Cashiers NC Liz Alonso

Top Fall Hikes in the Smokies

As the leaves change colors and the crisp fall air approaches, the best time of year to hike is upon us. To help you take on the trails this fall, we’ve created a list of the best fall hikes in the Smokies. An autumn getaway to the NC Mountains is just what you need to escape and hit the reset button.

Our leaf season spans five weeks from October – Early November, making it one of the longest in the country. As you explore, please be mindful of our beautiful environment and help us keep our mountains ‘clean and green’ for generations to come by Leaving No Trace®. Learn how here.

With such a bright and vivid fall on the horizon, we strongly recommend visiting during midweek. Midweek travelers enjoy the hiking trails, roads, restaurants all to themselves, and the most affordable room rates.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Great Smokies are located just a short drive from downtown Sylva. Known as one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the temperate world, fall colors in the Smokies vary widely from higher elevations reaching over 6,600 feet to the grassy fields of the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Cherokee. Make sure not to miss these regional must-hikes on your next visit.


80 Ft. Cave Bluffs – Alum Cave Trail


Peak Leaf Color: October 12 – 17

Located between Tennessee and North Carolina in the Great Smokies, the iconic Alum Cave Trail is an intense and worthwhile adventure. Accessing the trailhead requires about an hour’s drive from downtown Sylva along Newfound Gap Road, one of the most beautiful roads in the country. The hike itself is a 4.4-mile roundtrip trek from the parking area with beautiful views of the surrounding smokies as you climb. You’ll know when you’ve reached the Alum Cave Bluffs as you look up and see a massive sheer rockface towering over 80 feet tall! Many hikers take a rest under them and enjoy a snack and some much-needed water. Those looking for an even more intense hike can continue towards Mount LeConte/Myrtle Point for one of the Smokies’ most grueling and rewarding hikes.


Worth the Climb – Mount LeConte

Peak Leaf Color: October 12 – 17

Mt. LeConte can be accessed by continuing the Alum Cave Trail and following the marker located up and to the left from the Cave Bluffs. This trail is for the expert hiker and not for the faint of heart, as it is known and one of the most challenging hikes in the Smokies, ascending over 3,000 feet to high elevations and totaling 12 miles round trip. Tackling this trail requires experience, proper gear, and a full day. Once at the top, you’ll find the LeConte Lodge, a group of cabins at the top built for overnight stays (must reserve far in advance). Follow signs for Myrtle Point for incredible views of Tennessee below, including neighboring Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.


Iconic Views – Clingmans Dome Trail


Peak Leaf Color: October 12 – 17

Bordering the Tennessee/North Carolina state lineClingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smokies at 6,643 feet in elevation. This iconic structure stands over 100 feet tall and is an iconic stop along the Appalachian Trail. The structure can be accessed via a half-mile paved path. Don’t be fooled; this short hike is made difficult by a near-vertical climb ascending nearly 1,000 feet along the way. If you need a break, benches are plentiful along the nature trail, and you can rest while taking in views from over 6,000 feet above sea level. Once summiting the hike to the dome, you’ll be rewarded with views of both Tennessee and North Carolina, seeing up to 100 miles on a clear day.


Forest Favorite – Andrews Bald Trail 


Peak Leaf Color: October 12 – 17

As you traverse a well-maintained Forney Ridge trail through various tree canopies, you begin to see sighs for Andrews Bald. As you follow the trail to the bald, you’re greeted with various wildflowers and grasslands as the canopy disappears altogether. You look over the crest and see the surrounding North Carolina mountains peppered with the fall color of the red maples, mountain maples, scarlet oaks, and yellow birch that change colors in the valley below – this is the experience of the revered Andrews Bald Trail. This iconic hike can be accessed easiest via the Clingmans Dome Road parking lot. As you approach the Clingmans Dome trail, you’ll see signs down and to the left for the Forny Ridge Trail, Andrews Bald. The hike requires a moderate 3.6-mile round trip trek, with a humble 900 feet in elevation gain mostly experienced on the way back. Pack a snack to enjoy while taking in the views from the Bald.


Elk Crossing – Oconaluftee River Trail

Peak Leaf Color: October 24 – 29

Sometimes, a peaceful flat stroll along the river is just what you need. The lower elevations In Cherokee along the Oconaluftee River Trail delivers a flat and gentle 2-mile walk parallel to the crystal-clear waters flowing from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This trail is a family favorite due to its gentle grade and a portion of paved path for people with wheelchairs. The trailhead can be found at the end of the Mountain Farm Museum, an 18th Century replica of an Appalachian Farmstead that the kids will love! The clear waters reflect the gold and orange leaves along the trail.  Keep your eyes peeled for the thriving elk population that call the Great Smokies home, as they are known to be spotted along this route, even crossing through the water at times.

Tip: Elk are the social distancing champions. Federal law requires people to stay 50 yards away. Take photos from a distance – no chances.


Historically Scenic – Mingus Creek Deeplow Gap Trail

Peak Leaf Color: October 24 – 29

In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Mingus Mill has been grinding cornmeal for over 150 years! Visitors from all around come to explore the mill and learn the area’s history but rarely know about the Deeplow Gap Trail located at the end of the parking lot.

The Deeplow Gap Trail is a great 5.8-mile stretch for those looking to have a serious hike! In late October, the trail offers a wide canopy of trees, creating various vibrant hues during the fall. Make sure to stop by Mingus Mill after your trek!

Jackson County Foliage Favorites


Worth the Climb – Waterrock Knob

Peak Leaf Color: October 12 – 17

Located on the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 451.2, this regional attraction is roughly a 40-minute drive from downtown Sylva via the Balsam Gap Parkway Entrance. Not only is the hike itself stunning, but the scenic drive to the overlook is also dotted with golden and lovely amber hues. Once you make it to the overlook, you’re greeted with panoramic views of the surrounding mountains, convenient facilities, and ample parking. The trail requires a short but steep vertical climb to the summit, ascending over 400 feet in only .6 mile. Once you reach the top, you’ll witness stunning views of the autumnal hues below. If you get up before the sunrise, Waterrock Knob sunrises never disappoint, and you’ll typically find yourself above the clouds, blanketing the valleys below. If you’re not quite a morning person, make sure to stick around for a stunning sunset to the west.


7-Mile Roundtrip Hike; Priceless Views – Pinnacle Park

Peak Leaf Color: October 12 – 17

Sylva’s Pinnacle Park offers 1,500+ acres of serene natural beauty. Known as one of the largest parks in a small town, Pinnacle’s “West Fork Trail” is a 3.5-mile one-way trek ascending over 3,000 feet. This hike is not for beginners and is considered intermediate to advanced. This hike is best experienced in the fall as the leaves change and begin making their descent on the trail.

The crisp, clean, and cool mountain air makes the heart-pumping climb more enjoyable, and the views are sprinkled with fall foliage. At the end of the trail, make sure to take a left into the Rhododendron and Laurel patch, meandering through the path to reach the summit (the Pinnacle). There you will be greeted with the iconic view of Sylva and the surrounding mountains below.

Tip: Make sure to pack a picnic lunch and not go before dark, as this hike takes a full day and is dangerous to navigate at night.


Seasonal Favorite – Whiteside Mountain

Peak Leaf Color: October 12 – 17

Whiteside Mountain is a seasonal favorite for a good reason. This two-mile loop trail ascends to the highest vertical cliffs in the eastern United States atop the oldest mountain in the world (at an estimated 360-490 million years old.) There is plenty of room to spread out while at the summit as it traverses a quarter-mile along the ridgeline with stunning views beneath. The vistas stretch from Cashiers to South Carolina and seem to roll on endlessly on a clear day. Autumn views of the Highlands-Cashiers plateau are always a treat as the leaves begin to change in the valley below, creating a wonderful Whiteside experience.

Tip: Make sure to bring $3, as there is a U.S. Forest Service parking fee.


Short Walk Great Payoff – Whitewater Falls

Peak Leaf Color: October 18 – 23

If you’re looking for one of the easiest hikes with the best view, Whitewater Falls is the perfect option. Hop out of the car and stretch your legs on this quarter-mile paved path to one of the highest waterfalls east of the Rockies (at 411 feet). Along this trail, you’ll witness sweeping views of neighboring South Carolina and Lake Jocassee, leading up to the falls itself. For the best view of the falls, continue right, down the 132 stairs to the viewing platform.

Tip: Make sure to bring $3, as there is a U.S. Forest Service parking fee.


Top it All Off 

After a full day of hiking, it’s time to grab some dinner! Our charming downtowns are known for their unique non-chain dining establishments. If you’re looking to grab a pint (or two), there’s one more trail that is not to be missed- The Jackson County Ale Trail! Our breweries offer seasonal flavors that complement the changing leaves and temperatures in the fall. Once you’ve ended your outdoor adventure, get a full night’s rest in one of our cozy cabinsvacation rentals, or award-winning hotels. Wake up refreshed and find another trail that you’re ready to tackle! Plan your trip today!

*Leaf colors depend on various environmental factors, including rainfall, temperature, and storms. Just as Yellowstone can’t guarantee wildlife sightings to visitors, we can’t guarantee leaf colors, but we hope you have an amazing trip. Some years there are more subdued pallets, but we love them all the same. There’s nothing like trekking through the forest mist and reconnecting with nature.

Blog featured photo of Cashiers, NC courtesy of Liz Alonso

Share on Social Media