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11 Best Small Towns in the Smokies to Experience Fall

Looking for a fall getaway in the Smokies? Let’s explore the best Smoky Mountain small towns to visit this fall!

The Smoky Mountains, otherwise known as the Smokies, consistently rank as one of the best places in America to see fall foliage and enjoy every apple cider second of the seasonal transition. In fact, Great Smoky Mountains National Park sees more visitors in October than almost any other month.

We’ll let you in on a secret, too. National Park Service data shows that more people visit the park through “outlying areas” than coming in through Gatlinburg. These small towns that pepper the edge of the park really shine during fall.

The Smokies span from near Knoxville Tennessee to Asheville North Carolina. From the bullseye of the tourism corridor to the backwoods towns, we’re going to find the perfect fall destination for your Smoky Mountains getaway.

Sevierville-fall
Sevierville | photo via marti.hitchings

Sevierville Tennessee

Those from Knoxville will pass through Sevierville (“Severe-ville”) on the way to the Smokies. This is Dolly Parton’s hometown — her childhood home is still on Locust Ridge Road.

Tourist attractions are a little more scattered here, providing plenty of space to stay in solitude or shop for winter at the outlet mall. The best pancake of my life came from Flapjack’s Pancake Cabin.

You’ll find an expansive list of places to stay here, most of them more affordable and spread out than in towns closer to the park. You still get awesome views, though. Pay a little extra to see the Smokies in fall from a helicopter or zip right through the Smokies’ seasonal masterpiece.

Jeep drivers and NASCAR fans will love fall here even more. If you haven’t experienced Buc-ee’s, you can visit the world’s largest gas station in Sevierville, now open with fall fan favorites.

TIP: Great Smoky Mountains National Park is just 14 miles away, but that’s through a lot of traffic. Take the bypass road through Wears Valley and enter through Wear Cove Gap Road.

Dollywood-Pigeon Forge
Dollywood | photo via roamingwiththeramsays1

Pigeon Forge Tennessee

Pigeon Forge is the home to Dollywood, which kicks off its Harvest Festival in late September and runs through late October. This immersive experience is surrounded by nature’s fall spectacle but also layers on the smells, sounds, and experiences of down-home good fall fun.

Beyond all the tourist attractions, fall is found in every corner of this community. Ascend above the trees on the Great Smoky Mountain Wheel, try some fall-flavored moonshine, or head to The Old Mill to experience fall in a 19th-century setting. Pick up some Pumpkin Vanilla Moonshine Jam or a bottle of Spiced Apple Cider while you’re there.

And, you can “forge” through fall on the longest downhill alpine coaster in the country by riding the Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster.

BONUS: If you love Christmas too, wait until you see the massive wonderland that awaits at The Incredible Christmas Place.

Fall in Gatlinburg - Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Fall in Gatlinburg | photo via Visit Gatlinburg

Gatlinburg Tennessee

You can’t have the best small town in the Smokies list without mentioning good ole’ Gatlinburg. It’s the hub of tourism and borders Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You’ll be surrounded by fall vibes up and down the strip.

Head up the 407 feet of the Gatlinburg Space Needle to see 360-degree views of the foliage. The sky’s the limit at the Gatlinburg SkyPark (formerly Skylift Park), where leaf-peepers can choose from the SkyLift, SkyBridge, SkyTrail, or SkyDeck for unique vantage points. The SkyBridge is the longest pedestrian cable bridge, complete with a nail-biting glass bottom in the middle.

TIP: Get tickets to the sunrise at SkyPark, available for a limited time in the fall.

Not to be confused with the SkypPark, Anakeesta offers similar fall foliage sights and experiences that might be a little easier on those afraid of heights. Walk the Canopy Treetop Skywalk to see fall foliage like a bird in a tree. Fall is officially in season when the Bear-Varian Fall Festival kicks off in September.

Then, head on over to Ober Mountain, where the Smoky Mountain Fall Festival is held on the side and summit of the mountain.

TIP: As you plan a visit to the Smokies in fall, keep in mind the elevation of the town and surrounding area. The vibrancy of colors and peak season change with elevations above or below 4,000 feet.

Townsend Tennessee

You might not have heard much about Townsend, but that’s because (whispers) “it’s the quiet side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”

It’s perfectly placed a world away from the congested roads near the entrance to the national park. Also, Townsend is ideal if you don’t like driving winding, steep mountain roads. Here, you get easy access to the lowest point of the Smokies — Abrams Creek, part of the Cades Cove valley — while still seeing stunning views of the foothills changing colors above.

Just a short drive away, Tuckaleechee Caverns is where you can see the “Greatest Site Under the Smokies,” and a 210-foot-tall double waterfall awaits inside. Plus, the Townsend Fall Fest is the true Appalachian way to kick off the harvest season under spectacular canopies of colorful trees.

Nantahala Outdoor Center-Bryson City
Nantahala Outdoor Center | photo via snefzgerpr

Bryson City North Carolina

Leaf-peeing levels up several notches in this small North Carolina town tucked between Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Nantahala National Forest. Forget the trails and hop on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, with special trips for fall foliage.

Walking in the fall while chasing waterfalls sounds like a great time as well. There are three waterfalls within 6 miles of Bryson City.

Adventure seekers can get their adrenaline pumping with autumn activity at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Choose easy or moderate activities that take you through raging rapids or high above the tree tops.

Bryson City is also a great home base for the best fall scenic drives in the Smokies, and you can hop on an all-terrain vehicle to blaze your own path through the leaves carpeting the forest floor.

PET-FRIENDLY TRAVEL: Bryson City is pet-friendly, and while Great Smoky Mountains National Park strictly limits dog access, the Nantahala National Forest welcomes all leashed dogs.

Maggie Valley North Carolina

If the spirit of fall looks better to you on two wheels, then Maggie Valley North Carolina is the place for you. This humble small town is at the edge of outdoor adventures but is also the home base for many motorcycle riders.

Start with a visit to Dale’s Wheels Through Time, a museum dedicated to the history and art of motorcycles and vintage cars. Then, take a ride on the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway, with the toughest decision being if you’ll head north or south.

The Soco Crafts gift shop and tower have been welcoming guests since 1947. For just 50 cents, you can climb the nine-story tower and see the scenic splendor of fall.

Maggie Valley saves the Smoky Mountains Bluegrass Festival for the peak of fall foliage. Arts and crafts shows mix with motorcycle rallies throughout the season to make this roadside town a must-stop destination.

TIP: Some of the best elk-viewing in the Smokies is just north of Maggie Valley.

Dale's Wheels Through Time-Maggie Valley North Carolina
Dale’s Wheels Through Time | photo via lonenomad.foto

Cherokee North Carolina

If you’re planning a fall trip to Cherokee, try to make it at least a three-day weekend. This small town has a big influence on the Smokies, including a legendary giant.

This capital city for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians brings cultural lessons and experiences that make autumn even more awesome. Experience a 1760s Indigenous village at Oconaluftee Indian Village. Celebrate the Annual Cherokee Indian Fair under the canopy of colored leaves.

Additionally, Cherokee is a close starting point to explore the lowest drivable point in the mountains along Newfound Gap Road to Clingmans Dome — the highest point in the park — in less than a 30-mile drive.

Another way to see the fall colors is to saddle up and ride a horse. Beginners are welcome. Then, you can end the day at a traditional Cherokee bonfire at Oconaluftee Island Park.

TIP: Did you know that Santa spends the off-season in the Smokies? Get a head start on Christmas at Santa’s Land Fun Park & Zoo.

Cherokee, North Carolina - Cherokee, North Carolina
Cherokee, North Carolina | photo via @willowgracemystik

Fontana Dam North Carolina

Adventurous hikers who aren’t quite ready to take on the whole Appalachian Trail can hop on a 9-mile route from Fontana Dam to the fire tower with some of the most immersive fall foliage trails in the Smokies.

It’s not just that Fontana Dam is an engineering marvel and the highest dam in the East. It’s also surrounded by the splendor of the Smokies and offers scenic viewpoints, river rides, reservoir fishing trips, and the popular Fontana Village.

Experience fall in the Smokies with an excursion by boat and then hiking for three hours through the wilderness. For the most epic autumn hiking trip in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, see if you can book Backcountry Campsite #87 on its own island.

Waynesville North Carolina

From the Asheville side of the Smoky Mountains approach, Waynesville is considered the “Gateway to the Smokies.” The apex of fall events is the Apple Harvest Festival, repeatedly ranked as one of the best harvest celebrations in the country.

Where else will you find a list of small towns in the Smokies where you’re offered an activity where you might get spit on? Winchester Creek Farm has alpacas and miniature horses galore on a scenic stretch of pastoral land. You can even stay on the farm or just stop by for alpaca yoga underneath the trees.

FUN FACT: Alpacas can spit, but rarely do unless provoked. Luckily, alpacas usually fire a blank warning volley first.

In addition, Waynesville is a golfer’s delight, with several options in the region. While driving, don’t forget to stop at the Waterrock Knob Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Perfect timing would be to stop here during a fall sunrise or sunset.

Fall crafters should put the historic Shelton House on their wish list for a fall visit to Waynesville.

Mount LeConte - Tennessee - Fall in the Smoky Mountains
Mount LeConte | photo via @wefalltorise

Dillsboro North Carolina

We hope you aren’t afraid of scarecrows because Dillsboro’s Downhome Harvest Festival features walking straw people among pumpkins, crafts, and fall foods.

The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad has a special tour that goes along the Tuckasegee River and through nearby Sylva North Carolina, which also goes past the train wreck movie set from 1993’s “The Fugitive” starring Harrison Ford. Or, you can see the train wreck among the fall leaves for free by driving Tunnel Mountain Road.

Dillsboro Rafting Company offers what it calls “Mom-Approved Rafting,” which means it’s safe for the whole family. Book early because the best whitewater experiences come during specific releases from the upstream dam.

Plus, anglers should explore the possibilities along the Mountain Heritage Trout Waters, offering incredible fall fly-fishing.

Mount LeConte Tennessee

While technically a Gatlinburg address, staying at the top of Mt. LeConte in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is — hands down — the most epic fall adventure for outdoor lovers.

LeConte Lodge offers the highest elevation accommodations this side of the Smokies, and you can only get there by a 5 to 9-mile hike. Depending on your path, you’ll come across caves, waterfalls, wildlife, and steep, expansive views of fall foliage that change with the elevation.

The lodge is open through mid-November and sits at 6,400 feet. That’s above the 4,000-foot threshold for peak foliage in early October. Here, you truly have to unplug because there’s no power in the one to three-bedroom cabins.

Pigeon Forge-fall
Pigeon Forge | photo via milliondollarviewpigeonforge

Fall Is Redefined in the Smoky Mountain Small Towns

No matter where you stay, the major roads of the Smokies are open throughout the year. Late-season leaf-peepers will find some of the roads throughout the park closed by the end of October. Fall is also one of the most active seasons for black bears (you won’t find Grizzly bears here).

TIP: When researching, leave the “e” out of Smoky. The only time “Smokey” is used is in reference to Smokey Bear — he’s a great way to learn about the dangers of wildfires in the Smokies. Always check current conditions in the park and region before heading out on a hiking or driving trail.

The region does make a quick transition from fall festivals to the holidays, so even early November visitors can get some fall views while enjoying the beginning of Great Smoky Mountain holiday festivals and events.

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