It won’t be long before the rich autumn hues of red, yellow and orange color the hills and mountains of East Tennessee. This is one of the best areas in the country to see the fall leaves change.
The varying elevation means you can take in the spectacular show for longer. First the leaves will change at the highest elevation like in the peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains. Then the color show will creep down to the foothills and finally to the valleys. This gives you and your family plenty of time to plan a fall adventure to see the leaves.
This year forecasters believe the warm weather could delay the peak fall foliage. Some leaves will begin changing color in September. Most places will see the changes by mid-October. The Farmers’ Almanac predicts Tennessee’s peak color in 2021 will be from October 12th to October 28th.
Knoxville Moms has put together this list of the best places to see the autumn colors in our region. There are some leaf peeping locations you can easily get to by car. Others require more work. For example, House Mountain is a nearly six-mile hike, which may not be the best choice for little legs. Be sure to see what’s right for your family before you strike out. Keep in mind some drives are longer than others but we promise it will be worth the trip no matter which spot you choose!
15+ Best Places to See Fall Leaves in Knoxville and East Tennessee
Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area—Commonly known as “Big South Fork,” this area encompasses 125,000 acres of the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee and Kentucky. The recreation area protects the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River and its tributaries. During fall colors, the scenic gorges and bluffs get all the attention. It takes roughly an hour-and-a-half to two hours to reach Big South Fork from Knoxville.
Blue Ridge Parkway—It’s not called “America’s favorite drive” for nothing! The Blue Ridge Parkway stretches 469 miles through Virginia and the Great Smoky Mountains. For East Tennesseans, it’s easy to hop on the parkway in Cherokee, North Carolina, which is considered one of the “ends” of the scenic drive. It’s a roughly two-hour drive to Cherokee from Knoxville. The speed limit is 45 miles per hour and no large trucks are allowed. That makes it easy to sit back and enjoy the awe-inspiring views. Because fall is one of the most popular times on the parkway the Blue Ridge Parkway Association offers lots of tips to get the most of your trip.
Cherohala Skyway National Scenic Byway—The 43 miles of the Cherohala Skyway stretch from Tellico Plains, Tennessee, to Robbinsville, North Carolina. It is a beautiful drive with incredible vistas. Call the fall color hotline at 1-800-354-4595 for the latest on the changing colors. Keep in mind there aren’t many places to stop along the Cherohala Skyway so make sure you have enough gas (and go to the bathroom!) About an hour to Tellico Plains from Knoxville.
Frozen Head State Park—Frozen Head earns its name from the 3,324-foot peak which is often covered in ice or snow in the winter. Before those cold months arrive, enjoy the fall colors in this densely forested state park. Frozen Head is located just outside Warburg, which is just over an hour from downtown Knoxville. One of the best ways to see the leaves is on foot. There are over 50-miles trails ranging from easy to difficult. For the outdoorsy, there are 28 rustic campsites available. But you won’t totally be roughing it thanks to a modern bathhouse with hot showers!
Foothills Parkway—Even closer to Knoxville is the Foothills Parkway. The corridor stretches 72-miles, but only three sections totaling 22.5 miles are open to the public. Those open sections provide breathtaking views of the Great Smoky Mountains. In some spots on clear days, you can see all the way to the Cumberland Mountains 50 miles to the west. The Foothills Parkway does occasionally close due to weather. You can check current road closures here. It’s just over 30 minutes from downtown Knoxville to the Foothills Parkway.
Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area—This gem is part of Knoxville’s “Urban Wilderness.” Located inside the city limits, it offers trails for hiking and mountain biking. Those trails range from paved to natural. Forks of the River may best be known for its summer sunflowers, but the fall colors are worth taking in here too!
Gatlinburg Space Needle—You can get a bird’s eye view of the changing leaves atop the Gatlinburg Space Needle. Ride the elevator to a 407-foot observation deck. It’s truly a 360-degree panoramic view. Tickets range from $9.95 to $15.95. Besides the fall colors, you may even spot a black bear through the free viewfinders!
Great Smoky Mountains National Park—There is something to enjoy in every season while visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Fall could be one of the most thrilling. There is no shortage of spots to see the changing leaves. Some of the most popular are Cades Cove, Clingmans Dome, Balsam Mountain Loop Drive, Roaring Fork Motor Trail and Newfound Gap Road. Like the Foothills Parkway, weather-related road closures are possible. Click here for the latest information.
House Mountain State Natural Area—Conveniently located just 15-miles from downtown Knoxville, House Mountain offers significant vistas from atop 2,100-feet. Of course, getting to the top means hiking up a twisty, sometimes steep trail, but for many it is worth it. The trail is nearly six-miles long and is considered a moderate to strenuous hike. House Mountain features a unique combination of views, rock outcrops and a variety of bird and plant life. Even your furry family members can come as long as they are on a leash!
Ijams Nature Center—This 315-acres of protected land is just a stone’s throw from downtown Knoxville. The trails range from easy to moderate. Perfect for the little ones! There’s also a nature center on site and a great natural playground, too. You can even enjoy the fall colors while soaring through the treetops thanks to the Navitat Knoxville zipline adventure.
Max Patch—A favorite with photographers, Max Patch offers 360-degree views. It sits next to the Tennessee-North Carolina state line just under two-hours from Knoxville. The mountain is called a “bald” because only ferns and grasses grow on top. A perfect spot for a picnic with an incredible view! The Appalachian Trail crosses Max Patch so day hiking is available. Fishing is also offered at the pond past the main parking lot.
McCloud Mountain—High atop the Cumberland Mountains just outside LaFollette, you can dine practically in the clouds. McCloud Mountain is a resort and community with a lodge and a restaurant an hour from Knoxville. Lucky for us the restaurant is open to the public Thursday to Sunday. Plan some extra time to enjoy the spectacular view before you drive home. You can get a preview thanks to a weather camera.
Obed Wild & Scenic River—You enjoy the leaves here from the water or from land. Kayaking, canoeing and rafting are all popular activities with whitewater ranging from class II to class IV. As for land, there are hiking trails of varying lengths throughout the park. The best place to start your visit is at the Obed Visitor Center where you can pick up a detailed map. The visitors center is one hour away from downtown Knoxville.
Roan Mountain State Park—The majestic Roan Mountain stretches 6,285 feet offering a perfect spot to see the changing leaves in Northeast Tennessee. The 2,000 acres of this state park just two-hours from Knoxville include a rich hardwood forest, which will be the star of the show, as well as hiking trails and picnic spots. If you want to extend your visit, there are cabins and tent/RV campsites too. Like most Tennessee state parks, programs and other activities are also available.
Rock City/Lookout Mountain—No doubt you’ve seen the signs all over Tennessee to “See Rock City!” You really should, especially during the fall! This popular attraction sits atop Lookout Mountain just six miles from downtown Chattanooga. On a clear day, you can see seven states thanks to the incredible panoramic views. Besides the vistas, children will delight in the magic of the Fairyland Caverns, Mother Goose Village and the enchanted trail. Did we mention the raptor show? There’s even a restaurant where you can grab a bite to eat and maybe a special treat! Currently, timed-entry reservations are required, including annual passholders. There are limited walk-up tickets available. Click here to plan your visit.
UT Arboretum (Oak Ridge)—University of Tennessee’s 250-acre research park isn’t a well-kept secret even though it’s located in the “secret city” of Oak Ridge. More than 30,000 people visit each year! There are 12 hiking trails all under a mile that range from a casual stroll to a serious hike. The UT Arboretum offers great information about each trail including what you’ll see along the way. . With over 2,000 native trees and plants at the UT Arboretum, you will certainly see vivid fall colors! In addition, there are often events, so be sure to check the calendar before you visit.