Gatlinburg in the fall: admire the colors of the Smoky Mountains

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Many resort towns claim to be year round destinations, but Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is truly a place you can visit no matter what date is on the calendar. With lively festivals, fall colors, summer hikes and more, there is always something to do in Gatlinburg (and the nearby towns of Pigeon Forge and Sevierville) every month of the year.

First, choose your motivation for going on this mountain getaway. Do you want to hang out with the crowds and feel the energy of a country’s first parade? Looking for an off-season oasis with fewer vacationers (and low prices)? Do you want to admire the majesty of nature, watch synchronous fireflies light up the night sky, or watch the trees turn from green to red to gold against a curtain of mist?

We’ve rounded up the best festivals, annual events, and activities to help you choose the best time of year to visit Gatlinburg. Think of this as a season-by-season, month-by-month guide to having fun all year round.

Maximum fall colors on the road to Newfound Gap, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © rickberk / Getty Images

High season: June to August and October

Best time for hiking and fall colors

Thanks to the tumultuous color spectacle provided by the annual change of leaves, fall is one of Gatlinburg’s most glorious seasons. You certainly won’t be alone if you come to see the Smoky Mountains burst into a blaze of fall colors in October – crowds gather and prizes peak – but you’ll be rewarded with one of Mother Nature’s best displays. Be patient as you drive along winding mountain roads; traffic slows steadily as locals and foreigners stop to enjoy the fall foliage.

Peak summer is the other busy time for Gatlinburg. Warm days and cool nights are ideal for great outdoor adventures. The school is closed and many fairs and family attractions are appearing to entertain the children. Younger children will also be amazed by the sight of synchronous fireflies (Photinus carolinus). For a few weeks each June, the woods fill up with luminous insects that flicker perfectly in time, in an evocative natural ballet. While there are classes throughout the year at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, summer is also high season at this creative learning center.

Snow on the Great Smoking Mountains
A thin layer of snow on the Great Smoky Mountains © Dave Allen Photography / Shutters

Low season: January to March

Winter isn’t particularly long or harsh in this part of the country, all things considered, but it’s still the quiet season in Gatlinburg. The days are cool, the nights close early and the light snow sprinkles the forests like icing sugar. On the plus side, Gatlinburg is home to Tennessee’s only ski resort, and there are plenty of Christmas and New Years celebrations. snowshoeing and winter hiking.

Noah 'Bud' Ogle's Hut in Spring
Noah ‘Bud’ Ogle’s cabin in spring © Robert Cable / Getty Images

Mid season: April to June, September, November to December

Best time to travel stress-free

When the thaw comes, it’s a welcome sight. Melting snow and longer days bring an explosion of wildflowers, repainting the mountain ranges in vivid spring colors. Dress appropriately – that means lots of layers and all-weather boots that can take you over muddy terrain – so you can get out there and see the flowers.

September is another great month to go out, before the fall colors start to burn and peepers descend on the mountain trails. In November, the show is almost over. The peepers get into their cars and drive away, and a gentle calm slowly descends over the mountains.

Smoky mountain elk
A Smoky Mountain elk grazing in the mist © Bill Swindaman / Getty Images

January

Winter can be cold and gray in eastern Tennessee, but there’s something uplifting about a little frost on the ground and snuggling up against the cold. With fewer people, now is the perfect time to enjoy the hills on your own. Ring in the novelty with a New Year’s Eve ball and fireworks show from Gatlinburg Space Needle, just off of downtown Parkway.
Key events: New Year’s Ball Fall

February

February is still cold and gray and less crowded than other times of the year. A roaring log cabin fire is the way to protect yourself from the cold and add a romantic glow. Couples can relax under 180,000 red and white lights as Gatlinburg SkyLift Park builds its annual Valentine’s Day Tunnel of Love.
Key events: Valentine’s day

March

The weather is starting to warm up a bit, but there is still a chance of rain throughout the spring, so be prepared for any type of weather. Because there are fewer leaves on the trees, this is an optimal time to take in some of Gatlinburg’s great views. A popular starting point is 407 feet (124 m) in the air at the Gatlinburg Space Needle.
Key events: St. Patrick’s Day fireworks

Roaring Fork Creek
Roaring Fork Creek weaving its way through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. © DnDavis / Shutterstock

April

Rain can be felt in Gatlinburg throughout April, so bring your umbrella and raincoat. Good days are still looming, and those who do are truly wonderful. For two days in early April, more than 20 miles of streams are stocked with more than 10,000 trout for the Smoky Mountain Trout Tournament, the biggest fishing show in the region. If you’d rather admire nature than casting a line, Flowers and melodies is a multi-month celebration of flowers and music at Anakeesta, the tree climbing course and the amusement park above downtown Gatlinburg.
Key events: Smoky Mountain Trout, Blooms and Tunes Tournament

May

April showers in Tennessee really mean May flowers, and the wildflowers in the forest are amazing. May has hot sunny days, cool mornings and the temperatures are about right. Take in flower displays and scenic views as you dance during MayFest, a traditional German party at the Ober Gatlinburg Cable Car and mountain-top park.
Key events: MayFest

June

It’s the prime time of year in eastern Tennessee. It’s not too hot, but the spring rains have mostly shifted and the forests are starting to come alive. Enter the annual national park lottery to get a time slot to see the synchronous fireflies during their stay of several weeks near the Elkmont campsite.
Key events: Firefly watch

Picnic area in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Picnic areas abound in the forests of the Great Smoky Mountains © Dan Reynolds Photography / Getty Images

July

The high season is really starting. The crowds start to pile up and so does the heat, but everyone is having fun in July. Almost everywhere there is an Independence Day parade, but Gatlinburg wanted to have the first in the country, so its midnight July 4th parade starts one minute past midnight at the very beginning of July 4th. The streets are lined with late night revelers and the party continues until late in the day.
Key events: July 4th parade at midnight, Craftsmen Fair (first date)

August

August in Tennessee is hot with a hot side serving, and the humidity can be quite thick. When temperatures are high, there’s no better way to cool off than rafting the Pigeon River. There are many professional outfitters who can sort through all the gear you need and keep you safe on the white water.
Key events: Smoky Mountain Film Festival

September

Christmas lights are great and all, but the Dollywood Harvest Festival brings shine to fall. Sparkling festive lights fill the famous Dolly Parton amusement park at Pigeon Forge, as the tree leaves begin their own color display. It’s a good time to walk, with temperatures neither too hot nor too cold. For visiting Gatlinburg, it’s about perfect.
Key events: Dollywood Harvest Festival

Clingman Dome Observatory
Clingman’s Dome Observatory, the highest lookout in the Smoky Mountains © Sean Pavone / Alamy Stock Photo

October

Those raging fall colors continue through October and the temperatures start to drop a bit. With a pair of jeans and a sweater, you’ll be well equipped for hiking and exploring the hills. This is your second chance to visit the Artisans Fair, which fills the Gatlinburg Convention Center with traditional arts and crafts. For unrestrained pleasure, head to Ober’s Oktoberfest, a German-themed food and entertainment festival with the mountains as a backdrop.
Key events: Craftsmen Fair (second date), Ober’s Oktoberfest

November

Evenings can be very cold in November, but the days are always ideal for hiking. Every November since 1973, the Gatlinburg Tree Festival drew a crowd with its seasonally decorated trees and wreaths. The four-day event raises funds for the Boys & Girls Club of the Smoky Mountains and kicks off the Christmas season.
Key events: Gatlinburg Tree Festival

December

Long live the cold and the lights! The holiday season in Gatlinburg is full of holiday cheer. The first weekend in December hosts the Fantasy of Lights Christmas Parade, an LED display of bright lights, floats and festivities along the main promenade.
Key events: Christmas Parade Fantasy of Lights


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