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VOL. 46 | NO. 39 | Friday, September 30, 2022

Fall color as far as the eye can see

Smokies are great, but there are beautiful, less-crowded options

By Catherine Mayhew

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At some pivotal moment around the beginning of September, we start watching the trees. Is that leaf starting to get a tinge of yellow? Maybe a bit of red on the outer edges? Ah, fall. It’s the season some consider the best of the year. The air cools, the sky becomes a more vibrant blue and, blessedly, the trees start putting on the show of the year.

Tree leaves are like little factories in the spring and summer. They manufacture the foods to make trees grow in the numerous cells containing chlorophyll, which is what makes leaves green. The vibrant reds, yellows and oranges are already contained in the leaves, but are hidden until fall by the more robust amounts of green coloring.

Then the air starts to get cooler, and the sun sets earlier. The leaves abandon their chlorophyll production, revealing their fall colors. And that’s when the leaf peepers come out. No, not in the leaves. People hop into their cars and SUV’s, out to hunt down the most spectacular autumn shows possible.

Nobody really knows the economic impact of leaf season because there’s no central advocacy agency that would track such things. But the Department of Biology at Appalachian State University estimates that in the 24 states in the eastern part of the U.S. that boast good fall colors, leaf tourism might add up to more than $30 billion a year.

True colors: What tree is that?

With leaf peeping, it helps to know what your trees, though most of us can’t tell a poplar from an oak. But Visit My Smokies has put together a cheat sheet for which leaves are from which trees based on fall color.
• Birch: bright yellow
• Black Cherry: yellow
• Dogwood: deep red
• Sourwood: brick red
• Shining Sumac: red
• Hickories: golden-bronze
• Oaks: red, brown or russet
• Maples:
    • Sugar Maple: orange-red
    • Black Maple: glowing yellow
    • Red Maple: bright scarlet, orange

Leon Downey, the executive director of the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism can’t attach a number, but he does know that, behind summer, fall is the most popular time of the year to visit the gateway to the Smoky Mountains that also includes Gatlinburg and Sevierville.

“The biggest thing is the fall foliage in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” Downey says. “Our businesses really go all-out to decorate with fall foliage, pumpkins, cornstalks and all those things. The Harvest Festival at Dollywood is a monster. In 2019, they added the great pumpkin luminaries. People just absolutely love to go then.”

Go high

Fall colors develop the earliest in Tennessee in the mountains of the eastern part of the state. And since turning leaves like temperatures in the 70s during the day and 40s at night, the ideal time to visit is early October.

Generally speaking, in the mountains, the colors are much earlier,” says Randy Hedgepath, state naturalist for Tennessee State Parks. “You have good fall color on those mountains in early October. Down in the great valley of Knoxville and Chattanooga they’re much later because they’re at a much lower elevation.”

Sure, you could go for a strenuous hike at Cumberland Mountain State Park, but why not find a spot on the water to enjoy nature’s transition to winter.


-- Photograph Provided

Many out-of-state leaf peepers flock to the immensely popular Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which means crowds are larger. But Hedgepath says that a better bet for getting the same impact without all the traffic are Tennessee state parks with similar elevations to the Smokies.

“Most of the mountains are the national forest or national parks,” he says, “but we have Roan Mountain and Rocky Fork and Hiwassee/Ocoee Scenic River State Park.”

Roan Mountain State Park, about 25 miles southeast of Johnson City, is the anonymous brother to the Great Smokies – lesser known but equally spectacular. It’s 15 minutes away from Carvers Gap, the tallest point in Tennessee with 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains and access to the Appalachian Trail.

Pickett CCC Memorial State Park is adjacent to Big South Fork near Jamestown.


-- Photograph Provided

If you want to trade a hotel room for more simple surroundings, the park has cabins and RV and tent camping.

Lamar Alexander Rocky Fork State Park is 2,076 acres of scenic wilderness in Unicoi County, about 30 minutes from both Johnson City and Asheville, North Carolina, and 10 miles from Erwin, the county seat. It’s a relatively new state park, having been named in 2012 and not officially staffed until three years later.

Hiwassee/Ocoee Scenic River State Park, about 24 miles east of Cleveland in Polk County, provides access to the Hiwassee and Ocoee rivers as well as a spectacular backdrop for fall colors. A 23-mile section of the Hiwassee River, extending from the North Carolina state line to U.S. Route 411, was the first river to be designated by the State Scenic River Program.

Beautiful views abound in the Chattanooga area, especially for the adventurous.


-- Photograph Provided By Credit Chattanooga Tourism Co

Hedgepath says he decided to hit the road in 2019 to find the best fall viewing.

“I tried to do the ultimate fall color trip,” he says. “I went to Roan Mountain State Park. The mountains are very much like the Smokies. And the reason there’s so much color is the diversity of trees. The Smokies are so good because they have a high diversity of trees.

“The second most diverse is the Cumberland Plateau, which includes parks like Fall Creek Falls and South Cumberland. From Roan Mountain, we went through the mountains and then returned through the Cherohala Byway.”

The Cherohala Skyway National Scenic Byway is a 43-mile road from Tellico Plains, Tennessee, to Robbinsville, North Carolina. It passes through the Cherokee and Nantahala national forests, thus the name “Chero…hala.” It’s just forest, no civilization, for most of the route and provides stunning fall scenery and spectacular photo opportunities.

If you want to make the drive a mini-vacation, book a cabin at the Tellico Plains Log Cabin Rentals, privately owned luxury properties with hot tubs and beautiful mountain views. The cabins are near both the byway and Tail of the Dragon at Deals Gap (designated U.S. 129), a somewhat terrifying but fun road to drive with 318 curves in 11 miles.

Few views can top those enjoyed by hikers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.


-- Photograph Provided By Pigeon Forge Department Of Tourism

If your heart’s set on visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you’ll run into crowds. But the National Park Service has put together a list of high-country favorites for autumn hikes and drives in areas of the park that are less crowded at https://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/fallcolor.htm.

Go lower

If you live in Knoxville, it’s a snap to get to any of the higher elevations for leaf watching. But there are plenty of equally beautiful places near both Chattanooga and Nashville. The best times to visit are mid-to-late October.

Fall Creek Falls State Park is an hour south of Cookeville and offers incredible overlooks and waterfalls. It’s an hour from Chattanooga and about two hours from Nashville.

It’s also a destination with a new lodge offering 85 guest rooms and an on-site restaurant. If there aren’t any rooms available, try nearby Cumberland Mountain State Park. It features the largest timbered plateau in America and also has modern cabins for rent.

For day-trippers from Chattanooga, there are lots of good choices. Start with the Rainbow Lake Wilderness Trailhead on Signal Mountain. It’s just 15 minutes from downtown and has a multitude of well-maintained trails.

Prentice Cooper State Forest offers 6,000 acres of protected land and 35 miles of hiking trails. Lula Lake Land Trust has trails that overlook scenic waterfalls. It’s only open on the first and last weekends of each month and reservations are required. But that also means fewer crowds.

Near Nashville are Montgomery Bell and Tims Ford state parks. Montgomery Bell has hiking, paddling and three beautiful lakes. It also offers a luxury lodge updated in 2020 and an on-site restaurant.

Tims Ford also has cabins and miles of hiking trails. It’s also near the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg, which has its own special beauty in the fall.

And if you just have half a day to spend in Nashville, there’s always that perennial favorite, Radnor Lake State Park. The 1,368-acre urban park provides 7.75 miles of hiking trails and is protected as a Class II Natural Area.

Tennessee boasts 57 state parks, and the staff has put together a list of their favorite places to view fall colors that narrows the list to 13 don’t-miss parks. The site also has a fall foliage predictor tool to help you maximize your chance of seeing autumn at its peak season.

So leaf peepers, get to your vehicles and start your engines. October is the prime month for this particular spectator sport.

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