It’s been a beautiful fall here in the Great Smoky Mountains. Leaf-peeping season begins in late September, continues through October, and wraps up around mid-November, depending on the elevation. You’re going to want to know the most beautiful drives to take during your visit. Get ready to experience golden tree tunnels and red-dappled mountain ridges. Here is a guide for the best fall drives near Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge during your stay with us at Great Smoky Mountains Cabin Rentals. We even added some ideas for what to include on your adventure itinerary.
Newfound Gap Rd
Newfound Gap Road is your main access-point to all things Great Smoky Mountains. This road drives straight through the National Park, connecting Gatlinburg, TN all the way to Cherokee, NC. Drive along babbling Smoky Mountain streams as you climb thousands of feet in elevation through the endless smoky mountains. Drive through picturesque tunnels, under golden leafy canopies, and past multiple stunning viewpoints such as Morton Overlook. Once you reach Newfound Gap, hop out and explore the landmark- but bundle up! It can be up to 20 degrees cooler here compared to Gatlinburg. Take a look at the monument where Franklin D. Roosevelt first inaugurated the Park back in 1940, then step onto the infamous Appalachian Trail. Make sure to stop at Sugarlands Visitor Center before you begin your adventure to get road updates, maps, souvenirs, and a parking pass.
Where to Hike:
“The Jumpoff” – Mount Kephart
Once you are in the Newfound Gap parking lot, the Appalachian Trail is steps away. This iconic and infamous trail crosses through Newfound Gap and connects to several trails through the Smoky Mountains. One fantastic viewpoint you can hike to is at the top of Mount Kephart, a spot known as the “Jumpoff.” The total hike is 6.5 miles and is moderate to strenuous and takes you through gorgeous cedar ridges. The view from the Jumpoff overlooks Mount LeConte and Charlie’s Bunion, and it sits at over 6,000 feet of elevation. This adventure is definitely worth it if you don’t mind getting your heart pumping!
Where to Eat:
This Gatlinburg staple is located right at the entrance to the National Park alongside the Nantahala Outdoor Center. This restaurant has a cozy lodge and features American eats and local staples showcasing the best that the Smokies have to offer. Menu highlights include homestyle fried green tomatoes, fresh rainbow trout, several premium steak options, and homemade blackberry cobbler for dessert. Don’t forget their amazing cocktails featuring local whiskey and Ole Smoky moonshine!
From Gatlinburg, follow East Parkway for 441 south towards Sugarlands Visitor Center. Continue past the visitor center onto Newfound Gap Road. Follow for 15 miles to reach Newfound Gap, then another 19 miles to get to Cherokee, North Carolina.
An absolute must-see for visitors to the smokies, this 11-mile one way drive through a historic mountain community boasts some of the most stunning scenery in Tennessee. Drive next to open pastures situated below stunning mountain peaks, while catching glimpses of how people lived in the Smokies long ago. There are multiple stops along the way to tour meticulously preserved cabins and quaint churches- many of which still have active congregations today. This is one of the best areas to see wildlife such as deer, turkeys, coyotes, and especially bears. Just be sure to give them a respectable distance as you cruise by! Take your time as you drive and find your favorite view to set up the most perfect fall photoshoot with your family. Stop at the Cades Cove Ranger station for even more history of the area, souvenirs, and information about some off-path attractions like Rich Mountain Road and Gregory Bald!
Where to Hike:
This moderate hike features one of the most recognizable waterfalls in the state of Tennessee. Cradled by colorful autumn maples and dogwoods, the 25 foot waterfall is a sight to behold. The trailhead is located at the apex of Cades Cove loop road, making it a great trail to add to your fall drive itinerary. The trail is 5 miles round trip, with two short uphill sections that most visitors describe as “manageable” due to the downhill portion sandwiched in between. Keep your eye out for our resident black bears; they like to pop up near this trail!
Where to Eat:
Peaceful Side Social and Creamery
This casual dining spot has something for the whole family. Featuring craft brews and a delicious artisan menu, this locally owned restaurant is a great hangout spot to relax and unwind from a day of adventures. There’s a huge outdoor space with a quaint children’s play area, a Taco Bar, and an ice cream shop next door. Be sure to grab one of the creamery’s unique seasonal flavors! Menu highlights include stone-fired margherita pizza, smoked trout and avocado sandwich, and the Appalachian Trail charcuterie board.
Though the drive from Gatlinburg is lengthy as you meander through the park, it’s worth it as you drive along rambling Smoky Mountain streams and old growth forest. From Sugarlands Visitor Center, turn right onto Little River Gorge Rd. Follow this road for 20 miles until it reaches Cades Cove Loop Rd. Stop in the parking lot before you enter the one-way road to grab a parking pass, as you’ll want to hop out and explore the historic homesteads and churches along the way.
This scenic road, only finished in 2018 after construction initially began in 1966, begins in a town just outside Gatlinburg called Wears Valley. Similar to the Blue Ridge Parkway, it follows along mountain ridges and features multiple incredible overlooks. Sprawling layers of mountains are framed by stunning red sumac shrubs and golden cottonwoods. View the impressive front range of the Smokies, and on a clear day, see as far as Clingman’s Dome. Take your time cruising over this smooth road as the leaves float down around you. This route goes all the way into the peaceful town of Townsend, TN, which features quaint artisan shops, river rafting, and the Smoky Mountain Outdoor Center. Exit the parkway onto Lamar Alexander Parkway to get into town, or keep going to reach Look Rock and Lake Chilhowee.
Where to Hike:
Look, a rock! Actually, this is a hike to an overlook structure similar to Clingman’s Dome, but much less steep! This hike is accessible directly from Foothills Parkway and is only 0.8 miles round trip. This concrete structure overlooks the front range of the Great Smoky Mountains, Foothills Parkway, and Maryville, TN. From the parking lot, follow the sidewalk and the crosswalk over the road before stepping into the woods along a paved trail. This short and rewarding hike is perfect for all ages.
Where to Eat:
Apple Valley Cafe
This quaint cafe and store has a lot to offer any visitor to the Smokies. Located in a log cabin off Lamar Alexander Parkway in Townsend, everything you need to refuel is located right here! Grab coffee at the dancing bean, snacks for the road from the general store, and a delicious lunch at the cafe. Run into the SMOC for some hiking gear for your next adventure! Menu highlights include the massive Clingman Burger, pulled pork barbeque, and fried apple pies and hand-spun milkshakes for dessert!
From Gatlinburg, head north on Route 321 towards Pigeon Forge. Turn left on Cates Lane when you reach the Wild Bear Tavern, then left onto the Parkway southbound. Immediately swing a right onto Conner Heights Rd, which quickly turns into Little Cove Rd. Follow this for about 8 miles until you reach Wears Valley Rd, then turn right. Follow this until you see the sign for Foothills Parkway; turn right and get ready for an adventure!
If you consider yourself a motorist or enjoy riding motorcycles, chances are you’ve heard of this stretch of highway known as “The Dragon.” Highway 129 is a mountain road that bisects the Smokies, leading all the way from Maryville, TN to Robbinsville, NC. This is the epitome of all winding mountain roads, featuring more than 300 turns over just 11 miles. On this drive, you pass through stunning hardwood forests as you bend and loop over the mountains, passing a few stunning overlooks as well. Stop at Tail of the Dragon for a souvenir to prove that you survived the thrilling drive before continuing into North Carolina, where the road is a little less adrenaline-pumping as you drive along beautiful Lake Santeelah. This is a great road to add to an all-day adventure through the mountains, as it connects easily to other scenic roads like Foothills Parkway and Newfound Gap Road.
Where to Hike:
Yellow Creek Falls
Down 129 just past Tapoco Lodge is a small gravel parking area. This is the gateway to a short hike featuring a stunning little waterfall. The quick trek to Yellow Creek Falls is well worth the detour. This short jaunt from the parking lot is only 0.6 miles round trip and follows the creek along multiple cascades as you enter a lush forest. This is a great hiking location for those wanting to get up-close to nature without exerting too much energy.
Where to Eat:
Sitting right next to the Tapoco River nestled up against the North Carolina Smokies sits the Tapoco Lodge, a historic hotel that first opened in 1930. This incredibly scenic all-brick structure includes hotel rooms, a gift shop, and a restaurant called the Tapoco Tavern. Featuring wood-fired pizza, trout fish-and-chips, and signature burgers, this fresh menu also has seasonal beers and cocktails to try! Sit down next to the river, chat with the motorcyclists passing through, and enjoy true mountain hospitality.
BONUS: Cherohala Skyway
Though further away from Gatlinburg, this hidden gem is one you may want to add to your mountain vacation itinerary. If the crowds of the Smokies are too much for you, this lesser known scenic drive is the perfect place for you to explore. It is accessible from Hwy 129 once you reach Burnsville and leads back into Tellico Plains, TN. The soaring drive is mainly above 4000 feet in elevation, where the air is crisp and the leaves are crispier. You won’t believe the incredible views, and you’ll be even more stunned by the lessened crowd. Take your time as you drive under breathtaking peaks and over huge bridges overlooking the Nantahala and Cherokee National Forests.
Where to Hike:
About 20 miles into the Cherohala Skyway from its start on Hwy 129 sits a hidden hiking trail that leads you to an insane 360-degree view. Huckleberry Knob trail is a moderate hike featuring two stunning balds- mountains with very few trees to block the view. It is a total of 1.7 miles round trip and passes through a field of wild asters, goldenrod, and blueberry bushes before reaching an impressive elevation of 5500 feet. Explore the otherworldly meadow at the top of the mountain as you take in an ocean of endless sky and mountain peaks.
Where to Eat:
Iron Works Grille
Iron Works Grille is located right at the bottom of the Cherohala Skyway along the beautiful Tellico River. This family-friendly restaurant and bar regularly has live music and events, as well as porch activities like cornhole and a firepit. Menu highlights include bacon-wrapped fried pickles, hand-breaded trout, and the Southern smoked half-chicken plate. Check their website for regular events and get ready to mingle with motorcyclists from all over the world.
Accessing the Cherohala Skyway is a “choose your own adventure” experience. It can be an addition to your trek down Highway 129- where you simply turn right onto the Skyway– or add it to your excursion down Newfound Gap Rd. Once you reach Cherokee, North Carolina, continue down 441 until it ends at Hwy 74, where you will turn right. Keep right at the fork and continue onto Route 28, then left onto 143 towards Robbinsville. Keep following this road, as this is what becomes the gorgeous Cherohala Skyway, and enjoy the ride!