Veteran “Leaf Peepers” will tell you that there are few places in North America as stunning as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park when it comes to the most beautiful, breathtaking displays of autumn color. The problem though, is getting there at peak color time and before wind and rain quickly drops the painted leaves.
But this week, we couldn’t have timed it any better. The leaves had turned, the winds were calm, the skies were clear and bright blue. We spent much of Thursday in the park, hiking and taking photos.
To get there, we drove our Roadtrek CS Adventurous XL down through the crowded touristy towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg off I 40 right on the Tennessee/North Carolina border. Even midweek in mid October, the traffic is horrendous and we crawled along until hitting the park.
But is was all worth is as soon as we entered the park, one of the very few National Parks that has no admission charge, a stipulation of old John D. Rockefeller, who donated much of the land that makes up the 522,400-acre park. It goes back and forth with Grand Canyon National Park as the most visited national park in the country. But traffic was tolerable the day we visited, though it sometimes took a minute or two to find an opening in the steady stream of vehicles when you attempted to reenter the main road (US 441) from a scenic turn out.
US 441 runs about 31 miles from the north to south boundaries and that’s where we found all the color, right off the road. We took the seven mile drive off 441 up to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the park at about 6,400 feet. After a steep climb up from the parking lot along a half-mile long paved trail, you come to an observation platform perched high in the air that offers great views of the mist-shrouded mountains.
There’s camping in and around Gatlinburg,TN and in Cheorkee, NC to the south, as well as the park itself. Even this time of year, reservations are advised.
Here’s some more of our photos.