Best Sections of the Appalachian Trail to Hike in the Fall

As the final northbound thru-hiker summits Katahdin and hiking season comes to an end, there is a quietness that falls over the AT. It’s worth it to wait a few more weeks before packing away the hiking boots, though, as fall is one of the best times to get out and hike your favorite section of the trail. The Appalachian Mountains are home to thousands of plant species, which make for an incredibly diverse range of fall color on each section of the trail. Autumn on the AT turns the green tunnel into a vibrant display of orange hues, and transforms overlooks into endless seas of golden leaves. All of this, paired with the crisp autumn air, makes for a completely different experience than hiking in the summer months.

Although there is a solid chance for finding fall color along most parts of the trail, we’ve pinpointed some of the best sections of the Appalachian Trail to hike in the fall, including the best leaf peeping over the next few weeks. Grab an extra layer and be sure to bring your camera because fall on the AT is one of Mother Nature’s best shows each year:

Best Sections of the Appalachian Trail to Hike in the Fall

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

On-Trail Distance: 71 miles
Foliage Time Frame: Mid-September – Early November
Difficulty: Moderate-Strenuous

Where fall meets winter in GSMNP. Image via

Section Overview: Credited with having one of the longest fall foliage seasons in the East, Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) annually dazzles visitors with its extensive autumn display. As many as 100 different trees species call the park home, which brings variety to the vivid fall colors found on the mountainsides. The diversity of trees paired with quick changes in elevation allows visitors to find a part of the park in peak color at almost anytime during the seven-week autumn season. As if the variety of color wasn’t enough, the park’s high peaks often drop their leaves and receive snowfall by the middle of October, making for beautiful mountain views that showcase both the fall and winter seasons. Also be sure to look away from the tree tops and admire the large array of wildflowers that cover the forest floor at the same time the leaves are changing.

Day Hike Suggestions: Clingmans Dome, Shuckstack fire tower, Charlies Bunion, Silers Bald

Southern Virginia

On-Trail Distance: 250 miles
Foliage Time Frame: Mid-Late October
Difficulty: Moderate

McAfee Knob. Image via

Section Overview: Stretching from Damascus to Daleville, the trail through Southern Virginia is known for its smooth trails and notorious green tunnel. Come October, this tunnel transforms into a beautiful display of yellow and orange leaves, and is the best place in the Blue Ridge Mountains to see fall color. Visiting this section in the autumn gives hikers the chance to see iconic AT landmarks (such as Grayson Highlands and McAfee Knob), at a truly unique time of year. Not only will there be fewer crowds than the summer months, but you will be able to see these famous landscapes decked out in the beauty of fall.

Day Hike Suggestions: Mount Rogers, McAfee Knob, Grayson Highlands, Dragon’s Tooth

Shenandoah National Park

On-Trail Distance: 101 miles
Foliage Time Frame: Mid-October
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate

Shenandoah in the fall does not disappoint. Image via

Section Overview: Winding its way along roughly the same route as Skyline Drive, the trail through Shenandoah National Park (SNP) is relatively smooth and full of overlooks. Add in the famous SNP foliage and these already beautiful views become jaw-dropping. The park is known for the diverse color it receives each year, and can consequently get crowded during peak foliage weekend. Autumn hikes along the AT will offer a glimpse at the thousands of multicolored trees that cover both the surrounding mountains and Shenandoah Valley.

Day Hike Suggestions: Mary’s Rock, Bear Fence Mountain, Black Rock Cliffs, Stony Man

New York

On-Trail Distance: 90 miles
Foliage Time Frame: Early September – Late October
Difficulty: Moderate-Strenuous

Bear Mountain bridge decked out in fall color. Image via

Section Overview: If you’re looking to enjoy fall foliage in the Empire State, avoid the crowds in the northern mountain ranges and head on over to the AT. The trail through New York becomes completely saturated with color this time of year, and has views that rival the best of the Adirondack and Catskill mountains. The state is beautiful year round, but really begins to shine in the autumn as the rocky mountain tops and views of the Hudson River contrast against the vivid foliage.

Day Hike Suggestions: Bear Mountain, Anthony’s Nose, West Mountain, Prospect Rock

Vermont

On-Trail Distance: 150 miles
Foliage Time Frame: Early – Mid October
Difficulty: Strenuous

That classic New England fall foliage. Image via

Section Overview: New England is often considered one of the best places in the country to see fall foliage and there is no better spot to soak it in than Vermont. The state’s section of the Appalachian Trail traverses tGreen Mountain National Forest, which transforms into a sea of red and orange leaves come October. Although Vermont is known for challenging climbs, the effort is often rewarded with panoramic views that stretch for miles. Add a little fall color to these views, and the sights become nothing short of breathtaking.

Day Hike Suggestions: Stratton Mountain and Stratton Pond, Glastenbury Mountain, Killington Peak, Bromley Mountain


Did I miss your favorite spot to see fall foliage along the Appalachian Trail? Let me know where I should check out next in the comments below!

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 1

  • Laurie Potteiger : Nov 20th

    Thanks for this wonderful article with absolutely exquisite photos! I especially loved your explanation of the riches the Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers in the fall, and your incredible photo of snow-topped peaks atop brilliant autumn colors at lower elevations

    Two additional areas I have discovered while section-hiking in fall:

    1) The 90 miles of Vermont and New Hampshire between the Green Mountains and White Mountains at lower elevations.

    There are more hardwoods here than in the Green Mountains or White Mountains, so you see more color, and weather is mellower. The Vermont portion traverses beautiful pastoral landscapes, passing through working farmland. In New Hampshire, there are extraordinary views from Holt’s Ledge, Smarts Mountain and Mt. Cube, with vistas of a world that look a giant Oriental rug spread out below you. Plus, this forgotten area is quite uncrowded, except for those NH peaks on a weekend.

    The Vermont section east (trail north) of the Green Mountains is actually a bit more rugged than the Long Trail portion. The New Hampshire portion west of the White Mountains gives you a taste of rock scrambling, with climbs that are some of the steepest on the entire A.T. south of the Whites (and possibly the first set of metal rungs bolted into rock), but nothing compared to the challenge of the White Mountains themselves or southern Maine.

    2) All of Massachusetts and Connecticut.

    The colors here are spectacular, and the terrain a mix of gentle, not-so-gentle, and a few short, steep scrambles.

    Anyone hiking in fall should be aware that hunting season may be underway, and should wear blaze (fluorescent) orange and take other precautions. More info is available on the Appalachian Trail Conservancy site at http://www.appalachiantrail.org/hunting.

    Reply

What Do You Think?