AUTUMN AT ITS best happens nowhere better than in Tennessee, and Pigeon Forge is the place to find everything “fall” — from crisp air and color-coated hillsides to piping-hot homemade pies and harvest celebrations. With Great Smoky Mountains National Park right next door, this is your base camp for waterfall hikes and scenic drives, followed by roller coasters, free concerts, and holiday festivals when you’re back in town.

Pigeon Forge is like a mountain town and a country fair all in one, all the time, but here’s why fall is an especially good time to visit.

The town celebrates for months on end.

Pigeon Forge Fall

Photo: Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism

It’s true that Pigeon Forge’s signature things to do — including a huge variety of shows, the world’s largest Titanic Museum Attraction, WonderWorks upside-down imaginarium, and the Hollywood Wax Museum — are open year-round. But there’s plenty going on here that you can only take part in during fall. Pumpkins, hay bales, scarecrows, and the smells of Southern home-cooking fill the entire town for the duration of this great season, and the clear blue skies enhance the beautiful colors of the nearby Smokies.

Start off at the Fall Harvest at The Island, running through the end of October. The Island Show Fountain will be raging, all of Market Street will embody pumpkin spice, and the bluegrass music plays virtually nonstop. Grab a chair in front of the Ole Smoky Mountain stage or a spot at the top of The Great Smoky Mountain Wheel — either perspective works.

If you’re traveling with the family, a great free kids’ event is the “Whoadeo” at Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede on October 7 (think cowboy contests and a carnival for ages 3-12). And as Halloween approaches, on October 28th, The Island hosts an all-ages festival with costume contests, trick-or-treating, and live circus side shows.

Then there’s Dollywood, which embraces the changing of the seasons perhaps more than any theme park in the country. Visit anytime between September 29th and October 28th for the Harvest Festival’s Southern Gospel Celebration during the day and “Great Pumpkin LumiNights” in the evening.

The mountains are right here. Like, right here.

Pigeon Forge fall leaves

Photo: Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism

Pigeon Forge is essentially the doorman waiting just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He’ll let you in, and he’ll give you the intel on where exactly you should go. Some venture out to tackle one of the highest summits or enjoy a scenic drive, but others simply enjoy them as the backdrop to a family picnic.

When driving the Parkway in Pigeon Forge (five miles of awesome shops, attractions, and restaurants), buildings end abruptly where the national park begins. Once out of the city, the road hugs the Little Pigeon Forge River through a valley bottom, steep slopes climbing on either side. The scenery changes as you get deeper into the landscape; soon you’ll see high mountaintops, cascading creeks, and maybe some of the park’s abundant wildlife.

In the early morning in the meadows of Cades Cove, deer and turkeys are often visible very near the road (you may even spot a bear). Take your time driving the 11-mile loop here for your best chance of seeing them. There’s 373 other miles through the park, too, and all are worth a drive — check out Cataloochee Valley, Newfound Gap Road, and Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail if you have the time.

To explore on your own two feet, hit any of the parks’ 150+ hiking trails, which range from easy outings to challenging overnight treks. Moderate hikes lead to some of the best waterfalls, like Abrams Falls in Cades Cove and Rainbow Falls in the shadow of Mount LeConte.

And for a lazy day in the foothills, check out Patriot Park and the greenway in Pigeon Forge. Here you can stroll along the river among the changing leaves — this is autumn, after all. Other outdoor activities near town that are perfect for fall days are horseback riding, golf, and touring the patchwork of forest and farmland along Wears Valley Road.

All you need is a weekend.

Pigeon Forge fall colors

Photo: Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism

There’s a statistic floating around out there that says Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a “short” drive away for over two-thirds of the US population, east of the Mississippi River. That probably depends on your definition of “short,” but the same would hold true for Pigeon Forge. What’s not in doubt is there’s enough to do here that even a three-day weekend won’t leave you wondering how to fill your time. This is especially true in fall, when the leaves are changing and nearly every turn seems to present a photo opp.

And though summer is traditionally the high season for visitors, lodging, dining, and shopping are as good as ever here in the fall, with attractions along the Parkway staying open even as the weather cools. Mini golf, go-karts, roller coasters, amusement rides, laser tag, bungee towers, comedy shows, concerts, and movies can break up the moments between taking in Mother Nature. The fun only gets better with streets donned in harvest decor and the holidays right around the corner.

The city is a short hop south from I-40 — so you could make it a stop on a longer trip — but there’s no way to get a taste of everything in a single day. There are plenty of lodging options and restaurants to accommodate every appetite and budget (ranging from pancakes to BBQ to Southern home comfort food), so you have no reason not to stay a few days and see more of the town and the mountains.

And of course, there’s the leaves.

The #1 reason to visit the Smokies in the fall is the colors, hands down. When the heat of summer gives way to pleasant days and chilly nights, the landscape is painted with fall foliage. The mountains here have some of the highest tree diversity in the country, each bringing a unique flair to the display. The color of the leaves and the time at which they turn vary by species and elevation, and the wide range of both means autumn’s show has a lot of variety and lasts a long time. The taller ridges brighten at their tops in late September; oranges, yellows, and reds sweep down the slopes and light up Pigeon Forge by the end of October, just in time for the town’s harvest celebrations.

To enjoy the leaves up in the mountains, take any of the national park’s scenic drives or hiking trails. The options are endless — come to Pigeon Forge, and see for yourself.