center and expansive vistas at Waterrock Knob (MP 451) are especially worth a stop. The ranger and the Eastern National employee on duty there pointed out the numerous hawks soaring over a nearby ridge, the early vanguard of the annual fall migration.

Most travelers on the Parkway pass up the turn for the Heintooga Ridge Road, just eleven miles north of Cherokee, North Carolina at MP 458. That's a shame, because the dozen-mile side trip to the end of the pavement at the Balsam Mountain Campground and Heintooga Picnic Area is a gem.

During a leisurely Friday morning drive on this road we saw numerous wild turkeys, some great splashes of red and yellow foliage, more soaring hawks … and a grand total of two other vehicles.  A stop in a pullout near the boundary between the Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park brought an unexpected bonus: the unmistakable bugling of an elk. A few minutes of patient waiting yielded glimpses of a magnificent bull and his small harem, along with an impressive serenade.

A size-up of traffic and scenery in the Smokies wouldn't be complete without a drive along the Newfound Gap Road (US441) from Cherokee to Gatlinburg, with a side trip to Clingmans Dome. The afternoon weather on the last day of September was magnificent, and traffic was not a problem. During our ride from the new visitor center at Oconaluftee near the park's southern boundary to the crest of the mountains, we rarely had more than one other  car in sight in front of us or in our rear-view  mirror.

Once we made the turn from the Newfound Gap Road and started the seven-mile spur to Clingmans Dome, almost every pullout offered some roadside gold and occasional splashes of red and orange. There was more colorful mountain ash around the parking lot at the top, which was barely one-third full. Late afternoon weather at the 6,643 foot summit can change quickly, and clouds rolled in to obscure the view, but even the sudden overcast didn't dim the nice foliage along the roadside.

The final leg of the trip, from Clingmans Dome down to Gatlinburg, brought more nice spots of color for the first three or four miles, until the road drops down to lower elevations. Traffic late in the day picked up a bit, but was never a problem.

This past weekend brought the first cold snap of the season, but the weather forecast for the remainder of this week calls for sunny skies and delightful temperatures for most of the region. If you're looking for a less crowded fall visit to these popular parks, a weekday trip in the next week or so has lots to offer.

You'll find information on the current weather forecast and fall color updates for Great Smoky Mountains National Park at this link. For color updates for the Blue Ridge Parkway, including wildflowers in bloom, click here.  


Based on my career as a National Park Ranger, here are some travel tips;

If you are planning a trip to the Southern Appalachians for the fall color season and want to stay in hotel or lodge accommodations, have reservations in advance. Many times I have seen travelers on the Blue Ridge Parkway in October thinking that they would just take a leisurely drive and find a motel room at the end of the day. In many cases they would find no room at the inn. I have seen people drive seventy five miles or more away from the park to find a vacant room.

October is the peak visitation season for this region of the country and a pretty weekend can see huge crowds in the parks.

October is also college football season. Colleges also sponsor their family and alumni weekends durng the beautiful fall weather. Such events can fill hotels for miles. You can check college web sites for their schedules. Some of the key colleges that may affect hotel availability are:

The University of Virginia
Virginia Military Institute
Washington and Lee University
Virginia Tech
Appalachian State University
University of North Carolina At Asheville

Fall festivals in specific communities can be a great attraction to visit, but also fill hotels.

Traffic in prime viewing areas may also become congested which will result in slow downs and delays. So make your plans for the distances you travel are reasonable and attainable. Come the end of the day you do not want to be hundreds of miles away from your planned stop for the night.

When ever possible travel during the week. Weekends are always the peak traffic times. Hotels rooms are also more easily obtainable on weekday nights.

Bruce -
Thanks for some excellent tips. The impact of college events and local festivals on availability of lodging for fall weekends is not one that everyone would think about.

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