Tennessee is one of the best places in the country to experience the colorful change of seasons. As bright greens give way to orange and red, hillsides and forests come to life in a blaze of autumn pigments. The Appalachian Mountain Range is already home to some of the best hiking in the nation, and Tennessee hosts 75 miles of the famed Appalachian Trail within its borders. During the fall, hikes through the Great Smoky Mountains and the Tennessee woodlands become all the more enticing. To help you decide where to start, discover the best fall hikes in Tennessee.
Abrams Falls (Cades Cove)
The Great Smokies are one of the most visited tourist destinations in the country, and Cades Cove may be one of the reasons why. Before the arrival of European settlers in the early 19th century, the Cherokee used the area as a hunting ground. Visitors to Cades Cove will find an expansive valley full of old water-powered mills, log cabins, and more. Cades Cove is a must-see locale in the autumn months of October and November.
Visitors to Cades Cove will want to try the Abrams Falls hike. This 5-mile trail is on Cades Cove Loop Road just past the creek. This moderately difficult hike takes you through thick pine-oak forests on the ridges and hemlock along the side of the creek. After a healthy trek through the rhododendrons, hikers will find themselves at a 20-foot waterfall named for Cherokee Chief Abram. Abrams Falls may not be the largest, but its throaty sound equals a waterfall twice its size. This trip can take between three to four hours, so good hiking shoes are a must.
Middle Prong Trail (Great Smoky Mountains National Park)
There is no better way to discover the Smoky Mountains than by hiking. With 150 Smoky Mountain trails covering 800 miles of pristine backcountry, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a veritable world unto itself, especially in the fall. Wildflowers and waterfalls are frequented by black bears and over 200 species of birds in the park. There is so much to see in the Great Smoky Mountains that you may spend more time watching than hiking.
This trail combines both the gorgeous foliage of the park with the raw natural power of the waterfall it leads past. The 8.2-mile hike round-trip follows Lynn Camp Prong, a photogenic creek, and starts outside of Townsend, Tennessee. Cross a metal footbridge to begin and feast your eyes on violets, trilliums, and the sugar maples that dapple in magnificent reds. The waterfall is less than half a mile from the trailhead, and another is roughly 4 miles from the trailhead down an unmarked side trail. Indian Flats Falls is your final destination and definitely worthwhile.
Laurel Trail (Savage Gulf State Natural Area)
Do not be fooled by the Savage Gulf State Natural Area’s name. The wilderness area’s nearly 16,000 acres are some of the most scenic in the nation. Found at the western edge of the Cumberland Plateau, hikers will see stunning sandstone cliffs and rugged canyons overlooking tightly bunched treetops. Trek past waterfalls and limestone bluffs which tumble down to narrow gorges. Savage Gulf is rugged natural splendor at its best.
This short trail is less than a mile but leads to plenty of other loops to extend your time in the wilderness area. Laurel Trail gently descends through the forest to Laurel Creek at the top of the falls before depositing hikers at a scenic overlook of the falls and a series of stairs leading back to the ranger station. Stone Door is another trail that culminates in a jaw-dropping overlook.
(Burgess Falls Trail) Burgess Falls State Park
Burgess Falls State Park is renowned for its waterfalls. The park spreads along the Falling Water River in Tennessee and is beloved for its beauty. Formerly a Native American hunting ground, the state now protects the park’s diversely populated forests of American beech, red maple, black walnut, and more. Visit Burgess Falls State Park to see the best of both worlds: thick copses of trees and one of the best waterfalls middle Tennessee has to offer.
This hike is family-friendly and is only about one mile and a half. It can be slippery towards the end of the hike, so shoes with good grip are recommended. The trailhead begins to the west of the parking lot, and the trail itself is well-labeled. The hardest part is the set of stairs, which leads to the middle falls, the first of three along the trail. Burgess Falls itself must be seen to be believed as its unique geological formation and towering height make the short hike more than worthwhile.
The Cable Trail (Fall Creek Falls State Park)
Fall Creek Falls State Park is one of the most miraculous places to experience autumn in the state. Additionally, the park is home to the tallest waterfall in Tennessee–a whopping 256 feet tall. Fall Creek Falls is a hotspot for outdoorsmen and hikers all year, but the park truly comes alive once the leaves begin to change. There are four waterfalls to see and more than 50 miles of trails to explore here, making Falls Creek Falls one of the best places to be in the fall.
The Cable Trail is a beginner-friendly trail that gets its name from a cable hikers will use to descend at the beginning. The trail is only a quarter of a mile long, making it perfect for a warmup or an introduction to the hiking the park has to offer. The trail brings hikers to some of the best views in all of the Cumberland Plateau. The trail meanders past rhododendrons and bottoms out at a shallow creek, which is a popular picnic spot.
Roan Highlands to the Overmountain Shelter
The town of Roan Mountain takes its name from the nearby mountain range, which is home to the world’s largest rhododendron garden. Roan Mountain State Park comprises over 2,000 acres of glorious mountain views and untouched wilderness. The annual rhododendron festival and miles of hiking trails draw visitors from across the state. Panoramic views of the wooded mountainside are plentiful, making the mountain one of the best places to hike in autumn.
This hike departs from the Appalachian Trail trailhead at Carvers Gap and follows the Tennessee-North Carolina Border, eventually leading to the shelter’s location in North Carolina after passing the Yellow Mountain Gap. Hikers will follow the iconic, white “blazes” of the trail through switchbacks and thickly grown rhododendrons. When you reach Yellow Mountain Gap, a sign will direct you down a blue-blazed side trail. At the bottom of this, you'll reach a forest service road, turn right, and you'll immediately see the shelter at mile 5.2 of the hike.
The balsam fir trees found on this part of the Appalachian Trail are known for their pleasant aroma. Hikers leave the forest and are deposited near the Round Bald grasslands. The views become more panoramic with each step, and the gorgeous foliage is almost always on display.
Sunset Rock (Lookout Mountain)
The town of Lookout Mountain can be found only a short drive from Chattanooga. Lookout Mountain gets its name from the nearby mountain ridge found within three states. There is a railway car that ferries riders to the mountaintop in Lookout Mountain, but real hikers will want to savor every inch of this picturesque mountain. Packed thick with foliage that bursts with color in the fall, Lookout Mountain should not be overlooked.
This about 4-mile hike on Lookout Mountain may be short, but it is certainly sweet. Beginning at Point Park, the path drops precipitously and descends to the Ochs Memorial Observatory for breathtaking views. It’s a scenic hike that maximizes the natural beauty seen per square inch. Oak, hemlock, ash, and maple trees grow throughout Lookout Mountain and blaze with color. Points are steep and challenging, but the hard-earned views are even more satisfying.
Firetower Hike (Bays Mountain Park)
Bay Mountain Park is a 3,750-acre nature preserve found in northeast Tennessee. This sprawling park is especially worth seeing during the fall. The park contains both a waterfall and a lake to explore. Featuring a nature preserve, a planetarium, and 40 miles of hiking trails, Bays Mountain Park combines the beauty of Bay’s Mountain with the vibrant fall foliage Tennessee is known for.
The Firetower Hike is worthwhile for beginner hikers and experts alike. From the top of the 60-foot tower, panoramic views of Kingsport, South Fork Holston River, and the expansive Tennessee Mountains can be had. Tall oak trees and poplars can be found throughout the park on the way to the Kingsport Reservoir. The trail passes beneath thick tree cover, so luckily, colorful leaves will be unavoidable.
The Lake Trail (Radnor Lake)
Radnor Lake is only 10 miles south of downtown Nashville, making it perfect for a quick retreat from the country music capital of the world. The lake has nearly eight miles of hiking around the 85-acre lake at its heart. Trails at Radnor Lake vary in difficulty from easy to challenging and carve through swathes of sugar maple, tulip poplar, and shagbark hickory with spicebush, coralberry, and elderberry in the shrub layer.
The Lake Trail is nearly one and a half miles around the north end of the lake and leads into Otter Creek Road, another one-mile trail that offers views of the opposite side of the lake and the trees along the lakefront. The South Cove Trail is around two miles and is a bit more challenging, but the views from the top of the ridge it leads to on the park’s southern boundary are certainly worthwhile.
The Day Loop (Long Hunter State Park)
The central Long Hunter State Park is buttressed by Percy Priest Lake. Besides boating and fishing, nature photography and wildlife observation are among the most popular activities for visitors to engage in. The Day Loop trail is 3.7 miles and winds its way through mature oak-hickory forest, leading to multiple bluffs overlooking Percy Priest Lake. The first part of the hike follows the Volunteer Trail, but then it breaks off to form its loop. The orange blazes are for the Day Loop, and the white blazes are for the Volunteer Trail.
There is a cornucopia of plant life found in the park, such as trout lily, Indian pink, and rue anemone. Towering oak trees grow between unique rock formations and croppings of prickly pear cactus and Gattinger's Prairie Clover. The Views along the Volunteer Trail and the Day Loop are always good but especially delightful in the autumn.
Tennessee has so many parks, forests, and wilderness areas to hike through. Verdant green forests giving way to brilliant fall colors combined with waterfalls and rivers make the Volunteer State an excellent choice to experience the changing seasons.