Scenic Driving Overview: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Ben Sumner)

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Highlights

  • The Foothills Parkway was created for scenic driving. It begins at the western end of the park, near Chilhowee Lake, and travels atop Chilhowee Mountain. Look Rock observation tower is a must-stop. A short hike leads to a 360-degree vista. Continue past numerous other overlooks. Look Rock Campground makes for a good overnighting venue next to the Foothills Parkway. A disjunct section of the parkway travels a short distance on the eastern end of the park.
  • Cades Cove Loop Road is the classic Smokies scenic drive. Leave Townsend, and take Laurel Creek Road to reach Cades Cove. From here the nine-mile, one-way loop road circles the Abrams Creek Valley, passing old farm fields, pioneer homesteads and hiking trails aplenty. A side trip to Abrams Falls is a popular stopover, as is the Cades Cove Visitor Center. Consider bringing a blanket and picnicking with a stellar view of the main crest of the Smokies on one side and Rich Mountain on the other.
  • Explore the highs and lows of the park on Newfound Gap Road. This transmountain motorway scales the crest of the Smokies. Starting at Sugarlands Visitor Center on the Tennessee side, climb through varied ecosystems. Consider a side trip to Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the park, before descending into North Carolina and reaching the tourist town of Cherokee, where gaming is an option.
  • The trip from Cosby to Cataloochee is a relaxed and quiet trip. Take TN 32 east from Cosby to the state line and join Old NC 284. From here, Old NC 284 turns to gravel as you straddle the park border to reach Mount Sterling Gap. At this point, it's mostly downhill to Cataloochee Valley, where a scenic out-and-back drive takes you past settler's cabins and perhaps even grazing elk in fields enveloped by high elevation mountains.
  • The "Road to Nowhere" starts near Bryson City, North Carolina. Also known as Lakeview Drive, this motorway parallels the eastern side of Fontana Lake. Numerous pullouts offer lake and mountain vistas. The latter part of the road has popular trailheads for hikers and equestrians, including one trail that passes through a tunnel built for the road before it was halted due to environmental concerns.
  • If you like curvy roads, tackle "The Dragon." Lauded by the motorcycling set, this portion of US 129 on the western edge of the park leaves the lowlands and makes 629 turns while heading toward North Carolina and Deals Gap, which is at the state line. From here, take NC 28 east to Fontana Dam, a World War II-era engineering marvel amidst a sea of mountains.

A few comments may save time and open new vistas for your driving in the Smokies. Within just an hour's drive of each other are climatic differences created by elevation. You can drive through the spruce-fir forests typical of Maine up near Clingmans Dome in late morning and be cruising through lush southern hardwoods back near Sugarlands or Oconaluftee by early afternoon.

The roads are designed for scenic driving. There are numerous turnouts and parking areas at viewpoints or historic sites. Traffic, winding roads, and the scenery conspire to make driving time more important than distance here in the park. Figure about twice the time to drive a given distance that you would for normal highways. Be on the alert for unexpected driving behavior from others—they may be under the influence of the scenery! Gasoline is not sold in the park, so check your gauge. Remember that winter storms may close the Newfound Gap and Little River Roads.

The main road in the park is the Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441) between Gatlinburg and Cherokee. It is the only road across the mountains. Along it and at the Newfound Gap Parking Area you will get some of the best scenic high mountain vistas in the park—and on the East Coast, for that matter.

If you want to go still higher you can drive up the Clingmans Dome Road from Newfound Gap and walk up to the observation tower. Here you are at the highest point in the national park, and the third highest east of the Rockies. The reward is a 360-degree panorama of the sea of peaks for which the Smokies (and Nantahalas and Unakas) are famous. Clingmans Dome Road is a dead end spur off the Newfound Gap Road at the crest of the Smokies.

If you want to sample the Blue Ridge Parkway and also enjoy some beautiful mountain scenery, try the Balsam Mountain Road, which leaves the parkway between Oconaluftee and Soco Gap. It winds for nine miles back into the national park's Balsam Mountain Campground. Incredible azalea displays will dazzle you, when in season. If you are adventurous and want to try a mountain dirt road, continue past the campground to the Heintooga Picnic Area and the start of the Round Bottom Road (closed during winter). This is a 14-mile, partially one-way, unpaved road that descends the mountain to the river valley below and joins Big Cove Road in the Cherokee Indian Reservation. You come out right below Oconaluftee at the edge of the park.

Another view of the Smokies awaits you along the Little River Road leading from Sugarlands to Cades Cove. The road lies on the old logging railroad bed for a distance along the Little River. (The curves suggest these were not fast trains!) Spur roads lead off to Elkmont and Tremont deeper in the park, and to Townsend and Wear Cove, towns outside the park. Little River Road becomes the Laurel Creek Road and takes you into Cades Cove where you can take the one-way, 11-mile loop drive and observe the historic mountain setting of early settlers. If you are returning to Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge from Cades Cove, try exiting the park toward Townsend and driving the beautiful Wear Cove Road back to U.S. 441 at the north end of Pigeon Forge.

Perhaps the most bucolic scenes in the Smokies are to be seen from the Foothills Parkway between Interstate 40 and Route 32 near Cosby, around the northeast tip of the park. Here you look out across beautiful farmland with the whole mass of the Smokies rising as its backdrop.

Only three sections are currently open to vehicle traffic. Completed sections of the Foothills Parkway are open year-round, weather permitting. Incomplete sections are open to pedestrians, bicyclists, and equestrians.

At the west end of the park there is another section of the Foothills Parkway between Chilhowee and Walland. This 20-mile section is the Foothills Parkway's longest segment. It provides beautiful vistas of the northwestern Smokies, including Thunderhead Mountain, the highest peak in the Park's western half. Many of its south-facing overlooks peer over Happy Valley, into the Smokies, and beyond. Its north-facing views oversee Maryville, Knoxville, and the Great Valley.

Other interesting drives in the park are the Rich Mountain Road, Parsons Branch Road (both closed in winter), and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. It forms an 11-mile loop along with Cherokee Orchard Road. The one-way road runs for eight miles. It is not suitable for bicycles, RVs, trailers, or buses. Cherokee Orchard Road is a two-way road without these restrictions and leads to the Rainbow Falls parking area. Airport Road in Gatlinburg turns into the Park's Cherokee Orchard Road.

The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is an intimate journey though the Smoky Mountain's lush mountain wilderness. In certain places it reveals some of nature's secrets, while in others it weaves the story of the people who once lived here. Water is a constant companion on this journey. Cascades, rapids, and falls adorn the roadside. The sound of rushing water is never far away. The air feels damp and tropical throughout the summer months, yet the icy water rarely reaches 60 degrees F.

Along the route are many hiking trails, including the hike to Grotto Falls. This same trail continues to Brushy Mountain and Mt. LeConte.


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