The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is large; where are the best drives in the Smoky Mountains?
By exploring the Smokies on its myriad roads, I've stumbled onto scenes that postcards can only dream of capturing – the early morning fog lifting off the valleys, the chorus of waterfalls, and the occasional bear or deer in its natural habitat.
Majestic mountain views unfold from behind every turn, and historic buildings dot the landscape, telling stories of life once led in these hills.
There's no better way to experience the heart of this UNESCO World Heritage Site than on its 270+ miles of road. Each one presents a unique adventure, from the charm of the Cades Cove Loop to the exhilarating view from the Newfound Gap Road.
As the seasons change, these roads transform, too, offering a different spectacle whether you visit in the spring thaw and catch the early wildflowers blooming, the lush fullness of summer, or during the burst of colors in the fall season.
Newfound Gap Road
Newfound Gap Road (US-441) is one of the premier routes through the Great Smoky Mountains. As someone who's driven countless scenic routes, this one holds a special place in my heart.
The road, winding up to over 5,000 feet at the Newfound Gap, is a natural border between Tennessee and North Carolina. From here, the forests below are draped in a misty haze, a signature view that gives these mountains their name.
The historical significance of this road lies in its designation as part of the Appalachian Trail, where hikers from around the world pass on their 2,200-mile trek.
But it's also remembered as the site where President Franklin D. Roosevelt formally dedicated the park in 1940, at the majestic Rockefeller Memorial near the gap.
Each curve and crest along the Newfound Gap Road offers unmatched mountain views that keep photographers, nature enthusiasts, and road trippers returning season after season.
During the fall, the blanket of trees bursts into a canvas of reds, oranges, and yellows that are simply breathtaking. And in spring and summer, an emerald green canopy unfolds as far as the eye can see.
For those visiting the Smokies, Newfound Gap Road is not just a road—it's an experience, a way to capture the spirit of these ancient mountains.
To enjoy this drive without the crowds, consider an early morning start, especially during peak seasons.
And don't miss some of the lesser-known pull-offs – they often reveal the most tranquil and stunning views, perfect for a budget-friendly picnic with a view.
One-Way Distance: 30.3 Miles
Round Trip: 60.6 Miles
Key Stops along the route:
- Sugarlands Visitor Center: Located near Gatlinburg, this visitor center offers exhibits, a gift shop, and restrooms. It's a great place to gather information about the park and its trails.
- Campbell Overlook: One of the first scenic overlooks on the Tennessee side, offering beautiful views of Mount LeConte and the surrounding mountains.
- Chimney Tops Overlook: A popular stop that provides stunning views of the Chimney Tops, one of the park's most recognizable geological features.
- Newfound Gap: At an elevation of 5,046 feet, the gap marks the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. It offers panoramic views and is a great spot to feel the elevation change. The Appalachian Trail also crosses here.
- Rockefeller Memorial: This memorial, near the Newfound Gap parking area, is where President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the national park in 1940. It provides historical context and scenic views.
- Morton Overlook: This overlook offers one of the best sunset views in the park, making it a popular spot for photographers.
- Carlos Campbell Overlook: The overlook is named after a local conservationist. It provides stunning vistas of the central and eastern parts of the Smokies.
Whenever I feel the urge to immerse myself in the natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains, I find myself steering towards the Foothills Parkway.
This stretch offers an unbroken chain of panoramic vistas. The undulating hills stretch into the horizon, each curve of the road bringing a new and awe-inspiring view.
I recommend the Look Rock observation tower among the must-see scenic overlooks that dot the parkway. A short hike leads you to an elevated platform where the grandeur of the Smokies unfolds in a 360-degree spectacle.
It's a window to the soul of the Appalachian wilderness, where you can witness the interplay of light and shadow over the mountainside.
Another jewel along this route is the parking area near Chilhowee Lake. The tranquility here is palpable, with the calm waters mirroring the mountains. Take a moment to reflect, the still lake and towering peaks serving as a reminder of the balance between tranquility and grandeur in nature and our lives.
Be sure to have plenty of storage on your camera, as the pull-offs along the parkway provide countless opportunities for picturesque mementos.
Each overlook presents its unique perspective, allowing for an interactive experience with the landscape that changes with the seasons.
From blossoms to autumnal hues to the crisp clarity of winter, the Foothills Parkway is a visual feast year-round.
One-Way Distance: 17 Miles
Round Trip: 34 Miles
Key Stops along the route:
- Look Rock Observation Tower: This is one of the most popular stops on the Foothills Parkway. A short hike from the parking area leads you to the tower, which offers 360-degree views of the mountains. It's an excellent spot for panoramic photographs.
- West Millers Cove Overlook: This overlook provides a beautiful view of the valley and is a great place to enjoy the area's peacefulness.
- Wears Valley Overlook: Offering expansive views of Wears Valley, this stop is perfect for witnessing the changing colors during autumn or the lush greenery in spring and summer.
- Chilhowee Lake Overlook: This spot gives you a stunning view of Chilhowee Lake, breathtaking during sunrise or sunset.
- Carr Gap Overlook: From here, you can see the rolling landscape of the Tennessee side of the Smokies, with mountain ridges stretching into the distance.
- Cove Mountain Overlook: Offering another perspective on the Smoky Mountains, this overlook showcases the region's diverse topography.
Cades Cove Loop Road
I often remember the serene drive along Cades Cove Loop, where the Great Smoky Mountains' intricate tapestry of nature and history unfurls.
This 11-mile one-way loop road offers a journey through lush valleys brimming with diverse ecosystems home to some of the most fascinating wildlife in the park.
As you traverse this path, keep an eager eye out for black bears, white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, and even coyotes—a testament to the diversity of life thriving here.
Nested within this natural splendor are remnants of Southern Appalachian history that capture the essence of a bygone era. Scattered along the loop, you'll encounter well-preserved historic buildings standing as silent witnesses to the resilient settlers of yesteryears.
On my last visit, the John Oliver Cabin, dating back to the early 1820s, particularly struck a chord with me. Standing inside, I could almost hear the echoes of pioneer life, reminding me of the simplicity and challenges of their existence.
The Cades Cove Loop is an immersive experience where the pageantry of wildlife and the whispers of history converge.
Whether you're a nature lover, a history buff, or simply seeking solitude, this loop promises an unforgettable voyage through the heart of the Smokies.
A tip for fellow travelers: the loop can get busy, especially during peak tourist seasons. For a more serene experience, consider visiting early in the morning or weekday.
Arriving at these times also increases your chances of encountering wildlife, as the animals are more active during these quieter hours.
The best option for this scenic road is by bicycle! On Wednesdays from May through nearly the end of September, the Cades Cove Loop Road is only open for pedestrian traffic.
One-Way Distance: 11 Miles
Key Stops along the route:
- John Oliver Cabin: One of the first stops in Cades Cove, this historic cabin gives insight into the life of early European settlers. It's a great example of pioneer architecture.
- Sparks Lane and Hyatt Lane: These two crossroads allow you to explore deeper into the meadows of Cades Cove and are ideal spots for wildlife viewing, especially in the early morning or late evening.
- Cades Cove Visitor Center: Located halfway around the loop, the visitor center offers historical exhibits, a bookstore, and restrooms. Nearby, you'll also find the Cable Mill area, which includes a working grist mill, other historic buildings, and often, demonstrations of traditional blacksmithing.
- Primitive Baptist Church: This historic church provides a glimpse into the religious life of the early settlers of Cades Cove. The churchyard has a cemetery with graves dating back to the community's earliest days.
- Methodist Church: Along the loop, this historic church showcases simple yet elegant architecture and offers insight into the area's cultural history.
- Cades Cove Nature Trail: This short trail is excellent for stretching your legs and getting a closer look at the local flora and fauna.
- Abrams Falls Trailhead: For the more adventurous, this 5-mile round trip hike leads to Abrams Falls, a beautiful waterfall with a large pool at its base.
- Elijah Oliver Place: Toward the end of the loop, this homestead includes a cabin, barn, smokehouse, and corncrib, providing a comprehensive view of pioneer life.
- Beard Cane and Cooper Road Trails: These trailheads are found towards the end of the loop and offer more extended hiking options for those looking to explore the backcountry.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is uniquely designed as a one-way road for only passenger vehicles, creating an uninterrupted, peaceful journey through this enchanted landscape.
Stretching approximately six miles, the road winds narrowly through the forest, ensuring each turn reveals a new surprise, be it a hidden waterfall, a burst of wildflowers, or a historic building peeking through the trees.
The relatively short distance of the trail makes it a perfect excursion for those looking to immerse themselves in the natural beauty of the Smokies without committing to a long drive.
The journey begins just moments from the hustle and bustle of Downtown Gatlinburg yet quickly transports you to a world where the serene sounds of nature take center stage.
The trail's namesake, Roaring Fork, is a fast-flowing mountain stream accompanying you along the route, its gurgling waters playing a soothing soundtrack to your adventure.
Historic homesteads, grist mills, and other structures dot the trail, each telling a story of the rugged mountain life of the early settlers. There are plenty of pull-off areas along this road, making it easy to stop and explore.
Photographers and nature lovers will find endless inspiration here. Wildflowers bloom in abundance in spring and early summer, painting the forest floor in various colors.
Wildlife sightings, including deer, black bears, and a variety of bird species, add an element of excitement to the journey.
One Way Distance: 5.5 Miles
Key Stops along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail:
- Rainbow Falls Trailhead: Just before the start of the loop, this trailhead offers a moderate to strenuous hike to Rainbow Falls. The falls, awe-inspiring after a rain, are a beautiful sight and well worth the effort.
- Noah “Bud” Ogle Cabin: This historic cabin and farmstead provide a glimpse into the life of early settlers in the Smokies. The self-guided walking tour takes you through a well-preserved cabin, barn, and mill.
- The Place of a Thousand Drips: This small waterfall is unique in its formation and can be viewed from the comfort of your vehicle, especially after rainfall, when it is most spectacular.
- Jim Bales Place: A short walk from the road, this historic homestead includes a cabin and barn, offering insights into 19th-century mountain living.
- Ephraim Bales Cabin: This cabin, along with its garden and outbuildings, tells the story of the Bales family who once lived here, providing a sense of the rugged mountain life.
- The Alfred Reagan Tub Mill: A short distance from the road, this historic tub mill is a reminder of the small, family-operated mills that were once common in the region.
- Grotto Falls: This waterfall allows you to walk behind it for a unique photo opportunity.
Little River Road
Embarking on Little River Road in the Great Smoky Mountains is like entering a tranquil realm where nature's melody plays a soothing tune.
This picturesque route, winding along the banks of the Little River, offers a peaceful escape from the more frequented paths of the park.
Starting from Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg and stretching towards Townsend, this road gently curves alongside the river, presenting an ever-changing vista of water, woodlands, and wildlife.
The river, a constant companion, cascades over rocks and boulders, creating mesmerizing rapids and quiet pools that reflect the sky and trees.
Each bend brings a new sense of wonder when driving along Little River Road. Wildlife sightings are common, with chances to see otters playing in the river or deer grazing near the water's edge.
The lush greenery, especially in spring and summer, provides a canopy of tranquility, while autumn transforms the landscape into vibrant colors.
One Way Distance: 25 Miles
Round Trip: 50 Miles
Key Stops Along Little River Road:
- Laurel Falls Trailhead: A popular stop offering a moderate hike to one of the park's most beloved waterfalls, Laurel Falls. The path to the falls is well-traveled and provides a delightful break to stretch your legs and immerse in nature.
- Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area: A perfect spot for a family picnic by the river. Here, you can enjoy the soothing sounds of the water and maybe even dip your toes on a warm day.
- The Sinks: A small but powerful waterfall, The Sinks is a popular spot for photographers and those looking to witness the raw power of nature.
- Elkmont Ghost Town: The abandoned houses are silent reminders of a bygone era. This ghost town, once a vibrant logging community, now invites exploration and photography amidst its historic structures.
Cataloochee Valley Road
Venturing onto Cataloochee Valley Road in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is akin to stepping through a portal into a less-traveled, enchanting world.
This secluded drive leads into the heart of the Cataloochee Valley, an area rich with history, wildlife, and natural beauty.
As a visitor to this remote part of the park, you'll be struck by the profound sense of peace and the untouched splendor that envelops this valley.
The journey begins near Waynesville, North Carolina, winding through a narrow mountain pass before opening into the valley.
Along this road, the landscape gradually transitions from dense forest corridors to the open, verdant fields of the valley floor.
Here, the remnants of old settlements and the whispering streams paint a picture of a time when this area was thriving.
Driving through Cataloochee Valley, each turn in the road unveils hidden stories and vistas.
In 2001, Elk were reintroduced to the area and can often be spotted grazing in the meadows or wandering near the woods' edge, especially in the early morning or late evening.
The sight of these majestic creatures against the backdrop of the valley is a reminder of the wild beauty that the park preserves.
Note: this road is narrow and unpaved. It will take about 45 minutes for this drive. The best route to reach Cataloochee Valley is from Cove Creek Road, accessed from I-40.
One Way Distance: 7.3 Miles
Round Trip: 14.6 Miles
Key Stops Along Cataloochee Valley Road:
- Palmer Chapel: This historic chapel offers a glimpse into the spiritual life of the valley's early settlers. Its simple yet evocative structure invites quiet reflection.
- Beech Grove School: An old one-room schoolhouse that echoes with children's laughter from a bygone era. Exploring this site allows visitors to imagine daily life in the valley's early days.
- Caldwell House: This well-preserved historic home provides insight into the domestic life of the Cataloochee settlers. The house and its surrounding barns and outbuildings tell a story of resilience and community.
- Elk Viewing Areas: Several spots along the road are prime locations for watching the valley's elk herds. Early morning or late afternoon visits offer the best chances for sightings.
Clingman's Dome Road
Embarking on Clingmans Dome Road in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park feels like ascending into the heavens.
This remarkable drive spirals up through the lush forest to the highest peak in the park, Clingmans Dome, offering a journey as breathtaking as the destination.
The road starts from Newfound Gap Road and stretches 7 miles to the Clingmans Dome parking area. As it climbs, the environment transforms, showcasing the diverse ecosystems of the Smokies.
The cool, misty air and the ever-changing cloudscapes add a mystical quality to the drive, enhancing the sense of adventure and exploration.
Navigating Clingmans Dome Road, each curve presents a new perspective on the vastness and beauty of the park.
The higher altitude brings cooler temperatures and offers a refreshing respite during the warmer months.
The dense spruce-fir forest that lines the road is a remnant of the last Ice Age, providing a glimpse into ancient natural history.
One Way Distance: 7 Miles
Round Trip: 14 Miles
Key Stops Along Clingmans Dome Road:
- Clingmans Dome Visitor Center: Near the end of the road, the visitor center serves as a starting point for the final ascent to the summit. Here, you can find information about the area and purchase souvenirs.
- Clingmans Dome Observation Tower: A steep half-mile walk from the parking area leads to the iconic observation tower. At 6,643 feet, it offers 360-degree views that stretch over 100 miles on clear days, encompassing several states.
- Trailheads: Several trails intersect Clingmans Dome Road, including the Appalachian Trail, which crosses at the parking area. These trails offer opportunities for further exploration of the high country's unique environment.
- Overlooks: Along the road, there are several pull-offs and overlooks. These spots provide stunning views of the mountains and valleys below, creating unforgettable photo opportunities.
Note: Due to winter weather, the road is closed between December 1 and March 31.
Impressive drives just outside of the Smoky Mountains National Park
Tail of the Dragon
Note: This route is not in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park but is adjacent to it.
Nestled in the border regions of the Great Smoky Mountains and the Cherokee National Forest, you can find this renowned stretch of US Route 129.
Its 318 curves over 11 miles make it a magnet for drivers and motorcyclists seeking a thrilling challenge amidst the stunning backdrop of the Great Smoky Mountains and Cherokee National Forest.
The Tail demands respect; its narrow roads and sharp bends require full attention and masterful control. The camaraderie among motorcyclists here is palpable—they often ride in groups, adding a dynamic energy to the road.
Sudden weather changes can affect visibility and road conditions, making this more than just a drive—it's a test of skill and alertness.
For thrill-seekers taking on the Dragon, it's essential to be vigilant, maintain a safe speed, and fully immerse in the experience.
The Tail of the Dragon isn't just a road; it's a phenomenon. Beyond the drive, the area is full of the lore of the Dragon, from memorabilia that celebrates its allure to stories exchanged among enthusiasts.
It's a unique experience that blends the ride's thrill with the landscape's beauty, leaving an indelible mark on all who travel it.
Note: This route is not in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park but is adjacent to it.
A journey along the Cherohala Skyway leaves an indelible impression that lasts long after the trip ends. This route, a siren's call to those who crave elevation and panoramic vistas, offers a sense of liberation and awe.
Ascending through landscapes with crisp air and the horizon vast, the sense of freedom is palpable, even from the passenger's seat.
The route, stretching 43 miles, forms a stunning artery between Tennessee's Tellico Plains and North Carolina's Robbinsville, cutting through the heart of the Southern Appalachian high country.
Meandering at an elevation over 5,000 feet, the skyward route gifts you lush forest canopies that give way to expansive, cloud-brushed views.
The road unfolds with each turn and climbs in a spectacle of nature's grandeur. Rest stops and overlooks, strategically placed, invite travelers to pause and absorb the tranquil beauty.
Whether seeking serene solitude or the thrill, the Cherohala Skyway never fails to deliver an exhilarating and, yes, elevated wonder.
Best times for Scenic Drives in the Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains transform each season, offering unique experiences for road-trippers. Timing your journey through these mountains can greatly enhance the experience, revealing different facets of their beauty.
Spring (March to May)
As winter's snow melts from March through May, the mountains awake in a burst of life. Wildflowers, including trilliums, phacelia, and lady slippers, paint the landscape alongside Little River Road and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
The air is filled with fresh scents and the sounds of an awakening forest. This season also increases wildlife activity, offering frequent sightings of black bears and wild turkeys.
Summer (June to August)
Summer in the Smokies is a time of lush greenery and vibrant life. The forests are in full bloom, and the canopy of leaves provides a cool, dappled shade along many of the park's roads.
The warmer temperatures make this a popular time for visitors, with roads like Cades Cove Loop and the Rich Mountain Road bustling with activity.
Wildlife is abundant, and the longer days provide ample opportunity for exploration. It's also the perfect time for picnics by the streams and a refreshing dip in the mountain streams.
Autumn (Late September to Early November)
Autumn in the Smokies is a spectacle of color. The foliage transforms into a fiery canvas from late September to early November.
Maple, oak, and hickory trees drape the mountains in gold, orange, and red, creating breathtaking views along drives like the Blue Ridge Parkway and Foothills Parkway.
With its crisp blue skies, October is particularly magical, as the mountains seem to celebrate the season in a riot of color.
Winter (December to March)
Winter cloaks the Smokies in serene white. This season offers a quiet, stark beauty but demands careful planning.
Roads like Clingmans Dome Road close due to snow and ice. Always check road conditions before venturing out, especially for more remote routes.
Despite the challenges, winter in the Smokies reveals a peaceful, frosty landscape, offering a unique perspective on the park's enduring beauty.
Remember, each season in the Smokies changes the scenery and affects accessibility and the type of experience you'll have.
The Smokies offer a year-round invitation to explore and connect with nature's rhythms, whether it's the vibrant autumnal display, the springtime floral bloom, or the quiet introspection of winter.
Final Thoughts: Best Drives in the Smoky Mountains
As you plan your voyage through the Smoky Mountains' majestic drive options, I encourage you to embrace these routes and use them to enhance your experience when visiting the park.
First and foremost, prioritize your safety and that of others. Heed speed limits and stay alert for wildlife crossing the roads. Black bears, deer, and other animals are common, and their safety is as crucial as yours.
Planning is key. Before embarking, check the weather forecast and road conditions. Some routes may close during the winter months due to ice or snow.
It's wise to refill your gas tank and pack sufficient food, water, and essentials, as facilities are scarce in more remote sections.
Respect for park regulations keeps this treasure intact. Follow the guidance of park rangers and adhere to the Leave No Trace principles.
Take all trash with you, and avoid removing natural objects or disturbing historic structures. Your observance safeguards the park's integrity for future visitors.
Last but not least, take moments to pause. The Smokies humbly reveal their beauty not to those in haste but to the contemplative traveler.
Pull over at designated spots, breathe in the mountain air, and cherish the panoramic views – these memories will become the highlights of your Smoky Mountains road trip.
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