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Fall's cooler temperatures gild East Tennessee's forested mountains. The display spans at least five national park units that offer some of the best places to view the show.

FOR MOST FOLKS across the country, the most vivid sign of the fall season is the changing color of leaves. And ever since people gathered into valley communities to live, clearing trees for farms and parking lots, fall excursions to view changing colors in mountain forests have been a national tradition.

A favorite destination for visitors from throughout the country is the mountain region of East Tennessee. Scenic byways follow mountain streams through hardwood forests where red-orange maples and scarlet sourwoods hang over the water. Yellow poplars and birches provide softer color, and dark-red oaks and dogwoods form a backdrop. Along hiking trails, colored leaves litter the path like confetti from a parade, and the bright canopy of sheltering branches glitters with early morning and late afternoon sun.

This autumn display presents itself in East Tennessee from mid- to late October in five national park units in this corner of the state. The gateway to the region is Knoxville, where visitors can stop in the Gateway Regional Visitor Center to view photographic displays of the five sites, use an interactive computer program, and acquire all the books and information needed for planning a visit. The visitor center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. on Sunday. It is located on Volunteer Landing Lane and can be reached at 800-727-8045 and at Highlights of the five sites follow.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The show begins at the higher elevations of Great Smoky Mountains National Park where the brisk mornings of early fall first arrive. The evergreen spruce-fir forests of the highest peaks become spattered with the yellow of birch and mountain ash. The reddish browns of oak forests along dry exposed ridges are harbingers of what is to come.

Fall color then flows down the mountains as cooler temperatures reach the coves and valleys. Northern hardwood forests, found more commonly in the New England and Great Lakes states, grow in the Smokies on slopes above 4,500 feet. They sport a mosaic of yellow birch and beech and scattered red maples, pin cherries, and oaks. At the lowest elevations, cove hardwood forests contribute most to fall color with the reds and oranges of maples, the yellows of basswood, buckeye, tulip poplar, hickory, and silverbell, and the reddish browns and dark reds of oak trees.

This park offers 803 miles of trails through the forest communities, ranging from short nature trails to long overnight backpacks. For cove hardwood forests, try the Cove Hardwood Nature Trail out of the Chimney Tops picnic area on Newfound Gap Road, or the Laurel Falls and Little River trails off Little River Road. Out of the Greenbrier area, hike the Porters Creek and Brushy Mountain trails. For northern hardwood forests, sample the Thomas Divide Trail off Newfound Gap Road and the Fork Ridge Trail off Clingman's Dome Road.

The road from the Sugarlands Visitor Center along Little River Road to the Townsend Wye and then Laurel Creek Road on to Cades Cove offers a spectacular fall drive. But be aware that it is the most heavily traveled route during the fall season in this most visited national park in the country, so take the drive during the week to avoid crowds or head to the less-visited Greenbrier and Cosby Cove areas in the park's northeast corner.

A minimum of two to three days is needed to visit the Smokies. Reservations are recommended for the Cades Cove and Elkmont campgrounds; contact 800-365-CAMP or The Cosby Campground is first come, first served but almost always has openings. Accommodations are available in Gatlinburg (800-568-4748) and Townsend (800-525-6834). For park information, call 865-436-1200 or visit

Andrew Johnson National Historic Site

In the early 1800s, Andrew Johnson settled in the small town of Greeneville, which lies in the Great Valley of East Tennessee between the Great Smokies on the east and the Cumberland Plateau on the west. Here Johnson with his wife, Eliza, operated a tailor shop where prominent citizens stopped by to talk politics. In 1829, he was elected alderman for the town of Greeneville and began a political career that would lead to the U.S. Senate and the White House.

During the Civil War, Johnson opposed the South's secession from the union and because of his pro-Union stand was appointed military governor of Tennessee. Abraham Lincoln then selected Johnson as his running mate for the 1864 presidential election. When Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Johnson became president. He was soon in conflict with Congress about how to conduct the reconstruction of the South, which eventually led to his impeachment, the first of a president in U.S. history. He was, however, acquitted by the Senate, went on to complete his term, and was later re-elected to the Senate.

Not only is this area significant as the home of a president, but the drive up US 321 to Greeneville passes through some of the most beautiful farmland in the nation. In fall, color drapes scattered woodlands, and solitary trees of brilliant red or gold stand amidst grazing cattle. At the historic site in Greeneville, visitors can see the Johnsons' original tailor shop and visit their first home and the later homestead. The couple are buried in the national cemetery on a hill in the historic town.

Most of a day is needed to explore Greeneville. The national historic site is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week; guided tours at the homestead are $2 each, but free for visitors older than 61 and younger than 18. The park is dosed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's. For accommodations, contact the Greeneville-Greene County Chamber of Commerce at 423-638-4111 or visit its web site at www. For historic site information, contact its visitor center at 423-638-3551 or visit www.nps. gov/anjo/index/htm.

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

The Cumberland Plateau to the west in East Tennessee rises 1,000 feet above surrounding valleys and so posed a formidable barrier to westward migration during early settlement of the country. Today this historic area is the home of several national park units.

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, one of these units, commemorates the historical significance of a primary gap in the Cumberland Mountains that stand atop the plateau. After Daniel Boone blazed a trail through the gap that became the Wilderness Road, thousands of settlers seeking new beginnings traveled westward through Cumberland Gap to the fabled Nuegrass region of Kentucky and the fertile valley of the Cumberland River in Middle Tennessee.

Later, during the Civil War, Confederate and Union troops alternately held this strategic gap. Several sites within the national historic park still show evidence of the earthen fortifications and camps used by the troops.

Today, the national historical park, which overlaps the three states of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia, contains 65 miles of trails that wander along the main ridge of the Cumberland Mountains. An uplands forest of oaks with occasional maples, basswood, buckeye, yellow poplar, and beech lend colors of dark red and yellow in fall. The Ridge Trail winds through this high-elevation forest. A scenic drive follows the Pinnacle Road from the visitor center on the Kentucky side of the park to the Pinnacle, a rock promontory that overlooks Cumberland Gap.

At least a full day is needed to experience the park. For accommodations in the nearby town of Cumberland Gap, contact the Claiborne County Chamber of Commerce at 423-626-4149 or visit the web site at Camping is available at the park's Wilderness Road Campground on a first-come, first-served basis; for park information, contact the visitor center at 606-248-2817 or visit

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area

To the west on the Cumberland Plateau, Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area surrounds a deep sandstone gorge that walls in the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River where it flows north into Kentucky. This park unit is a unique combination of national river, including the gorge, managed as virtual wilderness and national recreation area on the adjacent rim, where visitor centers and camp-grounds are located.

The area is a mecca for outdoor recreation, from hiking and horseback riding to mountain biking and whitewater paddling. More than 300 miles of trails penetrate a dramatic landscape of vertical rock walls, natural sandstone arches, waterfalls, and rock shelters.

During autumn, the ravine forest below the rim of the gorge possesses some of the best fall color in the state. Red maple, beech, yellow poplar, basswood, buck-eye, yellow birch, black cherry, white ash, hickory, sycamore, sweet gum, and more make up the forest communities that result in a multicolored tapestry.

Highway TN 297 crosses the park east to west, dipping into the river gorge and passing the visitor center. The John Muir Trail follows the river north, offering panoramic views of the river gorge and fall color.

A minimum of two days is needed to explore the Big South Fork. For accommodations in the nearby town of Oneida, contact the Scott County Chamber of Commerce at 800-645-6905. Reservations are recommended for the park's Bandy Creek or Blue Heron campgrounds; contact 800-365-2267 or For more information, including a list of outfitters for paddling and horseback riding, contact the park visitor center at 931-879-4890 or visit the park web site at

Obed Wild and Scenic River

To the south on the Cumberland Plateau, the Obed River gorge has topography and forest communities similar to the Big South Fork's. Sheer cliffs towering over some of the best whitewater in the country offer a remote location for viewing the fall color of the plateau's ravine forest. Paddling the national wild and scenic river and rock climbing are popular activities. Roads from the visitor center in Wartburg penetrate the region. The park has just completed a short nature trail and another trail. A portion of the Cumberland Trail will eventually pass 280 miles through the state along the plateau, from Cumberland Gap National Historical Park south to Signal Mountain above Chattanooga.

Allow at least a full day to hike in Obed River country. For more information about the park and for accommodations in Wartburg, call the park visitor, center at 423-346-6294 or visit its web site at

RUSS MANNING is the author of 100 Hikes of the Great Smoky Mountains and 100 Trails of the Big South Fork, both from The Mountaineers Books, as well as The Historic Cumberland Plateau, published by the University of Tennessee Press. His Scenic Driving Tennessee will be published by Globe Pequot Press in 2002.
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Title Annotation:East Tennessee in autumn
Publication:National Parks
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2001
Previous Article:NANUUQ of the North.
Next Article:Reaching Out.

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