Great Smoky Mountains: Appalachia in Autumn

Mist rising from the trees and waters, fog lying in the valleys, clouds wreathing the mountain heads: Shaconage, place of blue smoke, these mountains were called by the First Peoples. Later, this part of Appalachia became known as the Great Smoky Mountains.

That mist and fog and cloud were — and are — of a piece with the majesty and mystery these mountains hold. A good part of these mountains and valleys, much of the land along the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, forms the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Though some of the towns near the park’s boundaries have become a bit (some would say more than a bit) tourist oriented over the years, the park itself is wilderness.

great smoky mountains autumn appalachia

People did live in some areas of what is now the park once, it’s true, and there are cabins, homesteads, and churches the park service has chosen to preserve. Trails first traversed long ago by First Peoples and later by settlers are part of the landscape as well.

Cades Cove Great Smoky Mountains

More than a third of the park’s trees are old growth — forest that has never been logged or thinned, trees which have never felt an axe. Since the land became a national park in 1934, wilderness has reclaimed many areas which were once logged and settled.

The Great Smoky Mountains is a well loved and well visited park, so there are times and places where it may seem not quite remote. It’s a big place, though, comprising 522,427 acres, or more than 800 square miles.

Many who visit prefer to travel the main roads. Newfound Gap road, which runs across the park from Gatlinburg in Tennessee to Cherokee in North Carolina and winds up to some of the park’s higher elevations, is a very well traveled road. So is the Cades Cove loop, a more level route, which runs past homes,churches, and other buildings which were once part of the community in this valley. These are both fine places to drive along and to explore, if, at times, rather filled with cars and people. There are times though — early mornings most times of year, for instance, and especially in November and December — when I’ve had both these routes almost to myself.

smoky mountain river autumn appalachia

It is early autumn as I write this, leaves not quite on the turn yet in most parts of the Smokies, but soon that should change. The park is home to more than one hundred varieties of trees. Mountain ash, black gum, red maple, and dogwood are among those whose leaves burn bright red at different elevations as autumn progresses from late September through the middle of November. The leaves of birch, beech, and buckeye turn yellow, while sugar maple trees often show brilliant orange.

Among the forests’ changing leaves, there are autumn flowers and plants to enjoy as well, including sorrel and partridge berry. All of this, to my mind, is set off by evergreen fir and pine lacing darker paths within the brilliance, and coming into their own majesty as snows of winter arrive.

smoky mountains autumn

Even if you are planning just a quick drive through Newfound Gap, it is well worth your time to stop at the visitors’ centers near the entrances on both sides of the park. Oconaluftee, in Carolina, has buildings from a working farm to explore as well as paths along a nearby creek. Sugarland, in Tennessee, has a good book store and exhibits on the park’s history and wildlife. There are also paths for a rewarding hike up the hill behind the center. Both places sometimes host traditional craft and music events, and both offer good brochures and maps of the area. Rangers on staff are ready to answer your questions and give advice about best places to visit, too.

Clingman’s Dome, the Cove Hardwood Road, Chimneytops, Roaring Fork nature trail, Cataloocheee, the Abrams Ridge overlook on the Foothills parkway, and the many aspects of Cades Cove are a few of my favorite parts of the park to visit. Even if you are just passing through on a quick drive on the main roads, I think you will find that time slows down, if you let it. I encourage you to allow that factor to call you to pause, to walk in the woods, to take more time than you had planned, to let the mountains and valleys and rivers and streams of the Great Smoky Mountains speak to you.

They have spoken to many over time It was a place where strands of life and strands of music met, too. That is a story which Doug Orr and Fiona Ritchie trace in their book Wayfaring Strangers.

The main towns around the park — Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge on the Tennessee side and Cherokee and Bryson City on the North Carolina edge of the park — have many businesses and amusements designed to attract and serve travelers. Some are interesting, some are amusing, and some a bit tacky. These towns do offer a good range of places to stay and eat close to the park, however, and it is worth remembering that they are real towns, with year around activities and year around residents. Try thinking of them in that way as you explore the towns and you may be surprised at what gems you uncover.

great smoky mountains evening

As you go about your way in any of these towns, the mountains are always a presence. They will call you to explore, to seek quiet, to think of nature and to consider the footsteps of those who have walked these mountains before you. Autumn is a fine time to explore. Know too that the Great Smoky Mountains will reward your visit at all times of year.

Looking for other places in the US to discover autumn foliage? New England may come first to mind, and there are others. Shelia — and our readers in the comments — offer ideas on where to see fall’s colors in this story.


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