A Great Smoky Mountains Train Ride Has the Best Views of Fall Color

All Aboard!

As fall rolls in and Mother Nature puts on a show of autumn colors, die-hard leaf peepers know there is one very special place to see the fall leaves: On a train ride through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Travel deep in the heart of the Smokies through tunnels and valleys into a remote part of North Carolina to witness maples, poplars, and oaks on full autumn display. With a stop for lunch and plenty of photo backdrops, a train excursion is a good way to avoid traffic, sit back, relax, and access fall in the Smoky Mountains.

Ride the Rails

The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad (GSMR) has been shuttling nature lovers through the park since 1988, and the fall foliage excursion is an annual favorite. Folks from across the South flock to the Smokies to see one of nature's greatest works. October is peak time to catch the stunning display. With picture windows and open-air cabins, passengers can get unobstructed views of breathtaking scenery with daily options available.

Railroad Tracks on an Autumn Day in the Appalachian Mountains - Fallen Leaves
Marje/Getty Images

Plan a Trip

The GSMR offers multiple fall trips, so you can choose your own adventure based on how much nature your family can handle. The Nantahala Gorge Excursion is a 4 ½ hour roundtrip through one of the crown jewels of the national park. The train travels along the Little Tennessee and Nantahala rivers across Fontana Lake and into the heart of the gorge, living up to its name by being truly gorgeous. There's even a picnic stopover to truly immerse yourself in nature.

Other leaf-peeping options include a trip departing from Bryson City, North Carolina, and rolling through the mountain countryside lit up with fall color. This tour lands in the historic town of Dillsboro with enough time for lunch and a tour around the town's charming sites and sights.

Whichever journey you choose, if you want to ensure the best photo-taking opportunity consider one of the railroad's open-air gondolas. These provide the most unobstructed views with half-height walls, and a roof overhead still protects you from the weather.

Fall in the Smokies

There's no doubt the fall color display in the Smoky Mountains is magnificent, and while the season is short, there's plenty of time to witness it. The Smokies are home to around 100 species of native trees, and the majority of them are deciduous. Much of the green mountainside transforms to dazzling reds, oranges, and yellows during the month of October, with color changing in higher elevations as early as mid-September. Peak display at mid and lower elevations usually occurs in mid-October to early November.

Where to Stay

During your visit, rest your head at the historic Everett Hotel in the former Bryson City Bank built in 1905. Enjoy mountain views on the rooftop terrace and an on-site bistro offering responsibly sourced, local fare like Carolina mountain trout and bison meatloaf. Staff at the Stonebrook Lodge will help you plan other activities like hiking and rafting, and you can walk to the town square, restaurants, and the train depot for your GSMR ride. If you didn't get enough of the Smokies on the train, stay right inside the national park in developed campsites or off backcountry trails.

While you'll undoubtedly want to take a lot of photos of your trip, be sure to soak in the moment too because these fall displays come but once a year and are worth savoring.

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