Tennessee

The 12 Best Spots to See Tennessee’s Fall Foliage

by Holly Riddle
Updated August 08, 2022

best fall foliage in tennessee
Photo: Cat Dang Photography

When you think best fall foliage in America, you probably think of New England-set, coastal or mountain villages with vibrant displays of red and orange, surrounding quaint farms and historic buildings.

However, there’s amazing fall colors to be found across the country, and you may find some surprising discoveries in the South — like the gorgeous fall foliage in Tennessee. 

While this Southern state may not boast the harsh winters and ski slopes of its neighbors to the north, Tennessee still sports some gorgeous fall foliage, thanks to its mountainous landscapes. To see the best of the best, here are 12 favorite leaf peeping spots around the state. 

1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

tennessee fall colors - great smoky mtns
Photo: Sean Pavone

Why you should go: Abundant nature conveniently near civilization.

  • Nearest Town: Gatlinburg 
  • Peak Foliage: Mid-October to early November 

One of the fantastic things about Great Smoky Mountains National Park is that it offers abundant nature and all the activities that go with it, but it’s located right near some of Tennessee’s most popular tourist hubs, so you can get into the wild as much as you like, but then always return back to creature comforts and conveniences like you’ll find at hotels and restaurants.

See the fall foliage at Great Smoky Mountains National Park a variety of ways — by car during a scenic driving route, on foot, on bicycle, whatever your adventure-loving heart prefers. You’ll quickly see why this is one of the most-visited national parks in the country. 

Related Read: 10 Can’t-Miss Glamping Sites Near Great Smoky Mountains National Park

2. Fall Creek Falls State Park

tennessee fall colors - fall creek falls sp
Photo: Tim Lumley

Why you should go: Waterfalls, rocks and foliage — oh my!  

  • Nearest Town: Spencer
  • Peak Foliage: Late October 

While Fall Creek Falls State Park might not be as well known as Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it does have the honor of being one of the most-visited and largest state parks in Tennessee. With more than 25,000 acres, it’s home to a range of interesting sites, including multiple waterfalls and rock formations.

If you only visit for a short time, be sure to visit Cane Creek Gorge, where the fall foliage blends with the geological formations and waterfalls. Try to fit in a hike, too, on some of the more than 50 miles of hiking trails. If you’re lucky enough to stay awhile, you’ll find a mixture of camping options, from cabins to campsites. 

Related Read: What to See & Do on a Nashville to Gatlinburg Road Trip

3. The Cherohala Skyway

tennessee fall colors - Cherohala Skyway
Photo: Beach Creatives

Why you should go: A scenic drive to remember that’s packed with fall foliage.

  • Nearest Town: Tellico Plains 
  • Peak Foliage: Late October 

Tellico Plains on its own is worth a visit during the fall months, as it’s incredibly charming and a lovely little mountain town. However, for the best experience in this area, take to the Cherohala Skyway. The 43-mile national scenic byway stretches between North Carolina and Tennessee, crossing through two national forests and covering mile-high mountains as it goes.

Even if you’re not staying in Tennessee, but are maybe traveling on a larger Tennessee road trip, this byway is worth a detour, as it’s both quick and memorable. 

Related Read: The 8 Best Camping Spots in the Nantahala National Forest

4. Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area 

tennessee fall colors - Big South Fork National River
Photo: Patrick Jennings

Why you should go: Combine your leaf peeping with lots of fun outdoor activities.

  • Nearest Town: Oneida 
  • Peak Foliage: Mid to late October 

Near the Tennessee-Kentucky border, Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area covers more than 100,000 acres on the Cumberland Plateau. With mammoth gorges, the Cumberland River, scenic bluffs and an array of activities, you’ll certainly never get bored during a fall trip to this destination.

Hiking, horseback riding, historic sites, whitewater rafting, rock climbing — as low-key or as extreme as you want to go, this is a great spot to explore if you want to take in the fall foliage while also getting your blood pumping.

5. Clingmans Dome

tennessee fall colors - clingmans dome
Photo: Zak Zeinert

Why you should go: Take in the view from the highest point in Tennessee.

  • Nearest Town: Gatlinburg 
  • Peak Foliage: Mid-October to early November

Yes, Clingmans Dome is technically part of the Great Smoky Mountains. However, it’s all too common for visitors to this national park to stick to the area directly around Gatlinburg, without traveling further afield. But, if you’re one of the lucky few to do so, you’ll discover this gorgeous scenic spot on the Tennessee and North Carolina border: Clingmans Dome.

The highest point in Tennessee — as well as the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains and the third-highest mountain east of the Mississippi — the dome features an observation tower that offers views of the mountainous foliage as far as 100 miles. 

Related Read: 9 Unique Places to Stay in Gatlinburg, Tennessee

6. Reelfoot Lake State Park

tennessee fall colors - Reelfoot Lake
Photo: Danita Delimont

Why you should go: Wildlife watching plus leaf peeping 

  • Nearest Town: Tiptonville 
  • Peak Foliage: Late October through early November  

Reelfoot Lake State Park sits on a 15,000-acre lake that was created in the late 19th century by a series of earthquakes. Technically, the lake is a flooded forest, creating an entirely unique ecosystem. This has made for a wealth of wildlife viewing, making the state park an excellent choice if you want to take in the wildlife in addition to the foliage.

Birding is popular and, during the fall, white pelicans stop by the lake during their migration, filling the waters by the hundreds. 

7. Chattanooga 

tennessee fall colors - chattanooga
Photo: Sean Pavone

Why you should go: Soak up some fall foliage without leaving the city.

  • Peak Foliage: Early November 

For fall foliage viewing without leaving the city behind, you might want to consider Chattanooga for your Tennessee vacay. The city in the state’s southeast is known for its burst of fall color.

While you can walk through the city’s parks or even hike trails that are just minutes from Chattanooga’s downtown, one of the most popular ways to see the city’s fall hues is with a cruise along the Tennessee River. 

Related Read: 14 Best Hikes Near Chattanooga, Tennessee

8. Roan Mountain State Park 

tennessee fall colors - roan mtn
Photo: Shutterstock

Why you should go: Big autumn views with just a little effort.

  • Nearest Town: Roan Mountain 
  • Peak Foliage: Mid-October to early November

Roan Mountain State Park covers a portion of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with the Appalachian Trail passing right through. Known as one of the most biodiverse temperate zones on the planet, the area is home to nearly 1,000 different plant and bird species.

One of the favorite hiking opportunities in the vicinity is the Cloudland Trail, which offers spectacular views, especially for the relatively little amount of work you’ll need to put in, in order to access those views. One of the cool spots you’ll see along the way is the remains of the Cloudland Hotel, built in 1885 and since abandoned. 

9. Franklin 

tennessee fall colors - franklin
Photo: Shutterstock

Why you should go: Small-town charm dripping with color in the fall.

  • Peak Foliage: Late October to early November 

Franklin, Tennessee, sits just south of Nashville and is a favorite with Nashville celebs who want to live just slightly outside the city, beyond the public eye. The small town offers character in spades — especially around the fall months, when you can stroll the streets, coffee in hand, as the fall leaves scatter across the sidewalks.

Poke in and out of the various galleries, indie shops and more, then check out the handful of historic sites in the area, before attending one of the small town’s fall fests. 

Related Read: 10 Gorgeously Secluded Tennessee Cabin Rentals

10. Cherokee National Forest  

tennessee fall colors - cherokee natl forest
Photo: Shutterstock

Why you should go: Near-endless hiking and backcountry camping 

  • Nearest town: Elizabethton 
  • Peak Foliage: Late October to early November

Another top spot for leaf peeping in Tennessee that sits on the border the state shares with North Carolina, the Cherokee National Forest is massive, at more than 650,000 acres in size.

While the forest covers 150 miles or so of the Appalachian Trail, it also boasts more than 600 miles of hiking trails all on its own, many of which are suitable for backcountry camping, so you never even have to leave the picturesque fall views. You can simply set up camp and enjoy getting away for a while.

11. Meeman-Shelby State Park

tennessee fall colors - Meeman-Shelby State Park
Photo: Bonita R. Cheshier

Why you should go: Stare up at some of the tallest trees in the state.

  • Nearest Town: Millington
  • Peak Foliage: Late October 

Meeman-Shelby State Park is a favorited park known for its water features, including two lakes and shoreline along the Mississippi River.

Beyond the swampland, there are bluffs covered with an array of hardwoods, including state and national champion trees — trees that are the largest in size for their species, either in the state or the entire country. Rent a cabin or campsite and stay awhile to fully enjoy this unique park in the fall months. 

Related Read: 6 Cool Campervan Rentals in Nashville, Tennessee

12. Bristol 

tennessee fall colors - bristol
Photo: Flickr

Why you should go: Underrated small-town charm 

  • Peak Foliage: Early October 

Bristol is an underrated Tennessee destination for sure. While you might know it due to its connections with NASCAR, the city on the Tennessee-Virginia border offers so much more.

The small town, sometimes called the Birthplace of Country Music, also features outdoor adventure aplenty, historic sites, shopping and fall festivals that celebrate everything from the season in general to folk arts and more.

Where to Go Next in Tennessee

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