September 12, 2017
With endless parks and forests throughout the state, Tennessee is the perfect place to get your fall foliage fix. Due to the state’s diverse tree species, you can see the full spectrum of autumnal colors when the leaves change, from deep reds to vibrant amber. Brightly colored leaves cover every part of Tennessee’s beautiful landscape, creating stunning fall foliage around every corner. While the leaves change this time of year all over the country, Tennessee has a particularly impressive fall display.
What makes fall foliage special is its temporal nature. For just a couple weeks, trees light up with the warm glow of autumn before they begin to drop their leaves. Tennessee’s varying topography and the state’s length means autumnal colors blossom at different times, making it a challenge to catch the perfect moment for fall foliage photos.
To help you make the most of your scenic tours of Tennessee this fall, we created a guide identifying when changing leaves are at their peak in each part of the state. We also included some places and activities from each region that provide the best photo opportunities for fall, so you can make the most of your autumn Tennessee adventures.
Best time to visit: Early to Mid-October (depending on altitude).
With dense forests, beautiful hiking trails, and rolling landscapes of mountains and valleys, East Tennessee is considered one of the country’s best places to see fall foliage. Every fall, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park sees an influx of visitors who have come to hike, camp and take in the area’s autumnal beauty. With more than 100 native tree species in the Great Smoky Mountains, you are sure to see an array of colors. Prime fall foliage in East Tennessee varies by elevation; in the higher altitudes, leaves begin to change at the end of September and reach their peak from early to mid-October, whereas autumnal beauty reaches its prime mid-October in the lower altitudes.
Take a ride on the Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway for a breathtaking view of the Smoky Mountains. This two-mile ride to the Gatlinburg Amusement Park & Ski Area provides aerial photo opportunities for fall. Once at the top, take a ride on the Gatlinburg Mountain Coaster and experience the Smoky Mountains in a whole new way. Zoom down a more than half mile of track through dense forest at speeds of more than 25 mph as the vibrant colors of changing leaves fly past.
As one of the top places for outdoor activities in Tennessee, Chattanooga is an amazing place to take in the loveliness of autumn. See a brilliant display of fall colors from the water on the Southern Belle Riverboat. The three-hour fall color ride travels down the Tennessee River to the River Gorge for an amazing view of brightly colored foliage. Included on the ride is live music, tour information and a delicious lunch.
Another exciting way to see the beautiful seasonal foliage lining the Tennessee River is by biking the 10-mile paved Riverwalk. Rent a bike through the Chattanooga Bicycle Transit System or bring your own and take the path down to the picturesque Bluff View Art District. The River Walk also connects to several bike trails at Stringer’s Ridge and Enterprise South Nature Park, so you can make a full day of exploring autumnal beauty on two wheels.
In Knoxville, the Three Rivers Rambler tourist train operation conducts special All Hallow’s Eve rides. Cruise through beautiful landscapes embellished with the colors of autumn on the two-hour family-friendly ride. The All Hallow’s Eve Special includes whimsical decorations, festive treats and an audio presentation of the story “The Phantom Railway.”
Check out this fall foliage guide for more information on how to enjoy autumn in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Best time to visit: Mid to Late October.
In Middle Tennessee, the leaves begin to change around mid-October, reaching their peak at the end of the month. The Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park, one of Nashville’s most popular attractions year-round, is a beautiful spot to see fall foliage within the city. The main lawn is lined with a variety of trees that come alive with color in October. The park always has events and festivals, especially in the fall, so you can make a full day of this stop on your fall foliage tour.
You can also take a scenic train ride through the best fall foliage and scenery in middle Tennessee at the Tennessee Central Railway Museum in Nashville. The museum has three fall foliage-themed day trips in October, each taking you to charming little towns outside Nashville, including Baxter for its annual Harvest Festival.
Natchez Trace State Park has some of the best scenic locations in the fall in Middle Tennessee, with endless trails to explore and snap some photos. Rent a kayak to take out on Pin Oak Lake to see a stunning display of autumnal colors reflecting off the water.
The Natchez Trace Parkway traverses Middle Tennessee and goes through Williamson County, which has stunning photo opportunities on the Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge. This bridge is surrounded by fall colors toward the end of October and you can see for miles. While in the area, stop by the historic town of Franklin, also located off the Parkway. The quaint, historic architecture here creates a beautiful backdrop for seasonal colors. Franklin is also full of autumn festivities and fall decorations.
Best time to visit: Late October to Early November.
In West Tennessee, fall foliage begins to emerge mid-to-late October, typically reaching the height of autumnal beauty in the weeks before and after Halloween. This part of the state is full of forests with a wide array of tree species that yield bright ranges of colors in autumn.
Located in the Northwest corner of Tennessee, Reelfoot Lake State Park is a beautiful place for fall outdoor activities. Fall color pontoon cruises take place on the weekends during October and November at Reelfoot Lake. See the changing leaves and water birds on a two-hour tour with an experienced naturalist. Tour guides will share their knowledge of the area’s history and ecology while helping you find the best photo ops for fall foliage. Large groups of eagles and ducks migrate to Reelfoot Lake for the winter, arriving just as autumnal colors reach their peak.
Home to gigantic beech, oak and elm trees, the Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park comes alive with a myriad of colors toward the end of October. See the foliage by water in a canoe on Poplar Tree Lake, or hike one of the many trails within the park. The 3-mile loop Woodland trail has some stunning vantage points for changing leaves. Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park is also known for abundant wildlife, so explore the trails for some critters to add to your foliage photos.
The Memphis Botanic Garden is another beautiful place for fall photo opportunities in West Tennessee. The 96 acres of gardens and trails have all kinds of trees displaying fall foliage in late October to early November — even some flowers are still in bloom during this time. The Memphis Botanic Garden offers classes year-round, including educational tours and oil painting.
No matter where in Tennessee you decide to visit, there are tons of scenic locations to explore during fall. To discover more ways to see fall beauty around the state, check out the article “Plan Your Fall Foliage Journey on Tennessee’s Beautiful Byways.”