If the national parks are America’s cathedrals, then trekking through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in full fall color is like watching Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel. Thanks to the region’s incredible biodiversity—more than a hundred species of trees root here and many are deciduous, meaning they drop their leaves annually—the autumn hues are even more spectacular. (Maples, in particular, like to show off.) Still, Mother Nature is fickle.
“It all depends on the weather,” says park spokeswoman Jamie Sanders. “If you have solid rainfall throughout the year along with warm sunny days during the fall followed by crisp cool nights, that’s when you’ll get that really vibrant color.”
But don’t leave your trip to chance. Check your travel dates with this handy fall foliage tracking tool to see an easy-to-read map that shows peak viewing by date all across the country.
If you’re headed straight to the Smokies, check the park’s Facebook page on Friday afternoons for weekly foliage updates. Want to avoid the crowds? (October traffic is second only to July.) Sanders recommends hitting the North Carolina areas of the park—“anything off Heintooga Road near Balsam Mountain.”
If you’re looking for a different way to view the Southern foliage, here are the best places to watch the seasons change by hike, bike, boat, and more.